WASHINGTON — For a fan to reach September without a proper set of pennant race rooting interests is a crime against nature.
Of course, some folks root for the same team every season for a lifetime. They're called fanatics. Mostly, they suffer. However, when their ship finally does come in, they are extraordinarily happy; so happy that they often wake up in a holding cell the morning after their team wins the World Series.
For the rest of us, baseball is a far more constant, if less spectacular, pleasure. We take our fun where we find it and take pride in our fickleness. We, the independents of sports, watch for 100 games or more to see who is worthy of our vote. By autumn, we've decided.
This fall, I'm going with the straight front-runner ticket: Tigers, Athletics, Dodgers and Mets. Let's have four distinctive teams--no two of them redundant in style--playing on four grass fields in the playoffs.
The romantic Red Sox, rising Pirates and little-known Astros deserve our empathy. Who could really root against them? Maybe next year. As for the Yankees, Giants and Twins, who all have a distant chance, the understated boo that you hear is mine. The Twins and Giants got their just deserts, and maybe more, last year; the Yankees are, in a different sense, getting theirs now.
The Athletics are our easiest new allegiance. They can do some of everything and tons of the best stuff--hit tape-measure homers, steal bases, play fundamental defense and send in a wave of five good relievers. When a rotation of Dave Stewart (16-11), Bob Welch (15-7) and Storm Davis (14-4) is a "weak link," you're tough. If Todd Burns (6-1) arrives, even the Athletics' lack of starting depth will have departed.
Four lawyers in the 20th century have been major league managers--Miller Huggins, Hughie Jennings and Branch Rickey are in the Hall of Fame. Tony La Russa has a long way to go, but he's only 42. The team he's built around Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire could hang together for years. Ready for a Mean Green Machine?
The irony of the American League West is that the Twins (73-58), who caught every break last year, might end up a better team this season than they were in their championship season. Minnesota has one of baseball's headiest, most determined teams. With more pitching, the Twins could challenge Oakland in the '90s in the kind of races the AL East has provided for 15 years.
At the risk of death threats from friends and family, let me confess that the Tigers seem more appealing than the Red Sox. After all, the Bosox don't need anybody outside New England rooting for them. Their near-.290 team average, backing Roger Clemens (15-10), Bruce Hurst (16-4) and Mike Boddicker ought to be enough to beat a team as patched at the elbows as the Tigers.
Detroit may not have a single player with 80 RBI or 20 homers. Darrell Evans (.203) and Gary Pettis (.210) are mainstays. Luis Salazar and Pat Sheridan are, relatively speaking, stars. No starter figures to win 18 games, but four may have 15. No reliever is great, but four are very good.
Best of all, these Tigers are the inverse of the Cincinnati Reds that Sparky Anderson managed in the '70s. Then, he had a pat lineup and a bunch of five-inning starters. Now, he platoons his lineup skillfully, but lives by five starters who'll all pitch 200 innings. Someday, somebody is going to notice Anderson's historic winning percentage and wonder if he isn't one of the best managers ever. Great with people, good with strategy, flexible with personnel and moral in everything.
At the moment, the Tigers, with the skinniest lead, show leaks. Saturday, they blew a 5-1 lead in Milwaukee before the Red Sox, a couple of hours later, kicked away a 6-3 margin in Seattle. Sunday, Detroit repeated the horror, going from a 9-4 lead to a 12-10 defeat, while Boston (down 2-0 in the first inning), rolled back to win, 7-2.
For the Red Sox, the true test may be the road, where they are 28-36, have just been swept in Oakland, and have 17 more games. If the Red Sox survive their sore arms and their subpoenas, and end up meeting the Mets in what might be potentially the most dramatic rematch in World Series history, I'll deny having written this column.
In the National League, this is the season when the mighty have risen. No team has glamour names to match the Mets with Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez and the aging Gary Carter. Everywhere you look, there's a Kevin McReynolds, Howard Johnson, David Cone, Randy Myers, Roger McDowell or Sid Fernandez.
This, however, is the year when the Mets have about them a touch of humanity--even humility. Not much, mind you. But enough so Bobby Ojeda could say, "How long has it been since anybody called us arrogant?" Even Manager Davey Johnson, always smart and honest and tangy, has picked up just the smidgen of modesty that he needed.