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MIKE PENNER

Race Could Go to the Insomniacs

July 11, 1993|MIKE PENNER

A race is a race is a race is a race, unless, of course, you happen to be talking about the American League West--or, if you prefer the code name, "175 Men Standing Still."

What we have before us, on the eve of the All-Star break, is the baseball equivalent of a sit-down strike.

"Playoffs, anyone?"

"Hell, no, we won't go."

It is happening in Texas, Seattle and Anaheim, which you can understand, but is also sweeping through Oakland, Minnesota and Kansas City--all World Series winners since 1985--and Chicago, which was supposed to run away and hide this season, only to contract the first recorded case of contagious Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

How does an entire baseball division simultaneously vapor lock?

Mathematically, it does not compute. Frank Thomas + Juan Gonzalez + Ken Griffey Jr. + George Bell + Jose Canseco + Mark McGwire + Kirby Puckett + David Cone + Mark Langston + Chuck Finley + Jack McDowell + Dennis Eckersley + Kent Hrbek + Robin Ventura + Ruben Sierra + Rickey Henderson + Brian McRae + Dave Winfield + Chili Davis + Tim Salmon + Ivan Rodriguez + Randy Johnson = what?

Not a single team in seven better than three games above .500?

With two others a game above .500, with everybody else looking up at the Chicago Cubs?

Anyone care to explain?

"No pitching," is the simple theory forwarded by Dr. Robert (Buck) Rodgers, who has studied the situation from the inside, as per his residency as manager of the AL West dog paddlers known as the California Angels.

"Nobody has more than three pitchers," Rodgers asserts. "Everybody has the same problem.

"Oakland is still regrouping from the loss of some pitchers. (Translation: Dave Stewart and Mike Moore jumped ship.)

"Minnesota's regrouping. (Translation: John Smiley and Bill Krueger jumped ship.)

"We're regrouping (Translation: Who'd we get for Jim Abbott again?)

"Texas has been trying to find pitching ever since they gave up (Jose) Guzman.

"Chicago's the only one, really, that has some pitching depth. I thought Chicago would be running out there all by itself by now."

So did the remainder of the Western Hemisphere. The White Sox are 44-41, with fewer victories than Detroit, Baltimore or the Dodgers, with a lineup that includes Thomas, Bell, Ventura, Ellis Burks, Lance Johnson and Ozzie Guillen, plus a pitching rotation that includes McDowell--the league's Cy Young favorite--and allegedly two of the top young starters in the game, Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez.

Suffice to say, Gene Lamont's manager-of-the-year speech has been tendered its outright release.

So, too, has Kevin Kennedy's. The rookie manager of the Texas Rangers flushed his campaign, and maybe his career, by using his best power hitter, Canseco, as a mop-up reliever in a May 29 blowout against Boston. No pitching? That should have been Kennedy's direct orders to Canseco, but, no, Jose goes out and cranks up fastballs for an inning, tearing ligaments in his right elbow that required season-ending surgery.

Rodgers used his designated hitter, Davis, as a reliever in an 18-2 loss to Texas, but got away with it; the only thing Chili has torn up recently is Boston Red Sox pitching. But Rodgers was not so fortunate with Julio Valera, his No. 4 starter, and Joe Grahe, his top relief pitcher. Valera just underwent tendon-replacement surgery--could be back by '95, doctors optimistically report--and Grahe continues to wait out a lengthy bout with tendinitis.

Some more fun facts about the Angels:

--They have taken lately to starting Ron Tingley (career batting average: .188) at catcher.

--They have two starting pitchers (Russ Springer and Hilly Hathaway) with earned-run averages over 6.80 and another (Scott Sanderson) who hasn't won since May.

--They have four everyday players (Salmon, J.T. Snow, Damion Easley, Torey Lovullo) halfway through their first full seasons in the majors.

--They are 42-43 overall.

They are two games out of first place.

"We're in the middle of a pennant race!" Rodgers roars, giddy and incredulous at the same time. "We're happier than a pig in . . . "

Rodgers uses a four-letter word that might also apply to the caliber of competition in the AL West this summer.

How bad has it gotten?

So bad that in the estimable opinion of Rodgers, the team to beat in the division the rest of the way is . . . the Seattle Mariners.

"Seattle has the best pitching in the division right now," Rodgers says, and he suggests you look it up. "They had to wait for (Chris) Bosio and (Dave) Fleming to get back, but both are back now, and Randy Johnson is starting to throw the ball real well.

"I'd say Seattle has the club to look out for now."

Clearly, something must be done. If the White Sox won't do it, what about the Angels? Not only has the race come to them, it won't go away. What's to stop the Angels from trading for the veteran pitcher who might make the difference in a race no one seems fit to win?

OK, besides Jackie Autry?

"We have to go into August before I can go to our ownership and say, 'We can win it with this pitcher or this player,' " Rodgers says.

"We're not going to break up the nucleus of this club. If somebody asks for (Gary) DiSarcina or (Chad) Curtis, that's a no-no. But if somebody likes one of our minor league players better than we do, we might do something, like when we had Lee Stevens.

"There was a time when Lee Stevens had some trade value. We could've gotten some players for him. But we had some people telling us 'Trade him' and others telling us, 'Give the kid a shot.'

"We listened to the wrong people. We gave Stevens 350 at-bats and his value went right down the toilet."

So the Angels, like the rest of the West, sit and wait. Maybe someone makes an offer. Maybe someone doesn't. Maybe someone makes a move. Maybe someone doesn't.

The last team standing? In the No-Zest West, the team that advances will be the last one awake.

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