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BASEBALL 2003 | ON BASEBALL

Pennant Races Likely to Hang in the Balance

March 30, 2003|Ross Newhan

Labor peace doesn't mean total peace for an industry in which distrust and distractions die hard.

For Commissioner Bud Selig, in this first year of a four-year bargaining agreement reached for the first time without a work stoppage, tonight's season-opening game in Anaheim means his industry has arrived "at one of the most significant moments in history."

It means, Selig said from Milwaukee, "We have a chance over the next few months and beyond to leave the focus on the field, expand and improve our marketing and make major strides in moving the game forward, something we haven't always been able to do because of our labor travails."

The hardened Selig is not Pollyanna, however, and the trail is not without travails.

* The National Labor Relations Board may be forced to resolve a dispute with the new umpires' union over deployment of a computerized ball-and-strike analyzing system with which umpires are being forced to conform.

* The players' union continues to probe the possibility of collusion by the owners in a depressed salary market, and the union has yet to approve a proposal by which the league that wins the All-Star game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series.

* There are potentially distracting issues involving expanded drug testing, the possible reinstatement of Pete Rose, the search for a new home for the Montreal Expos, the racketeering and mail fraud suit filed by former minority owners of the Expos against Selig and baseball, the heightened concerns over security (which combined with the sluggish economy may make it difficult to recoup the 6.3% attendance drop-off of last year), and the possible sale of the Angels and Dodgers, fogging the freeway focus.

With all of that, however, there is at least one important development that may help keep that focus on the field: The issue of competitive disparity seems to have eased some.

That is not to say that the new bargaining agreement, with its increased revenue sharing, has immediately restored Selig's faith-and-hope imperative across the entire landscape.

In Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Selig's own Milwaukee, the new season will open without the faith and hope that accompany a realistic playoff shot.

In varying degrees, each of those teams has begun a long rebuilding process.

At the same time, in varying degrees, more than two-thirds of the 30 teams have a chance to reach the playoffs as a division winner or wild card.

There is three-deep parity at the top of almost every division, particularly in the three National League divisions and the American League West.

"We're in the early stages of a new agreement, and I don't want to deal in delusion by saying we've solved all of our competitive balance problems," Selig said. "I do think we've made some progress, and I expect some terrific races."

How to pick them?

American League

West: 1. Oakland; 2. Angels; 3. Seattle; 4. Texas.

Comment: Maybe Jarrod Washburn's shoulder, Troy Glaus' wrist and Darren Erstad's hand will be only brief impediments for the Angels, but uneasy rests the crown in a division where the A's have won 205 games in the last two years and retain the Big Three pitching that was most responsible.

Central: 1. Chicago; 2. Minnesota; 3. Cleveland; 4. Kansas City; 5. Detroit.

Comment: The Twins have a legitimate chance to repeat, but the addition of Bartolo Colon and Billy Koch should inspire the White Sox, as long as Jose Valentin and D'Angelo Jimenez can field the ball in the middle of the infield.

East: 1. New York; 2. Boston; 3. Toronto; 4. Baltimore; 5. Tampa Bay.

Comment: The only thing that can stop the Yankees is a bullpen in which Mariano Rivera has been hit by physical problems again, and the Yankees are replacing Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza only two years after replacing Jeff Nelson. Then again, can a bullpen by committee work? The Red Sox will find out.

Wild card: Minnesota. Comment: The Twins get the pleasure of beating up on the Indians, Royals and Tigers while holding their own against the West and East.

National League

West: 1. Arizona; 2. Dodgers; 3. San Francisco; 4. Colorado; 5. San Diego.

Comment: The Diamondbacks at some point will retire to Sun City, but Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling will first have to prove they can't win 40-plus games again.

Central: 1. Houston; 2. St. Louis; 3. Chicago; 4. Cincinnati; 5. Pittsburgh. 6. Milwaukee.

Comment: The eyes of Texas will be on Jeff Kent, but the Astros will need pitching help behind Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller if they are going to win a deep division in which the Cardinals could duplicate their 97 wins, providing closer Jason Isringhausen is sound, which he wasn't in the spring.

East: 1. Philadelphia; 2. Atlanta; 3. New York; 4. Florida; 5. Montreal.

Comment: If Jim Thome and the refurbished Phillies get out of the gate fast, they might not be headed in ending the Braves' division dominance, particularly if Mike Hampton is beyond the magic of Atlanta pitching guru Leo Mazzone.

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