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Opening Day Preview: Baseball Goes The Distance This Time

World-champion Atlanta Braves look strong as Cleveland looks for a rematch

ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-TWO is the operative number as major-league baseball lifts the curtain on the 1996 season Sunday. For the first time in three years, teams should play a full schedule of 162 games, not 112 or so, as in 1994, or 144 in 1995. It's time to put aside labor-management issues and restore athletic Camelot.

The spotlight falls first on two players who stand to gain much from a full season: big hitters Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. as Griffey's Mariners host Thomas's White Sox in an unusual Sunday opener (9:05 p.m., EST, ESPN).

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Here's a preview of the division races:

National League East

Virtually everyone picks the Atlanta Braves to reach the postseason for a fifth straight time and maybe become the first National League team to win back-to-back World Series championships since the Cincinnati Reds did it in 1975-76.

Until they see some reason not to, the Braves will stick to the same basic roster. Why not? The pitching staff is unquestionably baseball's best, with four-time Cy Young Award-winner Greg Maddux and three other "money pitchers" in Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz.

The New York Mets could be one of this year's surprise teams. Not only have they worked to put a friendlier face on their operation, but the club has begun to break out of a prolonged slump.

The Florida Marlins have been watched closely to see if outfielder Devon White (seven Gold Glove awards), pitcher Livan Hernandez, and other newcomers might spark the club. In Grapefruit League games, though, they went in reverse. The Montreal Expos, tops in the NL two years ago now require the deft touch of manager Felipe Alou to keep them competitive. The Philadelphia Phillies, losers in the 1993 World Series, also are groping.

National League Central

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The St. Louis Cardinals, like the Dodgers, are a resilient organization. This year they hope for a revival under new manager Tony La Russa, a respected leader who lacks National League experience (he managed 17 years in the American League).

The Cincinnati Reds, swept by Atlanta in last year's NL Championship, also have a new manager. Ray Knight was Davey Johnson's right-hand man (Johnson went to Baltimore). He inherits a club that may respond to his fiery style. If it rallies behind shortstop Barry Larkin, the Reds could be playoff-bound. For the Houston Astros, much depends on the hitting of Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, and Craig Biggio. Unless the team draws 2.5 million fans, owner Drayton McLane says he will sell.

The Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates will likely battle to avoid the cellar. The best news for Cub fans is the return of all-star second-baseman Ryne Sandberg. In Pittsburgh, PIrate fans are happy just to have a team. New ownership has vowed to keep the team in the city.

National League West

Can last year's Japanese import, Hideo Nomo, continue to strike out batters? Will newly acquired shortstop Greg Gagne plug a leaky infield? If the answers are yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers may be riding high under energetic manager Tommy Lasorda, who enters his 20th season.

Playing in mile-high Denver has encouraged the Colorado Rockies to rely (successfully) on the long ball. They made the playoffs a year ago in just their third season. Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, and Vinny Castilla each had 30 or more home runs.

Any team with the punch of Barry Bonds and Matt Williams is dangerous, yet the San Francisco Giants need greater depth to contend. The San Diego Padres have brought in Wally Joyner, Rickey Henderson, and Bob Tewksbury, additions that could put them in the wild-card hunt. Even if they falter, Tony Gwynn , the six-time NL batting champion, will put on a season-long hitting clinic.

American League East

This could be the most competitive division in baseball. The Boston Red Sox won last year in Kevin Kennedy's first season as manager. The team has added Kevin Mitchell to a long-ball brigade led by league MVP Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco. Strong challenges are anticipated from the new and improved Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees. The Orioles can focus now that the Cal Ripken "ironman watch" has subsided. Ripken will have superlative second-baseman Roberto Alomar as a double-play partner. Bringing up the rear will be the rebuilding Detroit Tigers, with new manager Buddy Bell, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who have fallen like a rock since winning the 1993 Series.

American League Central

The Cleveland Indians are already assured of a season-long sellout at Jacobs Field. But can they come close to matching last year, when they led the league in pitching and hitting, won 100 games, and finished 30 games ahead of the Kansas City Royals?

Presumably there's no connection between the Chicago White Sox, who went to the dogs last season, and this season's dog promotion in Comiskey Park on Aug. 26 (all dogs accompanied by humans get in free). The Sox are expected to snap out of their '95 slump and contend for a wild-card spot. Every other team in the division faces an uphill battle. The Royals are committed to a youth movement. The Minnesota Twins must count heavily on Kirby Puckett and veteran acquisitions Paul Molitor and Rick Aguilera, who wanted to play in the Twin Cities. The Milwaukee Brewers are trying to regroup in time to field a winner by the time they open a new stadium in 1999.

American League West

Remember how last year's AL West race was won, with the Seattle Mariners winning a one-game, tie-breaking playoff against the California Angels, who led the division by 10 games in mid August? The Angels will be highly motivated to erase that memory. Seattle, meanwhile, has caught fire as a baseball town. Fueling Mariner mania is boyish star Ken Griffey Jr., signed through the year 2000.

The Texas Rangers are one of just two major-league teams (with Florida) never to make the playoffs. They may show signs of promise before fading. And the Oakland A's may bottom out as the club rebuilds and is forced to begin its season in a minor-league ballpark until its refurbished stadium is ready.

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