Some playoff bugs removed; Baseball's second season presents reshuffled deck
Maybe a future generation of baseball owners wasn't exactly what Ben Franklin had in mind when he said: "A chip on the shoulder often denotes wood higher up!" But however you look at it, Ben's verbal pitches were seldom out of the strike zone.
After devising a split season that had so many built-in flaws that under certain circumstances a team could actually win by losing, the baseball owners have revised their original plans to better protect the integrity of the game.
Under this new scheme, if the same club wins both halves of its division races, its opponents in the playoffs will be the team that finishes directly behind it in the second-half standings. If a first-half winner doesn't repeat, it will simply play the team that does finish on top. They will meet in a best-of-five series.
Then comes the regular intradivision playoffs, followed by the World Series. With the proper cooperation from the weatherman, baseball should have no problem ending its 1981 season before the first of November.
As for the pennant races themselves, going into the week of Aug. 23, no fewer than four teams in the National League West had lost exactly the same number of games. So for the moment, it seems to be take your pick among Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, the surprise team being the SF Giants.
In the NL East, the New York Mets (with a lot of help from slugger Dave Kingman) so far have been able to remain in the same contending neighborhood as the first-place St. Louis Cardinals and the well-balanced Montreal Expos.
The big question mark accompanied the defending world champion Philadelphia Phillies, who hadn't done much until they got a verbal barrage from Manager Dallas Green.
"I blame myself for some of our problems because I probably should have spoken up sooner," Green told writers. "We were depending too much on our reputation as world champs to get the job done and it's about time we realized that. Too many of our guys didn't work hard enough during the strike and since then we haven't been playing well, either physically or mentally."
In the American League East, Sparky Anderson, baseball's first gourmet manager, was getting things done with a special "sauce" that keeps on adding flavor to every Tiger victory.
Actually the chief ingredient is Kevin Andrew Saucier, a left-handed relief pitcher who had a hand in five of Detroit's first eight victories, resulting in one personal triumph and four saves.
Until Saucier gave up a home un to Al Oliver to the Texas Rangers, Dave hadn't allowed an earned run in 34 innings of pitching. According to Saucier, he has assured Anderson that he can relieve for a couple of innings every game if Sparky needs him.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Al East seems as out of place as Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey taking a vacation together, what with Toronto keeping pace with Baltimore, Milwaukee, Boston, and New York. In fact, if the Yankees don't get going soon, they can expect an explosion from owner George Steinbrenner, who thinks that when you pay players as much as he does they should win them all.
In the AL West, Oakland manager Billy Martin has the perfect formula for winning -- build a pitching staff so stingy with runners on base that it can keep you in every game. However, Martin must still deal with four strong challengers, including the Chicago White Sox, who started the week in first place, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and California Angels.
Individually, White Sox shortstop Bill Almon is setting the pace with a league-leading .335 average, although Angel first baseman Rod Carew suddenly seems interested in winning an eighth AL batting title after getting five hits in one recent game. California had another hot hitter for a while in Bobby Grich, who hit in 21 straight games, some before the strike. And the Angels also produced the league's first 10-game winner in right-handed Ken Forsch.
Although Philadelphia has remained quiet about the physical condition of Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, who lost his first two starts after the strike , there are rumors that Carlton is having arm problems.
Elsewhere, Joel Youngblood of the Mets and Bill Madlock of the Pittsburgh Pirates continue their battle as the National League's top hitters in terms of average. Seldom mentioned Tom Paciorek has been hitting .340 for Seattle, and Los Angeles has the NL's first 10-game winner in Fernando Valenzuela, who had a career-high 12 strikeouts against the Cardinals. The Dodgers also unveiled a new second baseman in 21-year-old rookie Steve Sax.