AL East race is just what game needs

July 21, 1993|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

To memories of the great race in 1967 and the Rat Race of 1973, we may soon be fortunate enough to add the spectacle of 1993. Let's call it the Human Race for want of a better title. This is a season in which virtually all teams in the American League East have been created equal and appear intent on proving so.

It is, of course, a long, long way from July to October, plenty of time for one club to take command. But with 15 weeks completed and 11 remaining, there are at least five reasons to believe we may be headed for the damnedest pennant race in the modern history of baseball.

Certainly, the schedule is in place for one of the great finishes of this or any other era. On the final weekend of the regular season, Oct. 1-3, the Yankees play host to the Detroit Tigers and the defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays visit the Orioles. Going into last night's action, the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays were tied in the loss column. The Tigers -- and a fifth team, the Boston Red Sox -- have lost only one additional game.

Although the Elias Sports Bureau could not confirm that five teams nearly deadlocked atop a league or division ever had happened before so late in a season, it seems improbable. It is a logjam of potentially epic proportions.

A five-way dead heat certainly would be unprecedented in the major leagues, although there was a threat of just such a finish 20 years ago.

In 1973, the New York Mets, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Montreal Expos and the Chicago Cubs all retained a chance at the National League East title at dawn on the final day of the season. As it turned out, rain pushed back the conclusion of the season another day and the Mets had the good grace to claim first place with the only winning record in the division.

After splitting a doubleheader with the Cubs on Sunday, the Mets defeated Chicago in the first game of a rescheduled twin bill on Monday to lock up the East crown. It was their 18th victory in 24 games and saved the division from the embarrassment of a champion that lost as many games as it won. Their winning percentage of .509 remains the lowest of any team ever to finish first.

Yet, there was no hint of such a frantic finale on July 19. On that date in history, the eventual winners were in sixth place, 8 1/2 games behind the front-running Cubs. And, with only two teams above .500, it appeared to be a race between the Cubs and the Cards. The third-place Expos were five games back and three games below the break-even point.

From the standpoint of theatrics and individual accomplishment, however, the '73 campaign paled in comparison to the AL race in 1967, the next-to-last year before division play. To Boston fans, it will forever be known as the season of The Impossible Dream. On the final day of the season, Jim Lonborg became a hero and Carl Yastrzemski ascended to the status of New England icon.

But it was the suspense that most people recall, the doubt about which of four teams was going to earn the right to oppose the Cardinals in the World Series. With five days remaining in the season, the Red Sox, Twins, Tigers and Chicago White Sox were separated by 1 1/2 games. A doubleheader sweep by Kansas City and a loss to Washington eliminated the White Sox heading into the final weekend.

The Twins carried a 91-69 record into Fenway Park for single games on Saturday and Sunday. The Red Sox, at 90-70, trailed by a game. Detroit was 89-69 but was scheduled for back-to-back doubleheaders against the fifth-place California Angels at Tiger Stadium.

While the Tigers split with the Angels on Saturday, Boston prevented the Twins from clinching the title with a 6-4 triumph. The next day, the Red Sox knocked out Minnesota with a 5-3 victory as Yaz went 4-for-4 at the plate (clinching the last Triple Crown in big-league history) and made a great throw from left field.

Still, when the Sox left the field, they were guaranteed of nothing more than a tie and a berth in any playoff deemed necessary.

After waiting 21 years for a pennant, what was another couple of hours? The Sox listened on radio as the Tigers, who won the first game, 6-4, failed to hold a lead in the nightcap and fell, 8-5. For the second time that day, Boston celebrated.

While there was evidence of a potentially tight race on July 19 of that year, the standings barely suggested what was to follow. On that date, the White Sox led the Twins by a full game, the Red Sox by 2 1/2 and both the Tigers and Angels by 3 1/2 .

Twenty-six years later, we may be on the verge of something equally grand, something that will raise the sport above the pettiness that has consumed it off the field. Frankly, the human race, at least the portion that prizes baseball, could stand the inspiration.

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