Majors' new look leaves O's facing same old challenge

January 21, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

All indications are that the teams in the Central Division of both the American and National leagues and those in the NL East are the ones most affected by baseball's realignment.

And the ones least affected are those in the AL East, where the same five perennial contenders remain. Which means the outlook for the Orioles is no different than it has been for most of the past five seasons -- find a way to catch the Toronto Blue Jays, while also finishing ahead of the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates says the only thing he knows about realignment is that a good team is going to finish last in the AL East.

"To tell you the truth, if you'd asked me five days ago, I couldn't even have told you which teams are in our division," he said. "I haven't paid that much attention.

"But, for the most part, we still have to beat the same teams that we've had to beat for the last 20 years. I think our division is going to be a tough one to play in -- from top to bottom I think it is the strongest in baseball. I know Cleveland is an up-and-coming team and Milwaukee has had some good years, but the others, year in and year out, have been the teams to beat."

Although he's been in the game 43 years, Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said he doesn't consider himself such a traditionalist that he can't accept change.

"I've felt that, with 28 teams, it was time for a new format," Hemond said of the three-divisional setup that introduces a wild-card team to postseason play.

"When the League Championship Series started, I thought it was time for that. At first, not everyone was in favor of the LCS, but that has become a popular phase in our season. It has proved to be popular and exciting, and I think this [realignment] will be accepted the same way."

However, Hemond's counterpart in Toronto, Pat Gillick, doesn't seem so sure.

"I'm only speaking for myself, not the club," he said, "but I'm not in favor of it.

"But if that's what the fans want, and the polls indicated that was the case, then you have to give the public what it wants," said Gillick.

Realignment, he said, won't affect his team's chances of making it into postseason, but could be a hindrance in the Blue Jays' efforts to do a World Series three-peat.

"It definitely affects our chances of repeating as league champion," said Gillick. "I don't like the idea of playing three-out-of-five and maybe running into a pitcher like Randy Johnson who gets hot for two games."

The shortened series leading to the World Series is Gillick's biggest complaint.

"Yeah, you could say that -- because a team with two good pitchers might not necessarily be the best team," he said, "but it might be enough to win a short series."

With six divisions in place, half will open the 1994 season without a defending champion. And those in the NL East might challenge Oates' contention that the AL East is the strongest in baseball.

After a stirring race that went to the final day, the Atlanta Braves are switching from the NL West to the East Division, where the Philadelphia Phillies last year went from last place to first. That switch, along with the Chicago White Sox's move to the AL Central Division, leaves the West in each league wide-open.

But, to Atlanta GM John Schuerholz, the Braves' move represents, at last, a victory for common sense.

"If you're going to have realignment," he said, "it makes all the sense in the world to have the Atlanta Braves in the Eastern Division.

"The competitive aspect is not a constant," said Schuerholz, alluding to the Braves' three straight divisional titles. "That's something that over the years is going to change. Having the Atlanta Braves in the Eastern Division just makes sense."

While classifying himself as a traditionalist, Schuerholz doesn't express the same strong feeling against expanded playoffs as Gillick.

"I have strong traditional feelings," he said, "but I'm also willing to say it [expanded playoffs] has been proven successful in other sports. I don't think it will take away from the fans' enjoyment of the game."

Schuerholz also says baseball's postseason eventually will return to a format that puts only division champions into the playoffs, with four winners coming from each league.

"I think the idea of a wild-card team possibly winning the World Series is what rankles people," he said.

"My strong feeling is that I liked it when two teams won and played inthe World Series. I think just having division winners play will happen as a natural outcome of [future] expansion."

Gillick cited the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners as the American League teams that made the biggest initial gains from realignment, and the San Francisco Giants appear to have benefited most in the NL.

The Rangers and Mariners are projected as the two top contenders in the AL West, and the Giants appear to be the only bona fide contender in the NL West.

But it is the Central Division of each league that perhaps provides the best geographical and competitive balance.

After winning the Western Division a year ago, the White Sox probably will be the heaviest favorite in the AL. But, with a young and improving team, the Indians figure to be more competitive than they would've been in the AL East, and the Brewers, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins appear better able to contend than they would have otherwise.

In the National League, parity in the Central Division should produce a wide-open race.

"It [realignment] is the best move of the off-season," said Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden, whose team is grouped with the Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.

"Any one of those teams needs only one or two players to put it over the top. It gives everybody a legitimate chance to win," said Bowden.

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