Most say they won't be ashamed to say they are the best of the . . . WOEFUL, WOEFUL WEST

July 11, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

What has realignment wrought?

The Oakland Athletics owned a major-league worst 19-43 record a month ago, but today are every bit a contender in the four-team American League West.

The California Angels are 13 games under .500, but they are a mere five games out of first place.

The supposedly improved Seattle Mariners look like the same hapless Seattle Mariners who used to treat the .500 mark as if it were the Holy Grail, but that might be good enough to make the playoffs in 1994.

And the class of the division -- the first-place Texas Rangers -- have been trying to get even all year, but every time they have gotten close to sea level, they have taken another dive.

Is this parity or parody?

The first year of the six-division format has produced a regional imbalance that could put a losing team into the postseason for the first time in baseball history. The creation of the American League Central Division took three teams out of the old West, and all three of them would be ahead of the Rangers if they had remained.

The leading teams in the other two divisions are each on pace to win 95 games or more. The Rangers would win 79 at their current pace, but would earn a place in the first tier of the playoffs when there are certain to be several clubs with better records who get left out. The same kind of imbalance exists in the National League, but to a less comical extent.

No doubt, the architects of realignment knew this was a possibility, but the likelihood of such injustice was overshadowed by the financial advantages of a system that allows more teams to go to the playoffs and keeps more teams in contention during the late stages of the regular season.

Nobody said it had to be fair.

"Where's the injustice?" said Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who was on the other side of this fence when his 1987 New York Yankees club won four more games than the eventual world champion Minnesota Twins yet didn't make the playoffs. "You still have to beat those teams in the postseason. Where's the injustice in that? You've got to work within the framework. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it works against you."

It is not an entirely new concept, of course. The Twins had fewer victories than Piniella's second-place Yankees in '87. The world champion Kansas City Royals won six fewer games than the second-place Yankees in 1985. There was no perfect balance in the four-division format either, but the new alignment has made the problem far more pronounced.

The weak AL West also has focused attention on the adverse effect of expansion on the major-league talent pool, but it really is realignment that is the culprit here.

If the major leagues had done this 11 years ago, baseball would have faced the same problem. The division-leading Chicago White Sox and the second-place Royals would have vacated the AL West, leaving the Rangers with 77 victories and a division title. If this realignment plan had been put into place in 1987, the A's would have won the West with an 81-81 record.

Looking for imbalance? The 1984 Orioles would have finished last in the AL East and first in the other two divisions under the current alignment.

Under the circumstances, you might expect the denizens of such a dismal division to be a little sheepish about the possibility of going to the playoffs without the benefit of a winning record, but most are unapologetic. Even the rebuilding A's, who won four division titles from 1988-92 and averaged 101 victories during those championship seasons, would not discount the thrill of victory -- no matter what the won-lost record.

"I think it would mean a lot, because of where we've been," said veteran reliever Dennis Eckersley. "We were dead. I don't know what people were saying about us here, but it looked like we were done. For us to win the division, it might actually mean a lot more than when we had the horses. I remember '92 meant a lot to us because everybody was hurt. This would even be more than that."

Manager Tony La Russa agrees, though he would like to see -- and expects to see -- a quality team emerge in the AL West during the second half of the season.

"After where we were, if we finish first, I wouldn't be embarrassed," La Russa said, "but to be legit, you've got to win more than you lose. If no AL West club does that, I would be embarrassed, but I don't think that is going to happen."

That team would figure to be the Rangers, who have the most threatening offense in a division in which all four teams are deficient on the mound. But don't expect Rangers first baseman Will Clark to apologize if his club wins with a less-than-imposing record. He was in San Francisco last year when the Giants won 103 games and watched the playoffs on television.

In Texas, they'll take the franchise's first division championship any way they can get it, but general manager Tom Grieve knows that his club has taken advantage of some special circumstances to go into the All-Star break in first place.

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