Wild-card drama proves purists wrong


October 08, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The baseball purists, including the purist here, hated the idea of a wild-card team, an extra round of playoffs, four more teams in the postseason. No doubt this would help chip away the integrity of the game, which already was eroding because of the labor trouble.

Well, the purists, this purist, were wrong: The first divisional playoffs have been a rousing success. Even though two of the four series were sweeps, Cleveland routing Boston and Cincinnati thumping the Dodgers, this has been a week of excitement.

Last Sunday: The Houston Astros come from behind in their game against the Cubs, but the Rockies hold off the Giants to wrap up the NL wild card. In the AL, the Angels win and the Mariners lose, forcing a one-game playoff.

Monday: Randy Johnson duels Mark Langston, a suspenseful matchup until Seattle takes over in the seventh inning, aided by a couple of bone-head plays by California. Langston and second baseman Rex Hudler have a confrontation in the dugout after the inning. Johnson finishes the game powerfully, points to the sky just as fireworks explode overhead in the Kingdome, and fans storm the field. Wonderful stuff.

Tuesday: Cleveland and Boston, delayed twice by rain, play 13 extraordinary innings. Albert Belle hits a bases-empty homer in the 11th inning to tie the game, and his bat is confiscated, cut open and checked for cork. Both sides miss chances to win in the late innings, until light-hitting backup catcher Tony Pena homers to beat Boston, his former employer. One of the great games in postseason history -- and dwarfed by the Yankees-Mariners clash the next night.

Wednesday: New York and Seattle go back and forth, through umpire controversy and fans littering the field with debris. Seattle goes ahead, New York answers. Finally, in the bottom of the 15th inning (the second-longest game, in terms of innings, in history), Jim Leyritz homers and the Yankees win; Leyritz was the guy the Mariners' Randy Johnson beaned early in the season. Baseball's symmetry was perfect again.

Thursday: A chance for everybody to catch a breath.

Friday: The Indians and Reds sweep, but Johnson beats the Yankees and the Rockies survive, after blowing a ninth-inning lead. Terrific, all of it.

Major League Baseball blew its TV coverage, no question. There should have been games on Thursday, day games, all of which would have allowed the country to see all of these playoffs. But most of the baseball seen last week was exceptional.

The short opening series may, one year, hurt the best teams (it didn't this year, Cleveland and Cincinnati advancing). But the short series also forced the teams to play with increased intensity. Lose Game 1 of a seven-game series, and you know there's plenty of time to recover. Losing Game 1 in the Division Series was a killer. That's why you saw Ken Hill, scheduled to pitch Game 4 for Cleveland, throwing in relief Tuesday, why Tim Belcher threw in extra innings for the Mariners, why Colorado manager Don Baylor ran out of pinch hitters Tuesday.

They had to win, immediately. They had to play hard. They had to play good baseball to survive. For those reasons, the entire sport benefited.

La Russa's last stand?

If Tony La Russa is finished as manager of the Athletics, then he went out loudly, taking one last shot at Rickey Henderson, as well as rookie Jason Giambi, who both missed the last series with a rib-cage injury. "If they're unavailable for me," La Russa said, "we could save the hotel [bill] for the weekend. Both those injuries bother me. Is that a horrible thing for me to say? I don't think so, because I don't think I'm horrible. If you're not going to be part of it, we'll send you a Christmas card. I really detest not sprinting to the end." If La Russa comes to the Orioles, he'd almost certainly bring pitching coach Dave Duncan -- bad news for Mike Flanagan. Oakland hitting coach Jim Lefebvre will stay or try for another job (like manager of the Dodgers), but it figures Orioles hitting coach Lee May will be replaced in any event.

Forget the bubbly

When Colorado clinched the wild card, Mike Kingery and Bryan Hickerson, who do not drink, chugged bottled water. Kingery said he tried a champagne celebration once in the past. "I thought it was gross," he said. . . . Major-leaguers, like the rest of the country, tuned in to the O. J. Simpson verdict. In fact, Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields blamed the trial for the modest crowds at Chavez Ravine on Tuesday. "This might have been a little too much for L.A. today," he said, "with the O. J. verdict. They were [emotionally] done. They had to go home and regroup."

Winfield feels slighted

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