The New York Yankees did not survive the first round of baseball's three-tiered playoff system last year, but they enter // the opener of their Division Series against the Texas Rangers tonight as something of a surrogate defending world champion.
The dismantled Florida Marlins did not even make a cursory attempt to return to the World Series, so the Yankees will have to stand in as the team everybody wants to beat in the postseason.
And why not? They won an American League-record 114 games this year. They feature a lineup stocked with legitimate MVP candidates and a pitching staff that includes two starters who will rank among the top five candidates for the American League Cy Young Award. And, perhaps most important, they are the Yankees, so every one of them might as well have a bull's eye painted over the pinstripes.
"We'd be very disappointed," manager Joe Torre said, "if this record is the only thing we have to look back on."
What pressure! The record win total has raised the stakes for everyone in the Yankees' clubhouse. They have a chance to be recognized as one of the greatest teams in history, but run the risk of joining the 1906 Chicago Cubs (116 wins), 1954 Cleveland Indians (111) and 1969 Orioles (109) among baseball's greatest postseason disappointments.
Destiny is a much more difficult proposition in 1998 than it was back when the teams with the best record in each league matched up in the World Series, or even during the years (1969 to 1993) of the two-tiered playoff format. The Yankees have to win three tough playoff series just to protect and preserve what they accomplished during the regular season.
Torre insists that nothing can diminish that achievement, but he is mistaken. The greatest team of 1969 was not the dominant Orioles, but the Amazin' Mets. More people remember one terrific catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series than anything that happened during the Indians' 111-win regular season.
The Yankees' claim to greatness will be painfully empty come late October if their champagne bottles remain full.
That's why much of the national focus will be on Yankee Stadium tonight, when the Texas Rangers arrive for a replay of the 1996 Division Series that propelled the Yankees into an ALCS showdown with the Orioles and -- eventually -- to their first world championship since 1978.
Texas right-hander Todd Stottlemyre, who won five of nine decisions after he was traded to the Rangers by the St. Louis Cardinals, will face Yankees left-hander David Wells (18-4) in tonight's opener.
The other American League series will open this afternoon at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, where Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez is scheduled to face Indians right-hander Jaret Wright.
The Red Sox are the wild-card representative, but that is not really representative of the power structure in the American League, because Boston had the second-best record and the Indians cruised unimpressively to the American League Central title.
"We scuffled the entire year," said Indians catcher Sandy Alomar. "We didn't play consistent ball all year. But I don't care about the regular season anymore. Our objective was to get here. And we got here."
The Indians have the home-field advantage, but the Red Sox have a deeper pitching staff, which could carry them into an ALCS showdown with the Yankees and -- presumably -- make a lot of television network executives very, very happy.
The same kind of postseason hierarchy appears to prevail in the National League, where the Atlanta Braves have been the pre-eminent regular-season team of the 1990s and won 106 games this year to reaffirm their status as the league's World Series favorite.
They get the softest Division Series draw and the home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs, but the balance of power in the NL has shifted significantly since Opening Day.
The Houston Astros acquired superstar pitcher Randy Johnson from the Seattle Mariners at midseason and came on strong in the second half. Johnson, who is 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA since the trade, is scheduled to start against San Diego Padres ace Kevin XTC Brown in today's Division Series opener at the Astrodome and likely would match up against Brown at home again if a decisive fifth game is necessary. Advantage, Astros.
The Padres are far from overmatched. They ended the season with eight losses in their last 11 games, but feature a balanced offensive lineup, a solid rotation and major-league save leader Trevor Hoffman. If they can find a way to upend Johnson the way the Orioles did in last year's American League playoffs, they figure to match up adequately against Atlanta.
Though San Diego lost five of nine games to both the Braves and Astros, neither season series was particularly decisive.