Encores not measuring up

Yankees, McGwire haven't picked up where they left off

Baseball's first quarter

May 24, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

If there is a lesson to be learned from the first quarter of the 1999 season, it is that in baseball, lightning seldom strikes twice in the same place.

The New York Yankees were the toast of the town last year, when they streaked away from the rest of the American League East and went on to set an American League record with 114 victories. They still are a dominant team, but the real thunder in 1999 is coming from Cleveland.

St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire was the most dominating individual presence in the sport in '98, inflating the single-season home run record to the point where it may never be threatened again, but he is not -- so far -- one of the dominant home-run hitters of 1999.

Things change, and over a 162-game season, they can also change back, but the first 40-game block of the 1999 schedule has featured more than its share of surprises.

The baseball world was waiting for another burst of energy from the Big Apple, but the Yankees have twisted and turned during a difficult spring that included the temporary loss of manager Joe Torre (prostate cancer), the possibly permanent loss of Darryl Strawberry (legal problems) and an injury to newly acquired pitching ace Roger Clemens.

What else could go wrong? Well, for one thing, the Indians could suddenly shake off their chronic pitching problems to batter everyone in sight.

They have picked up right where the Yankees left off last year, winning at a .700 clip and leaving no doubt that they have developed into a worthy challenger to the new Yankees dynasty.

The addition of premier second baseman Roberto Alomar and the ever-more frightening presence of slugger Manny Ramirez have combined to make the Indians the most overpowering team in baseball -- at least for the moment. They batted .310 as a team during the first quarter of the season and are on pace to score more runs than any other team in history.

The Yankees figure to recover from their temporary brush with mediocrity. They're playing .570 baseball even after losing six of 10 games, so it's all relative anyway. But expectations are so high that a five-game losing streak is enough to make front-running Mayor Rudy Guiliani sleep in his Mets jacket.

Wouldn't the Orioles love to have such a problem, after turning a fairly promising season into a disastrous combination of costly injuries, bad pitching and managerial speculation?

a Here's a thumbnail look at the other surprises, subplots and whatnot that have made the early season so intriguing:

McGwire/Sosa II

No one seriously expected an encore to the magical home-run derby that captivated the nation in 1998. McGwire and Sammy Sosa combined for 136 home runs, both blowing right by Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season record. Even in the final season of the pitching-poor 1990s, it is too tough an act to follow.

McGwire is on pace to hit about 40 homers. Sosa is sizzling again, but has a way to go to match last year's pace. They still might emerge as the top two home-run hitters of '99, but they've got some stiff competition.

The other Bash Brother -- Tampa Bay slugger Jose Canseco -- is jousting with Ken Griffey for the major-league home-run lead, both of them on pace to hit more than 60 home runs. Wouldn't it be something if Canseco re-emerged as the premier homer guy in baseball all these years after being overshadowed by Big Mac?

Rocket vs. Boomer

So, which team got the better of the blockbuster spring deal that sent Roger Clemens to the Yankees for David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush?

It's too early to tell, but both teams have to be disappointed with the early returns. Clemens spent the past three weeks on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Wells has lost his past three starts to drop his record to 4-4 and inflate his ERA to 6.00.

The Blue Jays probably get the edge because the strong performance of Lloyd in late relief has significantly upgraded their bullpen, while his departure left the Yankees with a damaging imbalance on their pitching staff.

Lopsided deal

The Arizona Diamondbacks got veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez for a song, and he has turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the early season.

Gonzalez, who was acquired from the Detroit Tigers for part-time outfielder Karim Garcia, ranks highly among the league leaders in batting average and hits, and just ended a 30-game hitting streak that matched the longest of the decade.

Big star on horizon

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Sean Casey is not a rookie, but he has emerged as the top young player of 1999. He played part-time during his rookie season last year -- costing him any serious National League Rookie of the Year consideration -- but is making quite a second impression in 1999.

If the first quarter of the season is any indication, he's going to be a major star. He has been dueling with Gonzalez for the NL hitting lead and is on pace for about 40 homers and 125 RBIs.

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