Baseball catches breath, breaks

Another power surge, big-money failures add spice for 2nd half

July 15, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Has the baseball world turned upside down, or what?

The 1999 season has reached its traditional midpoint, and many of the basic assumptions that dominate the sport as it approaches the turn of a new century have been called into question.

Money talks?

Better check with the four big-revenue teams that are wallowing at the bottom of the standings. The Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Anaheim Angels expected to be in serious contention this year, but instead have challenged the direct correlation between payroll and playoff viability.

Tough act to follow?

No one seriously expected to see a power display comparable to last year's unprecedented homerfest, but the power surge continues and -- guess what? -- Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire are poised for another exciting duel for the major-league home run title.

Pitching crisis can't get any worse?

Guess again. The shallow pool of pitching talent got even thinner with a series of early-season injuries to star-quality pitchers, which has contributed to the greatest offensive avalanche in the history of the game.

Apparently, nothing succeeds like excess. No one is complaining about the sudden proliferation of double-digit run totals or the record number of players who will enter the second half on pace for 50 home runs or 140 RBIs.

Here's a thumbnail look at the themes that figure to dominate the headlines over the next few months:

Fall of house of Dodger

The fall of the Orioles has been the talk of the town in Baltimore, but the collapse of the Dodgers might be the bigger surprise, because they broke the bank to sign starting pitcher Kevin Brown to a $105 million contract and spent liberally on several other players.

The club's lackluster performance has sparked rumors that new general manager Kevin Malone is falling out of favor with the Fox brass. It also is calling into question manager Davey Johnson's record as one of the most successful managers in history.

Johnson has never finished lower than second in any full season as a major-league manager, but that statistical highlight may soon be stricken from his resume if the Dodgers don't rebound dramatically in the second half.

Don't count Johnson out just yet. The Dodgers are eight games under .500 and 10 games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants, far enough down to register as one of the season's greatest disappointments, but not quite far out enough to be written off entirely.

Small-market surprises

Just when baseball officials thought it was safe to ratchet up the dialogue about the inability of small- and medium-market teams to compete in baseball's hyper-expensive environment, up jumped the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central.

The Reds enter the second half tied for first place, and there is no reason they can't stay in the race for the division title, especially if former 20-game winner Denny Neagle comes back from a shoulder injury.

There are a couple other clubs that are beating the odds on a budget. The Phillies are six games over .500 in the NL East and the supposedly deconstructed San Diego Padres staged an amazing midseason charge to get back in the wild-card hunt.

Does this change anything?

Not really.

The economic disparity is real and troublesome, but it becomes less of an issue with each new stadium that springs up in a struggling major-league market.

Martinez goes for 30

Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez is halfway through a dream season. He already has 15 victories and just won the Most Valuable Player Award at the 70th All-Star Game.

This is his year, but his otherworldly performance has pumped up expectations for the second half that will be nearly impossible for Martinez to fulfil.

His 15-3 record has him on pace to win 30 games this year, something that has never been done by a pitcher working in a five-man rotation, but the odds against his completing that historic quest are astronomical.

"I think it's doable," Martinez said this week. "You just have to get the starts."

He'll get about 18 more starts, so he'll have to replicate his performance in the first half, when he got a decision in every one of them. That may be highly unlikely, but who's going to count him out after what he did Tuesday night?

McGwire/Sosa II

OK, so you wanted to see Jose Canseco going down to the wire against former Bash Brother McGwire. That would have been the best possible home run human interest story this year, but it isn't going to happen.

Canseco is leading the American League with 31 homers and was on the way to a huge comeback season until his fragile back betrayed him last weekend. He underwent surgery on Sunday and is expected to be lost until September.

You'll have to settle for McGwire/Sosa II. Cubs superstar Sosa is leading the majors with 32 homers and is only slightly behind the pace he set last year, when he finished with 66. McGwire got off to a slow start because of some nagging injuries, but he has charged back into the race.

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