THE CUBS, of all teams, awoke with the best record in the National League yesterday. The Mariners, of all teams, are on a pace to win 117 games. The Twins, with their pint-sized payroll, apparently are for real.
Throw in the surprising Phillies and Diamondbacks, Barry Bonds' pursuit of Mark McGwire's home run record and Cal Ripken's farewell drama, and you're looking at one terrific major-league baseball season.
Alas, it comes with an apocalyptic warning attached: You'd better enjoy what you're watching, because there's no telling when you might see it again.
Incredibly, just seven years after a labor dispute canceled the World Series and caused almost measureless damage to the game, the owners and players are on the verge of another squabble that could disrupt the game.
Their collective bargaining agreement expires on Halloween, three days after the World Series is scheduled to end, and not to sound pessimistic, but the game has been disrupted in some way every time the owners and players have bargained, going back to the early '70s.
That's right. Every time.
In other words, instead of hoping for a happy ending - no work stoppage - perhaps it's wisest just to be realistic and hope for a minor interruption such as a garden-variety spring training slowdown instead of the big kahuna, a repeat of '94.
Only baseball could put its fans in such an irritating situation in the wake of such an entertaining season.
You would think the industry's leaders would realize any reprise of '94 would unleash a new torrent of the negative vibes the game has spent the past seven years overcoming, and do whatever it takes to keep that from happening.
But this is a sport that needed five years to come to the no-brainer conclusion that teams should rotate among different interleague opponents instead of playing the same ones every year, so don't expect too much.
And, of course, the next time a majority of those involved put the "good of the game" ahead of their own interests would be the first time.
To be fair, there probably won't be any major interruptions in the off-season, or, perhaps, even early in the 2002 season; federal laws require that bargaining in good faith occur, which means a certain amount of time must pass, with the clock starting on Halloween in this case. So there could be a free-agent season and perhaps even a normal spring training, as there was in '94 when the players played into August without a labor contract.
But a major problem is bound to arise at some point if the owners aren't satisfied with what they're getting, and, of course, the owners are never satisfied with what they're getting, because they never get what they want.
That's what sad about this looming dispute: After all these years and disagreements, you know what's going to happen. The owners are going to ask for a salary cap, more revenue sharing or some way of keeping the big spenders in their fraternity in check, underscoring the fact that the dispute is more among owners themselves than between the owners and players. The players are just going to shrug and say everything is peachy, which it is when you're making as much money as they are.
In the end, the owners will settle for a lot less than they wanted, and the severity of the interruption to the 2002 season will depend on how much pride the owners and commissioner Bud Selig are willing to swallow.
If they're truly set on posing that the game needs an economic revolution and this is the time to do it, the interruption could be long and hurtful.
But after this season, it's going to be hard to convince anyone a revolution is needed because the current system is unfair to small-market teams. The success of the Twins, one of the game's lowest-paid teams, is evidence of that.
It might be true that teams with higher revenues stand a better chance of winning, but that rule is hardly absolute, as the Orioles, for one, have shown.
Running a franchise intelligently, with forward-thinking decision-making, is always another way to win, regardless of the size of your revenue stream.
Grasping for leverage, the owners might threaten to buy out a few teams, a drastic step known as "contraction" that Selig has suggested could be deployed. Don't believe it.
While the game obviously would benefit from having four fewer teams and almost no one would miss the Expos and Devil Rays, to name two failing franchises, the move surely would lead to multiple lawsuits (talk about some mad politicians) and a possible loss of the game's invaluable antitrust exemption, so it's not going to happen. Contraction is just a bargaining chip to take off the table at some point.
It's hard to believe we're even discussing this stuff after what happened in '94, when so many fans became disgusted that the industry wobbled as never before, leaking support like a gushing oil rig. The idea that another work stoppage could occur within a decade seemed preposterous.
But a new generation of ballparks has sprouted, the industry's revenues have doubled, player salaries are skyrocketing and, it appears, there's been a widespread shortening of attention spans in the game's halls of power. Everyone has forgotten the lesson of '94.
"I can't imagine us letting that happen again," McGwire said several years ago.
Sadly, he's in the vast minority.