"Pick us to win," says Elster. "Everything is always up in the air around here. We're used to it. We've been predicted to win it for so long, we've always just thought we would. This year we know we'll have to work for it. Pick us."
O.K. Legal proceedings notwithstanding, you're the pick.
2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
In the movie Hoosiers, when one of Hickory High's players fouls out, the coach, played by Gene Hackman, refuses to put a fifth player in the game. "My team is on the floor," Hackman tells the referee. On the night of March 22, Pirate manager Jim Leyland woke up from a sound sleep, looked at his roommate, Pittsburgh coach Rich Donnelly, and said, "My team is on the field," and then went back to sleep.
Hickory High went on to beat bigger, badder, better South Bend Central in Hoosiers because Hackman inspired his guys to take on an us-against-the-world mentality. Leyland, the master motivator, is doing the same with his guys. The rich, haughty Mets bought Bonilla for $29 million in December because Pittsburgh couldn't afford him. The Pirates had to trade Smiley because they knew they would lose him after the season.
Leyland decided to treat the losses as a challenge: another reason to try to repeat as East champs, another reason to beat hated New York. "If they took away all his players," says Donnelly, "he'd still think he could win. That's him. He says if someone gets killed in a war, you can't stop the war. It will run over you."
Bonilla's 100 RBIs will have to be compensated for by Kirk Gibson, who was picked up from the Royals last month; the return of first baseman Jeff King from a back injury; and a full season of Steve Buechele at third base. "You think we couldn't have won last year without Bobby's bat?" asks centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "We won by 14 games!"
The only trouble spot Leyland says he sees is the bullpen. "But we'll finagle it," he says with conviction. Still, no manager, not even Leyland, can keep his players from worrying when the front office has itchy fingers. Will new general manager Ted Simmons unload ace Doug Drabek, too? And what about leftfielder Barry Bonds? If Pittsburgh falters early, will the game's best player be dealt to a contender? This is too much for the Pirates to think about.
Leyland disagrees, of course. "We've had more controversy in spring training the last two years, and we've won more games than anyone," he says. "The clubhouse attitude will be fine." Even so, Leyland's guys will lose at the buzzer to the bigger, badder, better Mets.
3. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS