This division is the major league owners' best example of why they need to implement a revenue-sharing plan. The American League Central features the mighty Cleveland Indians, who added players to make an already good team even better, and the fading Kansas City Royals, who unloaded stars to roll back the team payroll. It includes the wealthy Chicago White Sox, who are rich in pitching, and the impoverished Minnesota Twins, who were financially unable to upgrade a staff that last season rang up a 5.68 ERA, the highest in the major leagues since 1939. And the Central has the sad Milwaukee Brewers, who can't escape the small-revenue blues.
The race will be between the Indians and the White Sox, while the other three clubs will try to stay within 20 games of first place. The winner may not be decided until the last week of the season, unless Cleveland can pick up a closer like the Twins' Rick Aguilera, who might distance the Tribe from the White Sox as well.
But even without a top closer, the INDIANS look like the team to beat. They have the game's most potent lineup and an improved pitching staff, thanks to the off-season signings of free-agent veterans Paul Assenmacher, Bud Black and Orel Hershiser. After 12 years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hershiser, 36, brings the second-lowest career ERA (3.00) among active starting pitchers. He says his arm is sound and that he has "a lot left" despite not having had a winning season since 1991. As a member of a rotation that features Mark Clark, Dennis Martinez and Charlie Nagy, who were a combined 32-17 last year, Hershiser won't have to push himself physically, as he did in L.A. "Coming here will rejuvenate my career," says Hershiser. It's like going into the unknown. That little edge, that nervousness, will make me better."
Hershiser, who was born in Buffalo, grew up an Indian fan but had never been to Cleveland until last winter when the Indians were courting him. He has been to only three American League ballparks, including Yankee Stadium, where he finished third in a national pitch-hit-run contest as an eight-year-old. "I remember saying that day that I would pitch here in the big leagues," Hershiser says. "When I finally do, it will be a dream come true."
Ray Durham, 23, has been dreaming of playing second and hitting leadoff for the WHITE SOX since he signed with the Chicago organization in 1990. Without a day of experience in the majors, he arrived this spring accompanied by comparisons with Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.
At 5'8", 170 pounds, Durham is another in a recent run of pint-sized White Sox second basemen—Joey Cora, Craig Grebeck, Scott Fletcher, Donnie Hill and Julio Cruz—but none could run the way he can ( Durham says he ran a 4.2 40 in high school) and none displayed the power he showed in the minors. Durham hit .296 with 61 extra-base hits, including 16 homers, at Triple A Nashville last year.
With free agent Jim Abbott aboard and rookie James Baldwin ready to contribute, the Chicago rotation is complete. Now it's Durham's job to energize a lineup that had only 13 steals last season out of the leadoff spot and lost DH-cleanup hitter Julio Franco (98 RBIs) and rightfielder Damn Jackson (.312) to Japan. "I just want to get on base," Durham says, "so pitchers won't be able to pitch around Frank Thomas."
Speaking of the Big Hurt, how about the ROYALS' off-season? They got rid of three high-salaried players—Cy Young winner David Cone, catcher Mike Macfarlane and centerfielder Brian McRae—thereby turning themselves from a contender into a pretender. Unfortunately for K.C.'s new skipper, Bob Boone, the purge came at the start of his career as a major league manager.
Boone spent most of April trying to put together a new outfield after the front office also decided not to re-sign free agents Vince Coleman and Felix Jose. Only when it became clear that three major-league-caliber starters were not going to emerge from among eight candidates did the Royals finally relent and re-sign Jose last week.
Boone, 47, has handled the tumultuous spring without complaint, which is no surprise coming from a Stanford psychology major who was one of the game's most cerebral players during his 19 years as a big league catcher. "Character is developed through adversity, that's my constitution," he says. It helps that he has one of his mentors, venerable Gene Mauch, 69, as his bench coach.