So eager are the Seattle Mariners to get to the ballpark these days that few of them bother to wait for the daily charter bus that leaves the team hotel three hours before game time. Last Friday only three players disembarked from the team bus at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The rest of the Mariners had commandeered taxis for earlier arrivals.
Later that night, after a 2-1 victory over the Royals that left the second-place Mariners 10� games out of first place in the American League West, they lingered in front of the clubhouse television set, watching scores and highlights from other games with the intensity of horseplayers at an off-track betting parlor. "Go, Cleveland!" shouted reliever Norm Charlton at the TV.
Meanwhile, Texas Ranger manager Johnny Oates, whose team was in third place in the American League West, found himself rooting for California, the first-place team in his own division. Said Oates, "I'm not worried about catching the Angels. I'm more worried about staying ahead of the people behind us. You've got to be realistic once in a while. Who have we got a better chance of beating right now, Seattle or California?"
Over in the National League, Houston Astro outfielder Derek Bell sounded surprisingly sanguine about his team's second-place standing, 7� games behind the Cincinnati Reds. "We don't need to put pressure on ourselves by saying we have to catch the Reds," said Bell. "It's not a matter of winning the division. It's a matter of getting into the playoffs any way you can."
If you're wondering what in the name of Bobby Thomson is going on, welcome to baseball's first wild-card race. Like diet cola, baseball now comes artificially sweetened. Its expanded playoff format, which includes admittance for one second-place team in each league, has made for a new kind of competition that's congested, controversial and confusing. It has also created a welcome buzz around many clubhouses, if not in the stands, in a season in which five of the six division races look to be as suspenseful as old reruns of Gilligan's Island.
"I've been here when we've been 20 games out on Aug. 15, and it was tough coming to the ballpark knowing that," says Seattle first baseman Tino Martinez. "This definitely feels like a pennant race."
Through Sunday, with seven weeks remaining in the season, 15 of baseball's 28 teams were either in first place or within 5� games of a playoff spot. Three of those teams were in the hunt without benefit of a winning record. The American League wild-card race was tighter than Spandex, with five teams separated by only three games: Texas, New York, Seattle, Milwaukee and Kansas City. Last week alone the lead belonged to the Yankees on Wednesday, the Rangers on Thursday, the Mariners on Friday and the Rangers on Saturday.
In the National League three teams hung within 5� games of wild-card leader Houston. Two of them, Colorado and Los Angeles, were battling for the National League West title. Chicago, 11 games back in the Central, was also in contention for the last playoff position. San Diego lingered as an odd footnote, hanging closer to first place in the West than to a wild-card spot.
"I think it's done exactly what it was intended to do: create more interest and keep more teams in the hunt," says Yankee pitcher David Cone. "Look at the flurry of trades recently: Andy Benes goes to Seattle, Bobby Witt to Texas, Bobby Bonilla to Baltimore.... Those and some others don't get made without the wild card out there."
Fans, however, have been slow to buy into the wild-card action, especially because in many cases the teams' records have been more mild than wild. Though as Cone says, "This is a season where it's difficult for anything to bring people out to the ballpark." Last Thursday, the day the wild-card-leading Astros traded for closer Mike Henneman and started ace Doug Drabek against the Montreal Expos, only 13,690 people bought tickets for that evening's game at the Astrodome. The Brewers sold only 12,791 tickets for their game on Friday night.