Ken Griffey Jr. is running for president, Lenny Dykstra is running without pain. Ryne Sandberg is back, Deion Sanders isn't. The strike zone is bigger, the average major league salary is smaller. There will be 162 games this season, and Cal Ripken Jr. intends to play them all.
Spring training games begin this week, and change is almost everywhere. Six teams have a new manager, the Chicago White Sox have a new outfield, the Kansas City Royals have a new infield, and the St. Louis Cardinals will very likely break camp with only one pitcher who was on their Opening Day roster last season. It's a spring of intriguing questions. We have the answers.
Can any team in the American League take the pennant from the powerful Cleveland Indians?
No. Last year the Indians had the game's most devastating lineup since the Big Red Machine in the mid-'70s and became the first team to produce six .300 hitters (with at least 300 at bats) since the '36 Yankees. This year the Indians are even more potent because they signed free-agent first base-man-DH Julio Franco (.301 career batting average), who played last year in Japan. At 34 he's a smart hitter who can show Cleveland's impatient hitters how to drive the ball to the opposite field, which they failed to do in losing to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. He'll also be an asset in the clubhouse to the Indians' young Latin players like rightfielder Manny Ramirez.
Last year Cleveland also led the league in pitching, but they have replaced the inconsistent Ken Hill in the rotation with free-agent righthander Jack McDowell, who has won 67 games the last four years and is one of the game's most competitive players. Bad news for the rest of the American League.
Of all the pitchers attempting comebacks from serious arm injuries this spring, who has the best shot at regaining his old form?
Jimmy Key. The New York Yankees' southpaw is throwing pain-free after missing almost all of '95 following rotator-cuff surgery on his pitching shoulder. For a finesse pitcher like Key, the most telling sign that he's back to his old self is his control, and according to Yankees coach Don Zimmer, "Key can throw it in a teacup whenever he wants."
Key may not be ready for Opening Day, but if he makes it back into the New York rotation along with Doc Gooden, who's trying to make a comeback of his own after being suspended for 1995 for violating his drug aftercare program, the Yankees' pitching staff should be terrific.
Will Eck be a wreck in St. Louis?
Don't count on it. Dennis Eckersley, the best closer in history, is the newest addition to the revamped Cardinals. Even though he's coming off a year with the Oakland As in which he had a 4.83 ERA (7.17 after the All-Star break) and lefthanded hitters hit .344 against him, Eckersley is capable of matching the 36-save effort turned in last season by St. Louis's Tom Henke, who has since retired. "I've got something to prove this year," Eck says. "I only really got hit hard in September."