Even as major league baseball flicked on the bright lights of its postseason showcase last week, the game challenged the loyalty and patience of its weary constituency. It was the kind of week in which fans needed to check their local TV listings to catch baseball: ESPN, NBC, Fox or Court TV. The highlights included repercussions from vile player behavior, strike threats, reminders of a leadership vacuum and a federal injunction. It was like watching a movie without any good guys.
Whom do you root for? The players? They were represented by Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, who spit in umpire John Hirschbeck's face on Sept. 27 (page 28). The umpires? Well, Hirschbeck somehow refrained from punching Alomar on the spot. But then the umps and their prolix counsel, Richie Phillips, went to federal court with a threat to strike the postseason because of the light suspension—five days off with pay in 1997—Alomar received.
The owners? They entrust the stewardship of the American League to Gene Budig, a former chancellor at three universities who previously served on the Kansas City Royals' board of directors. When the Alomar matter came across his desk, Budig ruled softly, then hid under it the rest of the week.
If all that weren't enough, fans tuning in to Game 2 of the New York Yankees-Texas Rangers Division Series on Oct. 2 were treated to players' association chief Donald Fehr giving an update on labor negotiations. It was the kind of moment that inspired the invention of the remote control.
But in the Texas twilight last Friday during Game 3, somebody at the Ballpark in Arlington hung a banner near the rightfield foul pole that fairly glistened with truth: FANS OF THE GREAT GAME.
Whom do you root for? There is your answer. It is the game, too often in spite of the people who play and run it, that we always root for. If you didn't see the banner, the 14 Division Series games delivered the same message. Mostly, the games were great. They also underscored two truths about how baseball is played today: The teams that advance through the leagues' Championship Series this week and play in the World Series will have to bang some home runs and employ multiple layers of relief pitching. As the Division Series proved, it makes for entertaining baseball.
Nine of the 14 games were decided by one or two runs. Home runs flew out of parks at a rate even greater than they did during the regular season, when a record 4,962 baseballs cleared the walls. "In the postseason especially," Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz says, "every hitter who steps to the plate is a potential rally." Not counting the Braves—whose peerless starters won all three games of their series against the Los Angeles Dodgers—relief pitchers earned eight victories and starters only three in the first round. All non-Braves starters averaged only 5⅔ innings.
The American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Orioles, which was to begin at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, stood fittingly as a collision of the game's two strongest forces in the '90s: specialty relief and power hitting. New York dispatched Texas in four games with a bullpen that picked up all three Yankees wins and allowed one earned run in 19⅔ innings. Baltimore carpet bombed the Cleveland Indians, the defending league champions, in four games with nine home runs, the last a 12th-inning, series-winning dinger by none other than Alomar.
This is how much the game has changed: The Yankees, having hit fewer home runs this season than every American League club except the Royals and the Minnesota Twins, are considered a scrappy offensive team. They cranked only 162 homers. Only? That's four more than the 1927 Yankees hit. During the regular season New York pitchers allowed the fewest home runs in the league (143). Baltimore blasted more than any team in history (257). The Orioles began their series against Cleveland with—what else?—a home run from lead-off hitter Brady Anderson. They scored more than half their runs in the series (14 of 25) by going deep.
Appropriately, Cleveland won its only game when Albert Belle smashed a grand slam in Game 3 off a high fastball from reliever Armando Benitez. The home run rescued Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove from a bizarre decision in which he almost took the bat out of the hands of his two best RBI men, Jim Thome and Belle, who had combined to drive in 264 runs this year. With runners at first and second and the score 4-4 in the seventh inning, Hargrove sent Casey Candaele to bunt for Thome, which, if successful, would have prompted Baltimore to walk Belle. Orioles reliever Jesse Orosco inexcusably walked Candaele. "Was it my biggest postseason moment?" Candaele said afterward. "It was my only postseason moment."