Commissioner Bud Selig needs an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness pennant race or two, something that's been difficult to come by since the owners introduced the wild card in 1995. And at week's end it looked as if he could be in luck: 19 of the 30 teams were within 6� games of a playoff spot. A few down-to-the-wire battles would be welcome, as baseball hit its halfway mark quietly, with no dominant team and no dominant player (though the understated greatness of St. Louis Cardinals leftfielder Albert Pujols should be savored).� The biggest news of the first half was the stained reputation of one of its most lovable stars, Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who was suspended seven games for using a corked bat on June 3. (Talk about your expensive corkage fees.) Sosa, meanwhile, had been outhomered through Sunday 14-10 by Morgan Ensberg, which is not the name of a brokerage firm but the third baseman for the Houston Astros. What's more, Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson and Boston Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez, the game's most dynamic pitchers, had spent a combined 104 days on the disabled list and had six wins between them. New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, the biggest stars in the biggest market, had missed a combined 74 games because of injuries.
"The longer the season goes on, the better I feel about things," says Selig, which may be a polite way of wishing that more captivating days are ahead. It's been the kind of year in which Baltimore Orioles outfielder Melvin Mora and Chicago White Sox righthander Esteban Loaiza—your basic anonymous journeymen-are the front-runners for the American League batting tide and Cy Young Award, respectively. Mora (.357), the father of quintuplets, was heretofore known for putting up big numbers only when shopping for diapers at a warehouse superstore. The 31-year-old Loaiza (11-3) has already equaled his career high in victories.
"We've got great division races shaping up," says Selig, who may be on to something. The three greatest rivalries in baseball are Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants and Cubs-Cardinals, and every one was involved in a battle for first place in their respective divisions. Moreover, all of those races include third teams, which adds suspense because the wild card will not be an automatic consolation prize.
This year teams, not individuals, are the best watercooler topics, especially surprise contenders such as the Chicago Cubs, 95-game losers last year who have one of the hardest-throwing pitching staffs ever (story, page 46); the Los Angeles Dodgers, who couldn't outscore Manchester United; the Montreal Expos, who, with a closer named Rocky, are the ultimate underdogs; the Toronto Blue Jays, whose explosive lineup makes the game look like slo-pitch softball; the Kansas City Royals, who might execute an unprecedented U-turn in the standings; and the Detroit Tigers, who are to horrible teams what 100-year floods are to natural disasters.
Detroit, in fact, has been so bad it is the most fascinating story line of the season this side of Sosa's Chardonnay Slugger. If Selig doesn't get the pennant races he needs, the Tigers' countdown to a record 121 losses will have to do for our recommended daily dose of September drama. So take your Dramamine and fasten your seat belt: What follows is a road map to where the baseball season has been and where it's going, based on the 10 biggest developments of the first half.
1. Sosa's corked bat
REVIEW: You had to have been on Mars to not know the details.
PREVIEW: The Cubs need another bat, partly because Sosa's undoctored ones haven't done enough damage. " Mike Lowell is the difference maker," one National League scout says, referring to the Florida third baseman who led the league in homers (25) but whom the Marlins may consider trading. "If the Cubs get Lowell, it puts them over the top. They have enough pitching." Chicago also has inquired about the availability of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Tony Batista (15 homers). In the meantime the pitching staff was on track to blow away the record for strikeouts in a season, 1,344, set by the 2001 Cubs.
2. Tigers challenge '62 Mets' record
REVIEW: Detroit was on pace to go 37-125, which would smash the Mets' modern record of 120 losses. The Tigers were so bad they had lost at least seven games in a row five times, they were on track to become the first AL team in the 30 years of the designated hitter to post an on-base percentage worse than .300 in a full season (they were at .288), and they had won only six home games all year, threatening the record-low of 18 set by the St. Louis Browns in 1939.