Something is about to happen that will shake the very foundation of the American League. It has nothing to do with female umps or balk rules or George Bell being asked to return his MVP Award—which wouldn't be a bad idea, come to think of it. For years, the American League East was considered baseball's super division, while the league's western branch was the stuff of jokes. But now every team in the East seems flawed.
While most of the teams have explosive lineups, only one club has superior pitching. Be still, thy heart, New England. The BOSTON RED SOX may get another shot at that thing they haven't won since the Babe toed the turtleback for them. One night this spring former Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, now a consultant for the Twins, hunkered down in the Minnesota dugout to discuss his former team's chances. " Lee Smith, ptuey," he said, chewing a wad of tobacco, "will do for the Red Sox, ptuey, what Jeff Reardon did for us last year. Ptuey".
Smith, who got a standing ovation after his first inning at the Sox' Florida base in Winter Haven, is Boston's most intimidating reliever since Dick Radatz. Acquired—stolen would be a better word—from the Cubs for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, Smith will revitalize a bullpen that had the fewest saves in the majors last year (16) and helped lose 27 games the Sox had tied or led after six innings.
Boston's fall from grace in 1987 may have been a blessing in disguise, because it permitted the Sox the luxury of giving playing time to four young players: Ellis Burks, who had 27 steals and 20 homers; Mike Greenwell, who hit .328 and had 19 homers; Todd Benzinger, who had 43 RBIs in half a season; and Sam Horn, who hit a total of 44 homers in Pawtucket and Boston. The Sox also have veterans Wade Boggs (.363, 24 homers in '87) and Dwight Evans (.305, 34 homers, 123 RBIs) coming off MVP-caliber years. "This is the most talent we've had in my time," says Evans, whose time started back when Gary Hart was George McGovern's campaign manager.
Roger Clemens came to camp vowing to become the first pitcher to win three consecutive Cy Young Awards. Bruce Hurst is healthy after a bout with mono this winter. Oil Can Boyd, who' proudly showed off his nine-month-old son, Baby Oil, was throwing true to his 1986 form. Jeff Sellers appeared ready to harness his 90-mph fastball.
O.K., the Sox aren't perfect. They need a lefthanded reliever, and Marty Barrett and Spike Owen don't have much range at second and short, respectively. Further, some experts believe that John McNamara might not be the right manager for this team. He guided the Red Sox to the Series in 1986, but they weren't expected to win then. This time they are.
For the NEW YORK YANKEES most of the spring was like a B movie in which the white hunter turns to his native guide and says, "It's quiet out there tonight." To which the guide replies, "Yes, too quiet." While teams like the Mets and the Blue Jays were making like, well, the Yankees, the Boys from the Bronx were, until last weekend, as clean and wholesome as characters in a Merlin Olsen TV series, and Battlin' Billy Martin seemed positively Amish this fifth time around as the New York manager. Perhaps it was his new marriage. Perhaps it was the thought of writing down Henderson If, Randolph 2b, Mattingly 1b, Clark dh, Winfield rf and Pagliarulo 3b every day.
Was this a lasting peace? Of course not. The publication of Winfield's autobiography, in which he wrote that Willie Randolph, the Yankees' black co-captain, said a black player could never be "a true Yankee," prompted the usually soft-spoken Randolph to call Winfield a liar. George Steinbrenner, who had been mum all spring, then seconded Randolph's charges.
Though New York's decorum may not be improved, its pitching may be. Expecting another miracle from Tommy John; who went 13-6 last year at age 44, might be folly, but Rick Rhoden, Richard Dotson, John Candelaria, rookie Al Leiter and Ron Guidry, who will return in May from shoulder surgery, constitute a decent rotation. And though middle relief might be a worry, at the end of the line score is Dave Righetti.
Trouble lies at three crucial positions: catcher, shortstop and centerfield. The Yankees traded for catcher Don Slaught and then found out he's not very good behind the plate. That leaves Rick Cerone, whose only good year was 1980, and Joel Skinner, who tends to let his weak hitting affect his strong defensive ability. The Yankees also traded for shortstop Rafael Santana, but Martin virtually ignored him this spring, preferring to boost the career of Randy Velarde, a good hitter with wooden hands. As for center, rookie Roberto Kelly can fly, but his career minor league batting average is only .256.