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If you want to make it big, start a baseball version of the National Enquirer. Think of all the stories you could have reported in the first half of the 1989 season. Why, you could even pick an All-Star team just from the baseball "celebrities" who have recently appeared in supermarket tabloids. The seamy side of baseball has also been the subject of more Tonight Show monologues than at any time in history. "What do Pete Rose, Steve Garvey and the Breeders' Cup have in common?" one joke goes. "Rose bet it, and Garvey won it."
This is the year of the Margo Adams media tour. It's the year that American League MVP Jose Canseco got more attention for his driving speed than for his bat speed. It's the year that Yankee rightfielder Dave Winfield, sidelined with a back injury, made the front page of the New York Post for his uncommon marital woes. Above all, it's the year in which we learned more than we wanted to know about Rose and his unsavory associates. As one former Red said, "Sitting in front of my locker every day was like watching The Untouchables."
The news from the first half of the season hasn't been all bad, however. Frank Robinson and his Orioles have been playing out a fantasy so American that President Bush has forsaken the Rangers, the team his son George recently bought, to jump on the O's bandwagon. Jim Abbott, the Angels' one-handed rookie pitcher, has given us a rare kind of baseball hero. Mike Schmidt, the best third baseman ever, retired because he couldn't bring himself to accept money for what he considered a second-rate performance. San Francisco's Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark have reenacted the Mays and McCovey show, combining for 45 homers and 145 RBIs. A 19-year-old outfielder named Ken Griffey Jr. had a candy bar named after him, and players older than his father. Ken Sr., 39, had even sweeter rewards: Texas's 42-year-old righthander, Nolan Ryan, took three no-hitters into the eighth inning and led the majors with 148 strikeouts at the All-Star break; the White Sox' Carlton Fisk, 41, broke Yogi Berra's American League career home run record for catchers; and Giants ace Rick Reuschel, 40, was 12-3 with a 2.12 ERA.
The biggest surprises were the division races. At the break, four unexpected teams—the Expos, Giants, Orioles and Angels—were at the top of the charts, and the hottest races were in divisions the A's and Mets were supposed to have sewn up by now. Hold on to your hats, everybody, the fun has just begun.
This division used to belong to the Mets. But New York is an empire in decline, and the Montreal Expos are determined to take advantage of the Mets' weaknesses. After beating out New York in the trade war for lefthander Mark Langston in May, Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "We'll pay what we have to pay to win." So far he has lived up to his word, trading a dozen prospects to make a dash for the pennant.
The heart of the Expos' order may lack lefthanded power, but switch-hitter Tim Raines (.298) and righties Andres Galarraga (14 homers, 52 RBIs), Tim Wallach (.273) and Hubie Brooks (.267) rival any four-man attack in the division. With the addition of Langston (6-2 with the Expos) and the ascendance of reliever Tim Burke (17 saves), Montreal has a pitching staff that is the equal of the Mets'. "Some of our people don't get the attention they deserve," says manager Buck Rodgers. "I wouldn't trade Burke for any closer anywhere."
The New York Mets can't do what they did last year—play well in April and September and let the pitching carry them the rest of the way. Lefthander Bob Ojeda (5-8) has been inconsistent; righthander David Cone (6-5) had a monthlong slump: righthander Ron Darling (6-6) is no longer overpowering; and lefthander Sid Fernandez (7-2) has a limited repertoire. What's more, the Mets will probably have to do without their ace, Dwight Gooden (9-4), until mid-August because of a muscle tear in his right shoulder.
This has been a season of transition for New York. Highly touted rookie second baseman Gregg Jefferies hasn't turned into the next Joe Morgan, and rightfielder Darryl Strawberry is hitting .236. No wonder the Mets scored 3.89 runs per game in the first half. Think how abysmal that average would have been had third baseman Howard Johnson not hit 22 homers. Newly acquired centerfielder Juan Samuel should liven up the offense, but without Gooden, who's going to revitalize the pitching?
The Chicago Cubs are another story. Almost everyone picked them to finish at the bottom of the division, but at the break they were in second place, 1½ games behind Montreal. Chicago doesn't owe its success primarily to its stars but to unknowns like outfielders Lloyd McClendon, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton. McClendon, 30, a minor league veteran acquired from the Reds during the off-season, was called up on May 15. "He got off the plane at 11 a.m. and hit a homer at 2:15," says manager Don Zimmer. The Cubs desperately need another power hitter. But a more pressing concern is whether closer Mitch Williams (22 saves. 1.93 ERA) will stay hot in the second half or turn wild, as he has done before.