With the acquisition of Harold Baines and Willie McGee by the already dominant A's (page 28), and the recent surge by the Red Sox, who at week's end had opened up a 6½-game lead over the second-place Blue Jays, the most interesting American League race might turn out to be for the batting crown, not for a division title. McGee won't be in the American League batting hunt, but his .335 average through Aug. 29, the day of his final game with St. Louis, may be good enough to win the National League title if the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra (.341 through Sunday) and the Mets' Dave Magadan (.330) continue to fade. The American League, though, has six realistic candidates for the crown, some of them new to the pressures of a batting race and a couple who find them very familiar.
Oakland leftfielder Rickey Henderson is one of the new kids, and his .325 average through Sunday gave him a six-point lead over his closest pursuer, Kansas City's George Brett. Henderson is already a lock to win the stolen-base crown. Should he win the batting title, too, he would join Ty Cobb (1907, '09, 11, '15 and '17), George Sisler (1922) and George (Snuffy) Stirnweiss (1945) as the only American League players to triumph in both categories in the same season. But chances are, another righthanded batter won't win the race. Kirby Puckett of the Twins led the league last season, and if Henderson were to follow him, it would be the first time since the 1954 and '55 seasons that righthanded hitters (Al Kaline and Bobby Avila, respectively) won consecutive American League batting championships. "It would be an honor to win, but I'm not thinking about it; I'm thinking World Series," says Henderson. "At the end of my career, I'd like to look back and say I've done most everything in baseball."
Brett is another player who has done almost everything already. He has two batting crowns but hasn't won one since his phenomenal .390 season of 1980. If he were to prevail this season, the 10-year span between titles would be the longest since Ted Williams's 1948-57 parlay. Through Sunday, Brett had hit .393 since the All-Star break.
In third behind Brett was Texas first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (.318), who is attempting to become the first Ranger to win a batting title. "It would be a pretty big deal [if I won]," said Palmeiro. "But if I don't, a great hitter will." Palmeiro might seem like the pretender in this group, but he has been a batting race runner-up before; while playing for the Cubs in 1988, he finished second to the Padres' Tony Gwynn.
Tiger shortstop Alan Trammell (.312 through Sunday) is perhaps the most perplexing contender to handicap. He is attempting to hit .300 for the sixth time in his 13-year career, but he has also hit less than .270 five times. In 1989, his average dropped 68 points from the previous season, to .243. It could rebound even higher this season. Should Trammell win, he would be the first American League shortstop since Lou Boudreau in 1944 to win a batting crown.
Boston centerfielder Ellis Burks is probably the hottest hitter in the race. In the 15 games from Aug. 19 to Sept. 2, he hit an even .400 to bring his season's average to .314. But the player whom the other contenders fear the most is his teammate, third baseman Wade Boggs. At week's end, Boggs was hitting .311, but he said, "In 1984, I was hitting .300 heading into the last month and wound up hitting .325. It's a matter of getting some breaks."
Some observers believe Boggs is due for a sizzling stretch run, which will be necessary if he is to pass Henderson and win his sixth batting title. "I think it's in reach," says Boggs. "I'm not giving up."
Boggs needs 39 hits in the last 30 games to reach 200 hits for the eighth straight season, which would tie Willie Keeler's major league record. It helps Boggs's chances that 18 of Boston's last 30 games are at Fenway Park, where he is hitting .381, in contrast to his .249 average on the road. "I've said all year that I'm swinging the bat better now than I have at any time in my career," says Boggs. "To hit .350 or .360, you have to have a lot of luck."
Last week Brett talked about the difficulties of hitting for a high average and the reasons that no one has approached the .390 average he put up in '80. "In 10 years the game has changed," said Brett. "They've come up with new pitches like the split-finger [fastball]. Guys coming out of college are better. I think the quality of baseball is better than it was 10 or 15 years ago."