The only sure thing in this division is that the California Angels will finish last. With no clear favorite among five contenders, and with the confounding question of where the fast-improving Seattle Mariners fit in, figuring out the rest of the West is a challenge. When a division race is this jumbled, it's sometimes best to go with a superstar who has the ability, charisma and enthusiasm to elevate the play of his team as no other player can. In this case that player would be centerfielder Kirby Puckett of the MINNESOTA TWINS.
"If we had lost Kirby, I wouldn't be sitting in the stands during games, I'd be hiding in a private box," Twin general manager Andy MacPhail says with a laugh. He signed Puckett, a free agent in the off-season, to a five-year, $30 million deal in December. "I didn't realize how much he meant to Twins fans.
" Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the ['91] World Series; he left, and our fans didn't care. Frank Viola was booed at home his first start after winning the Cy Young [in '88]. But people have come up to me all spring and said, 'We're so glad you signed Kirby.' Our fans are more optimistic than I've ever seen. Ticket sales are higher than ever."
And that's true despite the loss of two other top players, pitcher John Smiley and shortstop Greg Gagne, to free agency. The starting rotation beyond Kevin Tapani (16-11, 3.97 ERA) and Scott Erickson (13-12, 3.40) is a concern, but two of the best pitchers in Florida this spring were Minnesota's young, hard-throwing righthanders Pat Mahomes and Willie Banks. The left side of the infield won't be terribly productive with Scott Leius at shortstop after two years at third base and a Mike Pagliarulo-Terry Jorgensen platoon at third. Also, first baseman Kent Hrbek struggled all spring in his comeback from surgery on both shoulders.
But none of this seems worth fretting over when Puckett is bouncing around the clubhouse, smiling, full of life. "I can't imagine what it would be like if Kirby wasn't here," says outfielder Randy Bush. "How can you drag an ego in here when Kirby is here? He has no ego. Everything we do starts with him." Puckett (.329, 110 RBIs in '92) plays the game correctly and passionately, and his teammates fall in step. In fact, Twin infielder Jeff Reboulet wears a T-shirt that says GO AHEAD, BE LIKE MIKE. I WANNA BE LIKE PUCK.
In mid-March, when four baseball writers were asked to predict the winner of the American League West, each one named a different team. One writer selected the OAKLAND ATHLETICS. "Someone picked Oakland?" said an American League coach. "What idiot did that? They have no chance. Their pitching stinks. If they win, [manager Tony] La Russa should go straight to the Hall of Fame."
If La Russa goes anywhere, pitching coach Dave Duncan will deserve to go with him. There were only four dependable arms in camp, and three of those were over 35: Bob Welch (36), Ron Darling (32), Rick Honeycutt (38) and the best reliever ever, Dennis Eckersley (38). Upward of a dozen other pitchers were still vying for six spots last week.
Among the starter candidates were Bobby Witt, who, since injuring his rotator cuff May 26, 1991, has been 10-18 with a 5.02 ERA in 38 starts; Storm Davis, who won 19 games in 1989 and has won just 17 since; and Bob Milacki, who didn't last five innings in seven of 20 starts with the Baltimore Orioles last season.
Bidding for a spot in either the rotation or the bullpen were Kelly Downs, who is 9-0 in relief the last two years but who was only 5-5 after the A's picked him up last June, and Shawn Hillegas, who was 1-8 with the New York Yankees last year.
Among the candidates for the bullpen were Goose Gossage, who was a rookie in 1972 when the average major league salary was $17,000 and one of his teammates was Moe Drabowsky; Joe Boever, who has a 14-31 lifetime record (though he did have a 2.51 ERA with Houston last season); and Edwin Nunez, who was released by the relief-poor Texas Rangers.