By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
As Pokey Reese can tell you, this is the year in which some of baseball's most cherished records are likely to be demolished. Pokey himself got the ball rolling on opening day by committing four errors at shortstop in support of his Cincinnati Reds' 10-2 loss to San Diego. There's probably no way to stop this juggernaut. By May 15, we can surmise, he'll have fifty "E6"s on the books and enough lithium in his bloodstream to kill Marge Schott's Saint Bernard. Just don't call Pokey "Pee Wee."
Meanwhile, out in the Windy City, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has added former Boston wife-beater Wil Cordero to a roster that already boasts chamber of commerce darling Albert Belle and, to strengthen the Chisox bullpen, two former capos from the Giancana family. "We're going for it all this season," Reinsdorf announced last week. "We mean to control the entire angel-dust trade on the South Side, and once we've got that in hand, we'll sell the outcome of every game in that big July series with the Indians to the highest bidder. This is Chicago, and don't you forget it. If Eddie Cicotte, Swede Risberg and their pals could throw the World Series in 1919, we sure as hell can give the AL pennant away again this year. Just you watch."
On the North Side, the Cubs are primed and ready to go after their second Series crown of the century, with or without Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" up in the booth. Cubs management says a different celebrity--including the team's starting pitchers--will perform the seventh-inning-stretch favorite each game day. To a man, they vow to be freshly shaved and showered by the top of the fourth. And be sure to mark that August 31 date with the Reds on your calendar, Cubs fans: Pokey Reese and Mrs. Schott are booked to fill the friendly confines of Wrigley Field with their duet rendition of "Deutschland Uber Alles," in honor of Chicagoland's many German-American fans.
If 1998's dawn was any indication, this is also the year when Roger Maris's 37-year-old record for season home runs will finally fall. In the first week of April, the game's big boppers smashed the ball out of the yard as though teenagers were out there on the hill. Make no mistake: Major League pitching quality has been diluted again by the expansion draft, and the fellows sewing cowhides in Costa Rica for 26 cents an hour had better get their fingers in gear if they expect to keep up with the demand for fresh baseballs.
Through a special arrangement with commissioner Bud Selig and eleven National League clubs, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, who hit 58 in 1997, looks to be the first behemoth to crash 62 homers this year. "The starters are under strict orders to groove heat right down the middle to Big Mac," Selig boasts. "These guys might be making the big bucks, but I'm still the boss around here. In the best interests of baseball, that record has to go, and it might as well be McGwire who does it first. July 1--that's what we're shooting for. Certainly by the All-Star break. Tell you this: The only reason I shipped my Milwaukee Brewers over to the National League was to get this thing done. Of course, if McGwire gets injured again, or if Albert Belle throws sulfuric acid in his face during that big Cards-Sox interleague set in June, we might have to rethink the whole plan. How does Barry Bonds strike you?"
Out West, in the rarefied air of Coors Field, the Colorado Rockies' Blake Street Bombers are looking forward to producing some fireworks of their own. "Tell you the truth, a nine-year-old girl could hit the ball out of this place," outfielder Dante Bichette reveals. "I've seen badminton players stand at home plate and whack the birdie into the left-field cheap seats. Why, back in 1995, in a day game against the Giants, I saw a heater on the inside corner from Rod Beck, got only decent wood on it and broke a window at a Mexican restaurant in Brighton, Colorado. And if you know Brighton like I do, you know the prevailing winds blow in toward the ballpark."
Adds center-fielder Ellis Burks: "This year our team expects to hit 400 home runs, give or take. Course, we got that deal going with the Dodgers pitchers which says that every time Walker, Dante, Castilla or I step into the batter's box, we get straight heat in our wheelhouse. The new owner out there in L.A.? He loved the deal. Way I hear it, Murdoch wants to market American baseball in Kazakhstan and Burundi through his TV networks, and the only way to do that is jump up the score. You think a tribesman in a grass breechcloth with bird dung smeared on his cheeks is gonna encourage a first-born son to work on his batting stroke after watching a lot of 2-1 games? No way. I say Larry hits 75. Me? I'll be happy with 64, just like every other dude in the league."
As the true fan knows, baseball is rooted in its rich history. But a couple of clubs, still stung by the fans' outcry over the 1994 players' strike, have their eyes fixed firmly on the future. One of them is the storied New York Yankees, whose owner, George Steinbrenner, has released a list of the next seven Yankees managers ("One for each digit in the great Mickey Mantle's jersey number," Steinbrenner enthuses), all of whom will be appointed, serve out their innings and face a firing squad at dawn by the turn of the new millennium.