McGwire vs. Bichette

It's a good bet that Messrs. Tinker, Evers and Chance, turning double plays in the Celestial League now, are looking forward to the sixteenth of June. That's the day their Cubs get another shot at the White Stockings in a game that counts.

Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown will probably be watching with great interest, too, from his spot in the high bleachers. After all, Brown's the ex-Cubs pitcher who dropped a pair of World Series games to the hopeless underdogs from the South Side--the Hitless Wonders, newspapers called them!--en route to getting licked altogether.

Little matter that the Chicago vs. Chicago World Series was played back in 1906. Revenge is a dish best served moldy.

The old debate over interleague play is more academic than active these days, because ILP is suddenly a fact of life. On June 12, in all likelihood, visiting San Francisco lead-off man Darryl Hamilton will grab a bat and stand in against his former Texas Ranger teammates, inaugurating a major new wrinkle in a game that says it hates change. Forget about today's juiced-up ball, minuscule strike zone and Godzilla-like power hitters--"innovations" that have resulted in basketball scores. Interleague play is a revolution no one could have predicted in Jackie Robinson's time, and it's one that has baseball Luddites grumbling all the way down to their spats.

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, for one, recently argued for separate-but-equal-except-for-the-Series in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The spectacle of, say, Oakland sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco matching muscles with the Blake Street Bombers at homer-happy Coors Field (Coming Soon! August 30!) is, for Torre, diminished by the problem of playing by two sets of rules. The American League uses the designated hitter, the National does not, and he feels the benching of DH's in NL parks (or the quandary of finding a spot to hide them in the field) will hurt American League teams later in the season. AL managers, meanwhile, will have to read up on the double switch. At the same time, pitchers like Mike Mussina and Charles Nagy had better enroll in bunting school. But quick.

Torre also has plenty of company in believing interleague play will detract from the magic of the All-Star Game and the World Series--until now, the only times the two leagues clash, aside from exhibitions and spring-training games.

Hey, if you were the Yankees manager, you'd probably want to live in the past, too. Maybe in 1927. Or in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952 or 1953. For that matter, 1996. Like Joe Torre, you probably wouldn't want change any more than you'd want unwashed peasants to come hammering on the door to the palace. You probably wouldn't want the Kansas City Chiefs to play the Chicago Bears, either.

Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa, on the other hand, likes ILP. He wants to watch McGwire and Bichette slug it out on Blake Street. He can't wait to see how Rocket Roger Clemens, now a Blue Jay, fares against the Braves' Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff. He's curious to see if Barry Bonds can get around on the Big Unit, fireballing Randy Johnson, up in Seattle.

This designated-hitter thing has got to be solved--put it in both leagues or throw it out of baseball--but otherwise I find it hard to argue with LaRussa and company. You might not know it by watching the endless throngs file into Coors Field, but baseball is still in deep doo-doo with its fans in the wake of the 1994 players' strike, and interleague play--sixteen games for each team, just one-tenth of the schedule--looks like a good way to come partially out of the woods.

Consider an old-line baseball city like New York--home to the World Champion Yanks and the hapless Mets, who currently have seven pitchers on the disabled list and seem doomed for another slide into the cellar. In June the teams will play a three-game set at Yankee Stadium --three games that count in the standings, as opposed to the old Mayor's Cup exhibition game. If the poor Metsies accomplish nothing else all season long, a couple of wins against the Bombers would probably do wonders for their clubhouse psyche. If ex-Mets star Dwight Gooden pitches against his former club, so much the better--for players, for fans, for a city that can still gaze through the mists of time and see a mystical center field occupied by Mick, Willie and the Duke.

Think the imperious Yankees won't bother to gear up for this confrontation? Think again.

Just try to find a ticket--any ticket--for Seattle at Colorado August 28 and 29. The prospect of Ken Griffey Jr. has already disappeared 'em all. Chicago at Chicago looks like another beauty (that other Sandburg was 28 when last it happened), and all of Canada will probably lay down their hockey sticks come June 30, when les Expos visit the Toronto Sky Dome to play three against the Blue Jays. The Giants and A's meet July 2 and 3 in a rematch of the scary Earthquake Series of 1989, and the Atlanta Braves, silver medalists in last year's major-league sweepstakes, will get another crack at the Yankees, up in the Bronx.

Don't let this get around Beacon Street, but the Boston Red Sox will also return to Shea Stadium this spring for the first time since they let the 1986 World Series slip through the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner. As if the "Curse of the Bambino" weren't enough, the Bosox will first meet the Mets on Friday the Thirteenth (in June), and the New Yorkers' first-base coach will be none other than the fellow who hit that fateful dribbler through Billy Bucks's wicket--Mookie Wilson.

Also on June 13: a Battle of the Plutocrats that might provide a preview of the 1997 World Series. The $50 million men of the Yankees haul their bank accounts down to Miami to face the $60 million payrollees of the refurbished Florida Marlins. Like to be a pickpocket in that crowd?

Speaking of the World Series, does the notion of this summer's Dodgers-Angels confrontations really take some thunder from the Fall Classic? Does Baltimore at Atlanta in mid-June (think Braves fans won't cheer Cal Ripken Jr.?) reduce the high melodrama of late October? And what if Florida and the Yankees do see each other again in the Series? Wouldn't the subtle insights they earned in springtime deepen and enrich a battle for all the marbles, rather than diminish it?

Could the grand old game get any sweeter? Well, maybe. If Cubs manager Jim Riggleman could start Three Finger Brown come June 16, the fans at Wrigley Field would probably be happier when the White Stockings come back to call at last, the old fire in their eyes.

Sunday was a red-letter day for golf and an even better day for America. Sweet-swinging Tiger Woods won the Masters by the biggest margin in history (twelve strokes), and he scored the lowest-ever four-round total (270), breaking a record Jack Nicklaus set in 1965.

At 21, Woods is the youngest Masters winner--this was just his first major after turning pro last August--and, amid the ceaseless hype, everyone knows that the power and meaning of his victory will reverberate for years to come. He is neither the Jackie Robinson nor the Arthur Ashe of his sport (Charlie Sifford blazed that difficult trail; Lee Elder followed), but Woods's dramatic emergence as the best player of his generation (maybe the best ever) will continue to have profound effects among minority kids everywhere. Golf, anyone?

Meanwhile, the longtime exclusionists at Augusta National Golf Club will just have to grin and bear it and hang Tiger's picture up there next to Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen and the others. The locals in the green jackets were all grins Sunday afternoon, but if you've ever strolled down Magnolia Lane for a visit, you know a lot of them would be happier if this Tiger were washing dishes in the grill-room kitchen. The National recruited three black members in recent years (under duress, of course), but when the club pooh-bahs wanted to host 1996 Olympic golf events, the Atlanta city council and Olympic officials turned them down, citing a long history of prejudice against minorities and women.

By all accounts, Tiger Woods has been treated with nothing but respect during his two Masters appearances, and the Augusta National people even had the good sense to invite Elder to the tournament Sunday as a special guest. But the young man who, as commentators indelicately put it, "changed the complexion of golf," still gets racist hate mail, and he's subject to subtle slights, too. Playing golf as an African-American and an Asian-American, he says, "keeps me on my toes."

It's one of the reasons he stands so tall.


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