Fall Guys

Since the bombastic and curious 1997 baseball season got under way last April Fool's Day, Mark McGwire has hit 54 home runs for two different teams in two different leagues. Larry Walker has put indisputable (but hypo-oxygenated) MVP numbers into the book that will probably fail to win him anything but a crooked grin from the voters. And a dispute has erupted over the consumption by ballplayers of something called creatine monohydrate, a non-steroid "strength supplement" that may turn every banjo hitter into Babe Ruth. As if Mike Piazza, the creatine-powered Dodgers catcher, weren't already a freak of nature--a former zillionth-round draft choice who's probably going to snatch Walker's trophy away despite inferior statistics.

In the course of this season, too, Mike Tyson made an hors d'oeuvre of Evander Holyfield's ear, Touch Gold took down Silver Charm's bid for the Triple Crown, and the vox pop instantly canonized Princess Di (whose fate on the highways lay hidden in her very name). She is now Saint Di--patron of fashion designers, travel agents and florists, but not of claims adjusters. She has reached the holy land more swiftly than Cal Ripken Jr. or the late Mother Teresa, who was quickly marginalized in the double-barreled media reports blanketing the twin demises as "another remarkable woman."

If Bud Selig, baseball's tenacious interim monarch, doesn't decide to stage next month's World Series in the courtyard at Buckingham Palace, something's surely wacky with the game's moral compass. Imagine grieving Prince Charles in his tartan skirt, solemnly perfecting the tomahawk chop. Unfortunately, we'll probably have to settle for the rather less-regal confines of Turner Field in Atlanta and (unless the chalk fails to run again) the neo-conservative brickyard that is Camden Yards, in Baltimore.

This all-East Coast matchup--680 miles and a tank and a half of gas separate the two cities--may not please pennant-starved ball folk in Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle or Anaheim. But it will probably have to do.

Meanwhile, sometime before the end of the month, look for George Steinbrenner, the ever-festive owner of the New York Yankees, to decapitate his overfed starting pitcher David Wells in, say, Times Square. The Yankees aren't playing like Series repeaters, so somebody will have to pay: Given The Boss's taste for public spectacle, it may as well be the hapless Wells, who's already challenged his notorious employer to a fistfight. Hope he's conferred with the aforementioned Mr. Tyson and tipped off the paparazzi.

As for the other authentic contenders for World Series glory, the Florida Marlins, be advised that they also have a player on the creatine monohydrate diet gracing their roster. Slugger Gary Sheffield has had an off year after hitting 42 homers and batting .314 in 1996, but he says he's ready for the playoffs, pumped up by the new miracle drink. However, neither Sheffield's confidence nor the $90 million team owner Wayne Huizenga poured into new players last winter and spring may be enough to get Florida past Atlanta's superb starting pitching. Owner Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda may be the most annoying presences in baseball--sleeping through playoff games in the full view of millions and wearing their caps sideways--but it's hard to argue with the club they put onto the field. Why, only last week, a full-page ad in Baseball Weekly for TBS, the Braves Superstation, featured a full-face mug shot of one of the Braves starters and these three words: Matisse. Monet. Maddux.

In case you've forgotten, the reference would be to Sammy Matisse, slick-fielding lefty for the old Boston Braves, who loved to paint the inside corner. Monet we don't know.

While most of the baseball world gets geared up for the Braves-Orioles World Series (let's see: Braves in six), Coloradans with a pretty good case of altitude sickness and a happy weakness for wishful thinking are sitting back, amazed that their all-hit, no-pitch Rockies have made a run at the leading San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. That little sixteen-for-eighteen streak (including a mess of road wins and a three-game sweep of the Braves in Georgia, no less) has got Rockies fans on the edge of their seats and daring to indulge pennant fever.

Not to worry. The Rox would have had to sweep the seven games they had left to play with the Dodgers in the waning days of the season and get some help from the Giants, too. As it is, the Rockies did take three straight from L.A. over the weekend, but Bonds and company all but sewed up the N.L. West before coming here for a two-game set.

As the chauffeurs hanging around the Ritz bar will tell you, there's something special about playing the spoiler role, but it was almost impossible for the Rockies to do more than that this September. Appropriately, the greatest local drama of the fall, baseball-wise, continues to be Walker's amazing dream season: As of Tuesday, he was trailing only San Diego's Tony Gwynn in batting average, with .367; he was first in home runs, with 48; third in RBIs, with 127; first in runs scored and total bases; and fourth in doubles. The meaty right fielder had also stolen 32 bases, no mean feat for a guy who's 6-3 and weighs 225 pounds.

Mikey Pizza the MVP? Come on, now. This thin-air theory has gone just about far enough. Dante Bichette was denied the MVP in 1995 because of it; Walker doesn't deserve the same fate. The man doesn't even slam creatine, and he's blasted every other slugger in the league clean out of contention.

So, then. The Rockies wind up the season with an honorable flourish, which gives bright hope for their fortunes in 1998. The Giants get knocked off in the first round of the playoffs because Barry Bonds can't carry the Jints through their post-season jitters. Mediocre Houston doesn't get the job done, and Florida, though giving Atlanta a scare in the NLCS, has to wait another year, while Huizenga contemplates selling one of the most expensive franchises in professional sports. Over at the American League, Steinbrenner beheads David Wells at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, then, in the manner of Don Corleone cleaning house, launches a daring midnight raid on the Mitsubishi plant in Tokyo, in retaliation for the Hideki Irabu mess. The Yankees are swept in the playoffs. Cleveland loses. Seattle and Baltimore play a thrilling series for the AL pennant, and the Birds prevail.

And there you have it, with or without floral tributes. The World Series: The Braves (who, by the way, feature creatine drinker Ryan Klesko) and Baltimore (Brady Anderson endorses the stuff). Now, get out there and play ball, boys.

All that diplomatic talk exchanged in recent days by Messrs. Elway, Shanahan and Reeves doesn't conceal the facts of life. The star quarterback Reeves kept in shackles for so long and the offensive coaching wizard Reeves fired in a fit of paranoid pique can't wait to burn Atlanta to the ground this Sunday afternoon.

No matter what they say to the contrary, John Elway and Mike Shanahan will savor every moment as the 4-0 Broncos beat the plasma out of Dan Reeves's winless Falcons. Each time an angry vein pops out in Reeves's neck, his antagonists on the far side of the field will be in heaven. Each time Reeves erupts at an assistant coach or cuts the heart out of his quarterback, Elway and Shanahan will be grinning on the inside. This is the guy who nearly trashed both their careers while clinging to the cadaver of nineteenth-century football, and it will take more than a couple of grin-and-bear-it golf games to wash away all the bad blood.

Bronco fans likely won't mind a little carnage, either. They remember Reeves's cloddish strategies in three disastrous Super Bowls. They remember the head coach's irrational tantrums. They remember the Byzantine manipulations (far more clever than his game plans) he employed whenever a coach or a player threatened The Regime with a new idea or two.

Following a miserable exile with the punchless Giants in
East Rutherford, New Jersey, Reeves now finds himself on the hot seat with the sorry-ass Falcons in Atlanta. Things aren't going to cool down much on Sunday afternoon, when a couple of Denver guys with long memories stop to call. Reeves will pull out all the stops for this one, but it's not going to do him any good. By 5 p.m., homeboy will be cursing into his Dr Pepper, and the one bright chance in a long, dismal season will be gone.

Tough luck.