The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
I like where it sets.
After a decade of eastern bullying, baseball's worm has turned. West is best, East is least. Somebody tell Phil Rizzuto. Somebody tell the folks at Fenway Park. Somebody call Cooperstown. Right now, at the dawn of the 1989 season, the best place to play baseball is on the left side of the Mississippi. Fact: Three of the last four World Series A champions have been Western Division teams, formerly the welcome mats of the majors. Fact: Three of the four best records last year belonged to the West, courtesy of the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins. Fact: Last year, for the first time in history, all three major awards—MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year—in both leagues went to players on Western Division teams.
The honeymoon is over. Who goes to Niagara Falls anymore? Gone are the days in the major leagues when Eastern teams could go west, pillage the towns, win 10 out of 12 and get in 18 holes a day. The American League, once a fun house for the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, is now the tough turf of the Athletics and the Twins, teams that are dominating—and getting nastier. "Everyone talked about the Mets lineup being strong," says new Twins second baseman—and ex-Met—Wally Backman, "but this one can be devastating. This one could be better."
Three of the last four American League pennants have gone to West teams, and not since 1970 has an American League club won more games than Oakland's 104 last season. Compare that with what the former beasts of the East were doing last fall. Going into September, four clubs had a chance at winning the division. The Detroit Tigers, the Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers all caved in when it counted, leaving A the Boston Red Sox to pick up the title—89-win Boston, loser of six of its last seven games. Then Oakland had an East feast in the playoffs, wiping out the Bosox in four straight.
Over in the National League, it is true, the New York Mets are still the best. But the rest of the best of that league comes from the West, which had five teams finish above .500 last year, the first such occurrence in the NL since divisional play began in 1969. O.K., O.K., overall the East divisions did edge out the West in head-to-head regular-season play last year, but barely, 509-504. And that's counting the pitiful Atlanta Braves as a West team. If Atlanta is a Western team, Tom Mix wore garters.
And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.
Let's face it, the nation is stepping westward at a good clip. If the exodus continues, pretty soon Philadelphia will just be 42 cheesesteak sandwiches and a guy waiting for a bus. Johnny Carson left for Burbank a long time ago, and now the best players in baseball are taking the same flight. It's a talent leak, a leak that may have started, innocently enough, on Feb. 3, 1987, when Minnesota traded four players to Montreal for reliever Jeff Reardon. The following fall, Reardon was the one who was on the mound when the Twins clinched the division, the AL pennant and the World Series.
The trend continued last year when Kirk Gibson went from Detroit to the Dodgers and won them a World Series. This year, Eddie Murray left destitute Baltimore to become a Dodger; Jack Clark, Willie Randolph and Claudell Washington abandoned the Yankees to relocate to Southern California. Bruce Hurst bolted Beantown for San Diego; Lance Parrish ditched Philly for Anaheim; and Julio Franco left sunny Cleveland for Texas, where he joined Rafael Palmeiro, who had just jetted in from Chicago. Would the last star out of the East please lock up?
Everybody's home office has just moved to Scottsdale, so why not baseball players? In today's global ballpark, your basic superstar no longer needs the Northeast to make the big paycheck, and he doesn't need Madison Avenue to cash in on big endorsements. Free agents can play where they want and still make their accountants happy. Usually where they want to play these days is California.
Among 1988 major leaguers, 21% were born in California. Of the '88 Mets, 29% were California boys. And a goodly number of other players, like Clark and Parrish, were raised in the Golden State. So why not go home again? Parrish did, and so did Hurst, who turned down more money with Boston to go to San Diego, driving distance from his hometown of St. George, Utah—and a three-hour spin to the Padres spring training camp in Arizona. The only people who don't like Hurst's deal are the folks at United Airlines.