Braves can answer the big question

Rupert Cornwell, in Washington, previews the new baseball season

As baseball began its 1997 season yesterday the major questions seem to be: can the Yankees repeat as world champions, would $89m (pounds 55.6m) be enough to buy the Florida Marlins success, and who (if anyone) would acquire the services of demon 100mph fireballer Hideki Irabu, the latest point of friction in US-Japanese trade relations? But for true aficionados, one question dominates: can pitchers come back?

Reduced to its barest bones, baseball is no more than a duel between hitter and pitcher for control of home plate. Of late hitters have won hands down, culminating in the offensive orgy of 1996 which saw home run records tumble. Many theories have been offered, ranging from tighter- wound balls with more "juice", to a new breed of super-strong slugger, exercising his muscle in newly built "cozy", i.e. hitter-friendly, ballparks.

Some even see a deliberate plot by owners, to lure back spectators disillusioned with the game after the 1994-95 strike.

Whatever the reason an equilibrium has been broken and with baseball a game which reveres past heroes their exploits now stand to be devalued in this era of the cheap home run.

Nothing can devalue the reputation of Jackie Robinson, arguably the sport's greatest hero, in whose shadow the season will unfold as celebration of that April day exactly 50 years ago, when Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers to smash baseball's colour barrier for ever.

For another reason 1997 will be noteworthy. After much hesitation, American League and National League teams are to play each other, setting up local hostilities that fans have only been able to dream of: Cubs against White Sox in Chicago, Yankees against Mets in New York, and Giants versus the Oakland Athletics across San Francisco Bay.

In the AL, the East is once again, on paper, the strongest division, with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays capable of dethroning a weaker-looking New York Yankees. In the Central, all eyes will be on the White Sox and their fearsome slugging duo of Frank Thomas and Albert Belle. Barring a pitchers' renaissance, the tandem must have a chance of breaking the single club combined homer record of 115, set by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, of the 1961 Yankees.

The AL team widely fancied to go all the way, is in the Pacific North- West. The Seattle Mariners look to have everything: scintillating offense led by Ken Griffey Jnr, Jay Buhner and a 21-year-old prodigy at short- stop called Alex Rodriguez. Add a pitching rotation led by a fit-again Randy Johnson, and Jeff Fassero, and it is small wonder so much smart money is voting for the Mariners.

There is, however, the small matter of the Atlanta Braves and the National League. Last year, the Yankees vanquished the Braves and their supposedly insuperable pitching with one of the most remarkable World Series comebacks in history.

Atlanta staged the coup of the close season by signing Kenny Lofton, the game's premier lead-off hitter, from Cleveland. The Los Angeles Dodgers as well as the Florida Marlins, fresh from their spending binge on free agents, will surely threaten. But the Braves, baseball's team of the '90s, are the best bet not only for their fifth NL championship in six attempts, but for a World Series win to set alongside their triumph in 1995.

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