Indians preparing to mount an invasion

Rupert Cornwell, in Washington, cannot wait for Sunday, Opening Day of the 1996 major league baseball season
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The Independent Online
Shortly after 6pm Pacific time on Sunday evening, one of the most frightening practitioners of any sport will tuck a stray loose end of lank greasy hair under his cap. He will then glare balefully at his opponent before coiling his gangling 6ft 10in frame into a human catapult and pitching a small white ball at the hitter 60 feet away, at a speed of 90 miles an hour or more. Randy Johnson will be back at work for the Seattle Mariners, and the 1996 Major League Baseball season will be up and running.

Forget the March solstice, daffodils and the rest; the real proof of a North American spring is Opening Day - and never more so than this year, banishing at last one of the hardest winters in decades. The Boys of Summer are back and, it would seem, in relatively good humour. True, players and owners still have not reached a new contract agreement. But the 1994/95 strike is a receding nightmare. Don Fehr, the chief players' union negotiator whose curled-lip sneer was the trademark of the longest and costliest professional sports dispute in history, is nowhere to be seen. What will happen on the field, not off it, commands the headlines, as the game readies for its first full length season since 1993. Not before time baseball is back to normal - or almost.

A few of the game's titans have departed since the Atlanta Braves took the 1995 World Series last October by defeating the Cleveland Indians. Aged 44 and a grandfather, the venerable Dave Winfield has at last retired, after 23 seasons and career totals of 3,110 hits (19th in the all-time list) and 465 home runs (14th all-time). Gone, too, is the New York Yankees' graceful first baseman, Don Mattingly (though at 34, he does not rule out a comeback) as well as Sparky Anderson, the third on history's win list among major league managers, after 26 seasons in charge of the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers. And the lords of baseball have also tinkered slightly with the rules, lowering the strike zone slightly in the hope of producing quicker outs and shorter games. But the rest looks only too familiar.

Atlanta and Cleveland were far and away the best of 1995, and they may very well be the strongest of 1996. In the National League, no team - even the New York Mets with their current crop of promising youngsters - has pitching to rival the Braves and their starting rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz. Atlanta's hitting can be uninspiring, but it would be a sensation if they failed to win the NL East.

In the NL Central, Cincinnati looks the best bet, though the new manager, Tony La Russa, could turn the long-languishing St Louis Cardinals into divisional contenders. Even with Ryne Sandberg back at second base after a brief retirement, the Chicago Cubs are unlikely to escape their appointed role as baseball's most lovable losers. In fact, the most likely post- season challengers to Atlanta comes from out west, in the shape of the Los Angeles Dodgers, built around a solid pitching staff led by the Japanese sensation Hideo Nomo (he of the whirling dervish throwing style) and the prodigiously talented young hitter and catcher Mike Piazza.

In the American League too, but one question is asked: can anyone stop Cleveland? One hundred-game winners in the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Indians are arguably even better now, having added Jack McDowell to an already imposing pitching rotation, and enlisted Julio Franco to provide still more muscle for the most pulverising hitting line-up in the game.

The Indians face no threat from their own AL Central Division, and the West looks no more promising. The California Angels, traded from Gene Autry to Walt Disney but still based in Anaheim, south of LA, are on paper the toughest line-up, after the ground lost by Seattle over the close season. The left-handed Johnson still causes mayhem, but first baseman Tino Martinez has gone to the Yankees and Mariner fans must wonder whether Ken Griffey Jnr, their club's other resident superstar, will be quite the force of recent seasons.

Indeed the real threat to the Indians lies in the AL East, arguably the most competitive division in the major leagues. New York, Baltimore and Boston all have a shot - the Orioles and Yankees indeed have waged a multi-million dollar pay-roll war, which has brought Toronto's All-Star second baseman Robbie Alomar to Baltimore, and Martinez and the Texas Rangers' pitcher, Kenny Rogers, to New York. Probably the Yankees have come out narrowly ahead. Baseball's most tried adage is that ultimately great pitching beats great hitting, and for all their power in the second department, both the Orioles and the Red Sox are suspect in the first.

And the post-season? With the insolence of six-month foresight, and in blithe dismissal of the vagaries of form that will undoubtedly occur, I predict Championship Series between New York and Cleveland in the American League, and Atlanta and Los Angeles in the National League. And, to paraphrase Oscars night, the winners will be... the Indians and the Dodgers, with Cleveland prevailing at the end to clinch its first World Championship since 1948.