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Best of the best residing in AL

Published June 13, 2004

Sure, the National League Central is a pitching paradise. But is there a single team in the NL as strong as the top four in the American League?

With the Athletics and Yankees soaring after shaky starts, most would rate the top four teams in the majors as Boston, Anaheim, the Yankees and Oakland, in some order.

Some might even include the White Sox on the list. They entered the weekend with a run differential of plus-59, best in the majors. This is in large part because Oakland is the only AL team that has allowed fewer runs than the Sox.

Considering that U.S. Cellular Field has turned into a Midwest version of Coors Field, and that general manager Ken Williams remains hard at work to fill the one void in the starting rotation, this is a highly encouraging trend for Chicago fans.

Nobody ever referred to the trio of Mark Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza and Jon Garland as the Big Three. But they went into the weekend with a combined 17-7 record.

It has taken a recent push for the A's to join the ranks of the AL's top teams.

They crushed the surprising Reds last week, outscoring them 40-16 to sweep a three-game series. That included 17 runs and 22 hits in the series finale.

"It's one of the most impressive things I've seen in the major leagues," Oakland outfielder Eric Byrnes said. "Maybe in the minors, maybe college, high school - but against a quality team like Cincinnati, no way. We have gone out and been dominating. It's fun to be a part of and it's fun to watch."

Hard to believe, but Oakland's 34-24 record was its best after 58 games since 1992.

The A's have specialized in fast finishes in the past four years, when they have averaged 98 wins.

The loss of third baseman Eric Chavez was expected to have devastating consequences, but Oakland won seven of its first eight after he went on the disabled list.

"I'm sure Chavvy would like to be a part of it," Oakland manager Ken Macha said. "Those guys have picked it up."

No team, however, has looked better than the Yankees. They went on a 30-9 tear after starting 8-11. That surge included four streaks of at least four wins.

An eight-game streak from April 27 through May 5 turned things around for the Yankees' loaded lineup.

It included five victories over the Athletics, who were languishing with a 12-15 record May 5.

THE SHELL(S) GAME: Cincinnati manager Dave Miley learned the hard way first, then Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella learned: don't mess with San Francisco pitcher Jerome Williams' puka shells necklace.

Miley complained about them in August and the umpires made him take them off. He responded with a career-best nine strikeouts.

Piniella complained last week and the umpires made him take them off. He took a shutout into the ninth inning.

"Every time this happens, the kid turns it up a notch," Giants manager Felipe Alou said.

BREAKING UP: Anaheim has replaced Texas as the team most likely to deal with Scott Boras-advised players.

The Rangers passed on both of the highest profile Boras' players in last week's draft, Long Beach State right-hander Jered Weaver and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew. Instead, they selected University of New Orleans right-hander Thomas Diamond with the 10th pick in the first round.

"We made a collective organizational decision that we're not going that way," scouting and farm director Grady Fuson said of paying top dollar. "We said no."

Because they are looking for deals in excess of $3-million, Weaver and Drew slid to 12th and 15th, respectively, with the Angels taking Weaver and Arizona getting Drew.

With no first-round pick to pay, the Cubs might be able to sign two other Boras-advised players who slipped in the draft.

Georgia Tech infielder Eric Patterson and DH-pitcher Micah Owings, the Cubs' eighth- and 15th-round picks, fell because of the Boras factor. Owings reportedly is looking for $1-million; Patterson, $800,000.

MOTOR CITY MADMAN: Has a visiting player ever enjoyed a series in Detroit more than John Smoltz last week?

The Lansing native found time to shoot 72 at the TPC of Michigan Tuesday.

He played the venerable Oakland Hills course Wednesday before watching the Pistons beat the Lakers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. He also entertained his family by striking out Ivan Rodriguez to earn a save.

Smoltz started his career in the Tigers' organization before going to Atlanta in a 1987 deal for Doyle Alexander.

"I saw my dad and my sister and all my relatives jump up and down (at the end of the game)," he said "It was neat."

FAMILY OF INFIELDERS: Baseball has its Boones, its Bells, its Bondses and its Griffeys, but no family has produced as many major-leaguers as the Hairstons. Jerry Hairston Sr., son of Sam Hairston and brother of John, watched sons Jerry Jr. and Scott play against each other for the first time.

"They're four years apart so they've never competed against each other or with each other," Hairston said.

He was in Baltimore to watch Jerry Jr., primarily a second baseman, play for the Orioles and Scott, also a second baseman, play for the Diamondbacks. He was there with the permission of the White Sox, who employ him as the manager of their Bristol (Tenn.) team.

Jerry Jr., 28, is in his fifth year with the Orioles; Scott, 24, is a rookie with the Diamondbacks. Jerry Sr. played 14 seasons in the majors, primarily for the White Sox, in the 1970s and '80s. His brother played in three games for the Cubs in 1969. Their father played four years in the Negro Leagues, then became the White Sox's first African-American.

Asked why so many members made it to the majors, Hairston said, "The desire to play."

In his case, Hairston said, the desire came from the stories his father told him.

"That inspired me to want to experience baseball," Hairston said. "It just seemed to be the thing to do. That's something my dad helped me appreciate and I passed it on to my kids. The first and most important thing is the desire to play."

WHISPERS: Sidney Ponson's bad start has the Orioles kicking themselves for not insisting on a weight clause in his contract. He reported to spring training weighing 265, 15 pounds more than when San Francisco traded for him last season. ... The BOB will soon be no more. Once the Bank One-J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. merger is finished, Bank One Ballpark will be renamed something like Chase Ballpark. ... Add Trevor Hoffman to the list of players looking for contract extensions. He seems willing to reduce his 2005 salary if the Padres sign him beyond next season. His 2005 contract is guaranteed for $2.5-million. He will gain $3-million more when he finishes his 25th game and add another $200,000 for every 10 appearances after that. If he finishes 60 games, he'll earn $9-million. ... Josh Beckett is tentatively listed to come off the disabled list to face the White Sox June 17. ... Texas outfielder Rusty Greer, who hasn't played since July 11, 2002, is taking batting practice in hopes of playing in the second half of the season.

WORDS OF WISDOM: "I like interleague play for the fans' sake," 73-year-old Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "But why not let the Cleveland and Detroit fans see the National League style of baseball? Why not let the National League fans see us use the DH? That way the fans get to see the whole shebang."

- The Chicago Tribune, Dayton Daily News and New York Times contributed to this report. [Last modified June 12, 2004, 23:37:23]


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