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Games begin to count soon

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000


Barely a week from now, it gets serious.

If Boston finishes a game behind Toronto or a game ahead, and neither gets the AL wild card, no one will care whether they were two, 10 or 20 games out of it at the end.

Do you think Kansas City fans will be thrilled if the Royals finish ahead of the Twins? Will it matter to anyone besides Vince, Chuck, Larry and the rest of the Devil Rays whether or not Tampa Bay loses 100 games?

Finish out of the playoffs and you might as well have not played the season. But if you get into the post-season and don't wind up with the championship, you might as well brand yourself with a scarlet L.

As in Loser.

First, consider the Angels and Brewers. They finished anywhere from second to seventh in the 1990s. Anyone remember which year they finished where? Anyone care?

Now consider the Braves and the Yankees in the '90s. Atlanta: Eight division championships. Five World Series. One world championship. New York: Four division championships. Three World Series. Three world championships.

Which was voted the team of the '90s? The Yankees.

The Braves finished better last year than 28 other teams but couldn't beat the Yankees in the World Series. Not even once. More than one fan has called them losers.

Which NFL team in the '80s were the prototypical loser? Well, okay, besides the Bucs. The Bills. Four Super Bowls, but they didn't win any. They became a punch line. Or, to lift a line from A Chorus Line, "Committing suicide in Buffalo is redundant."

The Cardinals haven't been out of first place in the NL Central Division since June 5, the White Sox have dominated the AL Central, the Braves and Yankees have occupied their customary positions atop the East divisions most of the year.

"This is nice," Mark McGwire, who hadn't been to the post-season since 1992 when he was slugging for the Athletics and Tony La Russa was managing them, said Wednesday when the Cardinals clinched the division title. "But it's not as nice as winning the World Series.

"This is sweet because it's the end of the long haul, but there are two

more thirds to go.'

JUST DON'T CALL HIM "COACH': Last weekend, Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes threw some simulated games as he completed rehabilitating an injured knee. Among the batters he faced: Bob Knight

Benes, grinning, said he was slightly intimidated by the former Indiana basketball coach. No, it's not what you think. For one thing, they were 60 feet, 6 inches apart. So Benes' arm and throat were out of reach.

"I didn't have any video on him, as far as getting an idea of what he could do at the plate," Benes said. "If I threw a ball inside on him, he might turn and rake it into the second deck. So I was taking a cautious approach with him."

He threw two outside fastballs. The 60-year-old Knight didn't swing. Then he swung wildly at a slider. "Obviously, he was sitting on my breaking ball," Benes said. Two more fastballs, two more ugly swings and Knight was out.

Discussing Knight's swing, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said: "Very slow bat. I told him he needed to go to the instructional league." And La Russa added: "It wasn't bad. It was real bad. But you've got to give him points for standing up there. He didn't bail. He wasn't afraid."

ALL IN THE FAMILY: When Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr., nursing a slightly torn hamstring, stepped in as a pinch-hitter Tuesday and hit a home run, he joined some elite company.

He became the fourth player to hit 40 or more home runs in seven seasons (Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew and Henry Aaron the others) and the fourth to hit 40 or more in five consecutive seasons. (Ruth, Killebrew and Ralph Kiner).

But it doesn't rank among his most memorable feats.

Sept. 14, 1990, when Ken Griffey Sr.'s career was drawing to a close, Junior's was just beginning and they were on the Mariners' roster, they became the only father and son to hit a home run for the same team in the same game.

"Joining the company I did is something special," Junior said. "But nothing is more special than what I did with my dad."

HOW NOT TO WIN FRIENDS: Matt Riley, once the Orioles' No. 1 pitching prospect, had Tommy John surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ligament in his left elbow, ending a most memorable season that he would rather forget.

He was expected to compete last spring for a spot in the Baltimore rotation. Instead, Riley showed up out of shape, got arrested on a disorderly conduct charge outside a nightclub (the charges were dropped), was sent to minor-league camp, began the year at Triple-A Rochester, was demoted to Double-A Bowie, then demoted to the Bowie bullpen and was blasted in print by his minor-league manager.

Riley finally wised up and began to repair the damage to his image.

He was pitching well but collapsed on the mound at Bowie in the second inning. It probably will be his final start until 2002.

THE LAST WORD: "They find a way to get it done in the playoffs and they've been there so many times now that, once they're in the playoffs, they somehow rise to the occasion." -- Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, predicting an third consecutive World Series championship for the Yankees.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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