In recent years baseball has limped in to the all-star break, trying to shrug off labor disputes, dwindling attendance and player salary squabbles. It's different this year.
Attendance is up -- due in part to two new expansion teams -- labor peace continues and there are individual assaults on cherished batting records that should continue to fan the flames of fans -- and collectors -- right through the end of the year.
The only thing missing will be serious pennant races in all divisions because of the top-heavy performances of the Yankees, Indians, Braves and Padres. If you look it up in our column in April that predicted the division finishes, we had Cleveland, New York and Anaheim winning in the American League; Atlanta, Houston and San Diego winning in the National League. A check of the mid-season standings will find all six of those teams just where they were pegged to be.
The Yankees may be the real story if they continue on their current pace. A 61-20 record at the break is a record -- they are on a pace to win 122 games that set the all-time mark and likely put the Bronx Bombers back near the top for merchandising and collecting. Only boredom or injuries will prevent them from winning more than 110 games this year.
The only real races are in the AL West where the Rangers are chasing the Angels and where the Red Sox lead in the wild card hunt. In the National League, the Giants and Cubs are within striking distance of first place but more likely, will duke it out with the Mets for the wild card spot. That is great news for the league as the big market teams are in contention and will generate additional publicity.
Individual honors are a little more fuzzy. Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey and Sammy Sosa are all chasing Roger Maris' 61 home runs record, but the guess is here is that all three will fall short. McGwire could get 200 walks easier than 62 homers the way his slumping St. Louis teammates are playing; Griffey likewise is playing on a surprisingly woeful Mariner club and Sosa, bothered by a bad shoulder, will play 45 of his final 75 games away from the friendly confines of cozy Wrigley Field.
Maris broke Babe Ruth's record because he had Mickey Mantle, who had 54 homers that year. More importantly, there was less media scrutiny then. The pressure of hitting round trippers should start to get to McGwire, Griffey and Sosa in the second half. In addition, all three have been prone to injury in recent years and in order to have a legitimate shot at 62 home runs, they will all need to stay healthy.
More interesting is Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers assault on Hack Wilson's 190 RBI total. He's got 101 at the break and is on a pace to get 188. No one has come even close to this once thought of insurmountable mark. In a sense, it's a more impressive achievement than 62 home runs because of the constant pressure to drive in runs. His team is in contention and if he stays healthy and the Rangers, who have been near the top of the league in hitting all season, continue to put men on board for him -- well, stock up on your Gonzalez gear for the off-season.
Individual awards often trigger additional interest for collectors so here is a look at how the trophies would be handed out if the season were to end at the all-star break.
National League MVP. Sammy Sosa, Chicago. Without him, the Cubs have no punch and aren't contending for the post-season. McGwire may have better numbers but his team is out of contention this year.
American League MVP. Juan Gonzalez, Texas. His 101 RBI are amazing, although it's tough not to take someone from balanced Yankee club.
National League Cy Young Award. Greg Maddux, Atlanta. They should just retire the award and give it to him. Teammate Tom Glavine is his only real competition.
American League Cy Young Award. David Wells, New York. A slim nod to the hefty southpaw over Pedro Martinez of Sox and Wells' teammate, David Cone. Wells' perfect game gives him the slight edge.
National League rookie-of-the-year. Kerry Wood, Chicago. A lot of good rookies in National League but striking out 20 Astros will make him odds-on favorite.
American League rookie-of-the-year. Rolando Arroyo , Tampa Bay. He's been a dominant pitcher on an expansion team.
National League manager-of-the-year. Terry Francona, Philadelphia. Okay, so they aren't leading the division, one year ago, they were the worst team in baseball and now they are above. 500.
American League manager-of-the-year. Joe Torre, New York. The record speaks for itself without a superstar performance. He has kept egos and media in check.
National League comeback player of the year. Greg Vaughn, San Diego. Miserable last year, he's leading Padres' home run parade and major reason they're back in first.
American League comeback player of the year. Bret Saberhagen, Boston. Out of baseball, veteran is winning games for Red Sox who are in great position for post-season spot.
As far as the World Series, I'm staying with my pre-season prediction of the Yankees over the Braves.