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Perfect September awaits MLB fans

WashPost: With major markets, little guys involved in playoff races, there's something for everyone this fall

Last year, baseball had an almost ideal October. Now, the sport may be poised for the perfect September.

Last season, the Red Sox and Cubs didn't quite reach what would have been the most long-awaited World Series in history. However, the Marlins' stunning upset of the Yankees for the title brought a month of unparalleled thrills to a worthy climax. Every true fan was left limp by the theatrics and heroics. And plenty who weren't baseball fans began the process of conversion.

Now, hard as it is to believe, the stage may be set even better than it was last fall. Every story line with the maximum possible punch is quickly coming to a head. If you divided the sport into the 13 teams with the greatest traditions, the biggest fan bases, the top stars and the most fascinating story lines, then chucked the other 17 clubs you'd have exactly this morning's standings.

"It's just great baseball every day. One team after another gets hot and makes a run," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said on Friday night before his own team, deep in a pennant race, faced the Orioles.

"If you're a baseball person, you're following it all, every day, even if it's not in your league," said Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli.

"Baseball has come back to life," said Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks. "That's all there is to it."

The serious re-energizing of the old pastime may have began last autumn, then gained momentum throughout an offseason filled with one tumultuous transaction or free-agent signing — from Curt Schilling becoming a Red Sox to Alex Rodriguez adopting pinstripes to Greg Maddux going home to the Wrigley Field.

Now, however, especially after long winning streaks by important teams in the last two weeks, the game has become a scriptwriter, or marketer's fantasy. No wonder the game is on pace to break its all-time attendance record. "Almost every team that you'd want in contention is right in the thick of it," said Ken Singleton to fellow broadcaster Jim Palmer behind the Orioles batting cage. "Yeah, except one team," said Palmer. And they exchanged the traditional bitter ex-Orioles laugh.

For starters, all of the country's biggest cities are in the thick of the fight. Both the Dodgers and Angels from the Los Angeles area, the Yankees from New York, plus the Cubs and Red Sox from Chicago and Boston make this a mega-market feast. "America's Team," the Atlanta Braves, with their vast TBS cable TV reach, also has a division lead. The rich — in cash, tradition and talent — can't get much richer.

However, three of the sport's success-on-a-budget franchises also have realistic October hopes as well. Because of their excellent starting pitching, the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins, both in first place, and the Marlins, who just won nine straight to get back in the NL wild-card race, can scare any foe in October. Florida wears the rings that prove the point.

The best team in baseball isn't in either of these groups. The Cardinals boast one of the best winning percentages in the last 30 years. "They're the most surprising team of the year to me," Torre said. "And there are a lot of surprising teams."

Picked for third in their division before the season, St. Louis is on pace for 108 wins and has outscored its opponents by 187 runs. The Red Sox (158) and Braves (118) are the only other teams that have outscored their foes by 100 runs. Such superior margins are usually a fundamental measure of a potential world champ.

As if this weren't enough, the best player since Babe Ruth is carrying his Giants near the top in the wild-card chase. If Barry Bonds gets San Francisco back to the postseason, almost by himself, how can he be denied an unprecedented seventh MVP award?

As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like Presidential politics had no chance to play a role this season, although both candidates profess to be lifelong fans. Democratic candidate John Kerry had a clear shot with his Red Sox, but President George W. Bush, who once owned the Rangers and adores his hometown Astros, looked like he'd be shut out of the fun. Then, the Astros won 12 games in a row, and began last night tied for the NL wild-card lead!

"The wild card, there it is. Houston's [tied] for the wild card but they're 17 games behind [St. Louis]," said Torre.

It's probably too much to hope, but could Roger Clemens return to Fenway Park to open the World Series for Bush's Astros against Kerry's Red Sox while the Yankees, for whom Clemens pitched in the Series last year, watch on TV?

Told that his team might stand in the way of a meeting between the teams beloved by Bush and Kerry, Torre said, "We're just trying to win for Mr. Steinbrenner's team."

Such a Presidential Series, which might end on the eve of the election, might even trump such possible dream matchups as a oldie-but goodie Yankees vs. Dodgers or Yankees vs. Cardinals Series, or a cross-L.A. Dodgers-Angels Classic.

Of course, the fabulous permutations seem endless. Any Series with either the Cubs or Red Sox will, after last year's heartbreaks, bring the country to a standstill every night. If both somehow get there, delay the election two weeks. But a cross-bay series between the A's and Giants might prove to baseball that two franchises in close proximity — think Baltimore and Washington — can both flourish. And Series that gives Jack McKeon a chance to win back-to-back titles at 73 and 74 could be a ratings grabber. See, Joe Gibbs is actually a spring chicken.

And, after all this, we haven't even mentioned a team that's only 2 1/2 games out of the NL wild card and has refused to disappear all season. "San Diego . . . they got only one guy I know . . . Boomer Wells," said Torre. "How do they do it?"

These days, fans all across the sport have their dreams, but know they're no fantasies. The reason: Nobody is too good to lose. Teams such as the Cardinals, Yankees, Giants and Astros, with terrifying hitting, lack dominant and deep starting pitching.

Nobody knows that better than Torre, whose ace, Kevin Brown, shattered bones in his left (non-pitching) hand in a clubhouse temper tantrum last week. That one off-field swing may have as much October impact as any homer. Because of Brown, the Yankees, who have overcome injuries all season, now have one more hurdle, this time an idiotically unnecessary one.

"Sure, I was angry at him," said Torre. "But I liken it to being at home. You get angry with your spouse, or more likely the other way around. You get it out, get it over and get on with it. We're still a team. Even if you don't like him — and that's not the case — you still live together and perform together."

What, exactly, might Joe have meant by "even if you don't like him." Minutes later, Torre listed the qualities he thought would eventually make Mazzilli a good manager. "He cares. He's not afraid to make a mistake. He's knowledgeable. And he's honest." After a pause, Torre added, "I put 'honest' last because it's optional."