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BASEBALL _ MIDSEASON REPORT // homer-happy SEASON hits the BREAK

The first half of the season has been offensive in many ways. From the balls flying out of ballparks, to the things being said, to the state of pitching, to the increasingly heated on-field skirmishes, to the inability of the owners and players to agree on anything.

Certainly, there's been some good _ Dwight Gooden's no-hitter at the top of the pile. But there's been plenty of bad _ Marge Schott's litter on top of that

pile.

But whether it's stronger batters, smaller ballparks, unforgiving strike zones, weaker pitchers, juiced baseballs or planetary alignment, there's been a heck of a lot of hitting going on.

Going into play Saturday, teams were combining for 10.2 runs and 2.24 home runs per game. Teams had scored 15 or more runs 37 times and 10 or more 252 times. Three teams were on pace to better the 1961 Yankees' record of 240 home runs in a 162-game season. Twenty-six players had hit 20 or more home runs. Twenty had driven in 65 or more runs, including Chicago's Frank Thomas, who had 85 in 85 games.

The big hits are coming in bunches. Already, 177 multihomer games by 111 players, including eight three-home-run performances. The first half had only 19 days in which a player did not have a multihomer game.

Baltimore's Brady Anderson, the major-league leader with 29 blasts, led the list with five multiple-homer days. Oakland's Scott Brosius, Montreal's Henry Rodriguez, Chicago's Sammy Sosa and Seattle's Jay Buhner and Ken Griffey Jr. each did it four times.

The Mariners had the most multihomer performances, with 15 (13 two-homer games, two three-homers) by six players. Montreal and Atlanta each had seven players do it.

Three players _ Pittsburgh's Jeff King, Milwaukee's Dave Nilsson and Sosa _ hit two home runs in a single inning.

At this prodigious pace, there could be plenty of records set by August. The major-league record is 4,458 homers in a season, set in 1987 (when the NL had just 12 teams). The 1996 pace projects to 5,084. In 1987, there were 266 two-homer games. At this pace, there will be 323.

We're sorry to report...

Despite all the attempts by baseball executives to restore the fun and put the focus on the good things happening on the field, this has been, in many ways, a tragic season.

Staring with the death of umpire John McSherry on Opening Day in Cincinnati, bad-news events have marred the first 3{ months of the season.

Reds owner Schott embarrassed herself with a string of insensitive comments and was forced to give up control of the team. Former big-leaguer Mike Sharperson, about to rejoin the Padres from the minor leagues, was killed in a car accident. Popular Los Angeles outfielder Brett Butler was diagnosed as having throat cancer, and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was found to have suffered a minor heart attack.

A game in Seattle was interrupted by an earthquake. The idea of opening the season early backfired when seven games in the opening week were postponed by inclement weather and a number were played in subfreezing temperatures. And a number of the game's biggest stars missed significant portions of the season due to injury: David Cone, Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, Griffey, Randy Johnson, David Justice, Kirby Puckett Jose Rijo and Larry Walker.

One from Column A

On May 11, Marlins pitcher Al Leiter went out for lunch with his wife and daughter at a South Florida Chinese restaurant. Leiter finished his meal with a fortune cookie that read: "You'll soon be sitting on top of the world." That night he pitched the first no-hitter of the season and the first in team history.

Momentous occasions

On June 6, Boston's John Valentin hit for the cycle. That's neat, but what's better is that he is believed to be the first player to hit for the cycle and turn an unassisted triple play, which he did in July 1994. And he has to be the first player to hit for the cycle, turn an unassisted triple play and hit three home runs in a game, which he did in June 1995.

On April 2, in his 1,097th game, Detroit's Cecil Fielder stole the first base of his career. "I could hear him coming," second-base umpire Tim Tschida said. "I was dumbfounded. I didn't know how to act."

In the same May week, White Sox outfielder Tony Phillips drew his 1,000th career walk and scored his 1,000th run.

On May 12, Houston catcher Jerry Goff tied a major-league record by allowing six passed balls.

On June 15, the Dodgers turned a triple play for the first time since April 1949. Amazingly, broadcaster Ernie Harwell called both games. To get ready, the Dodgers turned a triple play in spring training.

On June 14, Baltimore's Cal Ripken played in his 2,216th consecutive game, breaking the world record of Japan's Sachio Kinugasa.

On Wednesday, Mets outfielder Alex Ochoa, playing in just his 22nd major-league game, hit for the cycle against Philadelphia. He became the first rookie to do so since St. Louis' Ray Lankford in 1991.

International relations

Much has been made of the Dodgers' United Nations rotation, which at one point included Ramon Martinez of the Dominican Republic, Hideo Nomo of Japan, Chan Ho Park of South Korea, Ismael Valdes of Mexico and Tom Candiotti of the United States. But the Expos have proved just as worldly with a rotation that has included Ugueth Urbina of Venezuela, Rheal Cormier of Canada, Tavo Alvarez of Mexico, Pedro Martinez of the Dominican Republic and Jeff Fassero of United States.

Ouch!

During one stretch this season, the Phillies had their three $5-million men (Daulton, Dykstra and Gregg Jefferies) on the disabled list and an active roster of 25 players with a total payroll of $12.5-million.

Did you notice . . .

Going into play Saturday:

The Cardinals were 1-10 in 11 daytime road games. "I guess we're not morning people," outfielder Ray Lankford said.

Since an 11-2 start, the Orioles were 34-36. Since a 2-10 start, the Red Sox were 33-38.

No team had fired its manager.

The Mariners were the only team without a complete game.

There had been four triple plays: White Sox, A's, Royals, Dodgers.

Minnesota's Marty Cordova had the longest hitting streak, 23 games.

The Rangers had been in first place for a club-record 91 days.

The Red Sox led the majors with 10 extra-inning losses.

The Expos had a major-league-high 19 one-run wins.

The Cubs ranked first with 19 one-run losses.

Mickey Mouse

Disney took over operation of the Angels and promptly fired 25 people. Team president Richard Brown got a severance package worth about $1.2-million _ including a lifetime pass to Disneyland.

Gooden plenty

Dwight Gooden's comeback wasn't going very well. After being suspended for 1{ seasons, he signed with the New York Yankees and was saying all the right things, but on the mound he couldn't seem to do the right thing. He began the season 0-3 with an 11.48 ERA, and there were serious rumors he would be demoted to the minors, traded or released by June 1.

Instead, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre offered a slight refinement to Gooden's delivery, and that changed everything. Gooden pitched a no-hitter May 14 and is 8-1 with a 3.00 ERA since the 0-3 beginning.

Growling

The Detroit Tigers are the worst team this season. Might they be among the worst of all time? Here's how they compare with the infamous 1962 New York Mets:

Mets Tigers

W-L 40-120 26-61

Pct. .250 .299

ERA 5.04 6.79

BA .240 .256

HRs 139 96

Predictions, predictions

In March, Marc Topkin offered his predictions for the coming season. Today, he provides a slightly amended version:

What we said then What we say now

AL divisions Yanks, Indians, Angels Yanks, Indians, Mariners

AL wild card Orioles Orioles

NL divisions Braves, Astros, Dodgers Braves, Cards, Dodgers

NL wild card Cubs Astros

AL MVP Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles Frank Thomas, Chisox

NL MVP Chipper Jones, Braves Mike Piazza, Dodgers

AL Cy Young Mark Langston, Angels Charles Nagy, Indians

NL Cy Young Tom Glavine, Braves John Smoltz, Braves

Rocky road

Once again, Coors Field appears to offer the biggest home-field advantage in baseball, but the Rockies seem lost on the road:

Home Road

W-L 27-15 13-26

Avg. .348 .224

HRs/G 1.88 0.87

Runs/G 8.36 3.8

ERA 6.56 5.14

TOPKIN'S TOP 5

Disappointments

1. THE INDIANS: Shouldn't the greatest team on Earth be playing better?

2. THE METS' STAR PITCHERS: 2. These young guns apparently need more bullets.

3. THE MARLINS: Wayne's not getting much bang for his bucks.

4. RICKEY HENDERSON, PADRES: You can find .233 hitters a lot cheaper.

5. LACK OF A LABOR DEAL: Not that we really expected it by now, but Surprises

1. DWIGHT GOODEN, YANKEES: Who knew he had this much left?

2. BRADY ANDERSON, ORIOLES: He's flexing those muscles.

3. KEVIN ELSTER, RANGERS: Who knew he was still in the game?

4. THE EXPOS: They refuse to play like a small-market team.

5. ERIC DAVIS: 14 homers, 50 RBI for a retiree. Wow.

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