The plot thickens

Recent moves by White Sox, Royals cloud Twins' playoff hopes

By Gordon Wittenmyer

Knight Ridder Newspapers

CHICAGO -- After Tuesday night's game between the Twins and Chicago White Sox, Steve Wilkos, the famous bald guy who works security on the stage of "The Jerry Springer Show,'' lingered outside the Twins' clubhouse.

If he was scouting talent for an upcoming episode, he was in the right place.


Not just in the Twins' clubhouse, either (Abused all-star pitchers and the hitters who love them?). And not just in the White Sox clubhouse (Why good teams love bad boys?).

These days, Springer might want to assign crews to travel the Midwest searching for teams from the American League Central -- a perennial lowbrow division that suddenly promises more surprises, intrigue, questionable characters, misfits and the occasional shoving match as it enters the second half of 2003 with three teams hovering around .500 at the top of the division.

"That's the beautiful thing," said Twins veteran Denny Hocking. "I honestly believe when we start up the game after the all-star break, we'll have three teams within three games of each other and have an 80-game dogfight. We'll see whoever's mentally tough enough to get through it."

The two Central Divisions have never been the glamour divisions of baseball, in particular the AL Central.

"There's just not a lot of money in the division,'' Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said.

Without the big-revenue, high-payroll teams from the coast, the closest thing the AL Central has come to sustaining a perennial contender with a stable roster was the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s. And that team benefited from being near the cutting edge of new stadium revenue streams, giving it the economic muscle of a large-market team until the stadium boom ran its course over the past decade.

But with Cleveland rebuilding and the potentially bigger-revenue Detroit Tigers drowning in a decade of baseball mismanagement, the Twins, White Sox and Kansas City Royals -- all with payrolls ranking in the lower half of the majors -- suddenly are playoff contenders at once.

The White Sox this week traded for all-stars Robbie Alomar and Carl Everett, getting their old teams to pick up almost all of their big salaries. On Wednesday, the Royals added former Brewers closer Curtis Leskanic in a trade with Milwaukee.


The Royals, in first place with a roster of rookie pitchers and a rookie manager (Tony Pena), are so serious about their chances to make the playoffs they've scrapped their goal of a .500 season and become trading-deadline buyers, already having signed former 20-game winner Jose Lima, who looked washed up the past three years but has won his first three starts with the Royals.

"We can't worry about the other guys,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "If we start watching the White Sox and Royals, we're going to get ourselves in trouble. Once we get our starting pitchers going and on a roll, we'll be fine.''

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