BRIAN NAYLOR, host:

Fall is here, and with it the annual race for the pennant. Baseball fans around the country, or in many parts at least, are huddling around their TVs and radios, either to find out who will make it to next month's World Series and who won't. Do you have questions or dreams about this year's pennant races? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is TALK OF THE NATION--I'm sorry, it's totn@npr.org, totn@npr.org.

To tell us more about the latest from the pennant races, we turn to Bob Ryan. He's a sports columnist for The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to ESPN, and he joins us by phone from his home near Boston where he's watching the Red Sox game.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BOB RYAN (The Boston Globe): Oh, thank you, and they are winning 3-to-1 in the seventh inning.

NAYLOR: So Red Sox Nation is happy right now?

Mr. RYAN: They're currently in a non-agitated state.

NAYLOR: Where do things stand right now for those who haven't been following so closely? The Red Sox and this team from New York, I think, are...

Mr. RYAN: Some team, yes, a team from New York, a traditional rival that one would say, they are currently 1/2 game behind the Yankees. The Red Sox, having been rained out last night, are playing a separate edition day-night doubleheader today against the Toronto Blue Jays, and so they need this--they need every game, of course. The Yankees are playing the downtrodden Baltimore Orioles, who are offering little resistance to anyone at the present time, so one must assume that the Yankees will continue to win against Baltimore, thereby setting up an apocalyptic weekend confrontation at Fenway Park between the Yankees and the Red Sox to decide the American League East.

NAYLOR: Another one?

Mr. RYAN: Another one. Yet another. They've now, in this last two-plus seasons, played 68 times and are tied at 34 wins apiece.

NAYLOR: And in politics we talk about the big issues. In baseball, what are the issues? I guess there's an issue with the bullpen for the Red Sox.

Mr. RYAN: The Red Sox have attempted to defend their crown by--with their best pitcher of last year, Curt Schilling, ailing with the residual effects of off-season ankle surgery, and not having any kind of a good year, missing a good portion of the year, and only now starting to pitch the way he can, and without--with their star reliever, closer as they say these days, Keith Foulke, who last year was a giant hero in the post-season, having a terrible year with a variety of problems, both physical and personal, who's now out for the season. So the fact that they have gotten to where they are is actually quite remarkable.

NAYLOR: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Bob Ryan, and what about the Yankees? Wouldn't...

Mr. RYAN: They've got their own problems. They spent an extraordinary amount of money in the off-season to replace their pitching staff, most notably signing the great Hall of Famer-to-be, Randy Johnson, and also signing a fellow named Carl Pavano, who had a wonderful year last and then did so very time--you know, in great timely nature by doing it in his free-agent year, and another pitcher, Jaret Wright. Well, Pavano hasn't pitched for a long time now, Wright missed most of the season with injury, and it took Randy a long time to reach his form. The Yankees have had tremendous problems, and frankly would be out of this race right now were it not for the extraordinary contributions of two people. One is Aaron Small, a 33-year-old veteran of nine previous organizations who has never accomplished much of anything in the major-league level, who suddenly is pitching as if he's, you know, Allie Reynolds or some great Yankee of the past. He's 9-and-0. And a pitcher they picked up from the Colorado Rockies named Shawn Chacon. Together they have won 14 games and absent those games the Yankees would be in big trouble. So--and they came at quite bargain-basement rates, particularly Aaron Small.

NAYLOR: Now, of course, my Yankee fan friends would say, well, the Red Sox have the advantage because they're playing all the rest of their games at home, including that big series with the Yankees. Does that mean anything in baseball?

Mr. RYAN: Well, for the Red Sox this year, it seems to mean quite a lot. They have the best home record in baseball. They were barely over .500 on the road, 41 and 40 as they concluded their play on that Sunday in Baltimore, but they have had a great record at home, so it has mattered. Not only have they hit better at home, which people would expect, they've also pitched better at home. And it's quite an advantage for them, and so, yes, if--I would think that anyone would prefer to be in their situation, which was playing their remaining--their final seven games of the season at home, rather than the Yankees' situation, which they're playing their final seven games of the season on the road.

NAYLOR: All right, enough of this East Coast-centric stuff.

Mr. RYAN: Yes.

NAYLOR: Let's--in the Midwest they've got a couple of teams that are competing as well, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Mr. RYAN: This is a potential for one of the great stories in baseball history. The White Sox led the Indians by as many as 15 games earlier in the season--end of July, as a matter of fact--and the Indians have just played the best baseball of anyone over the last eight weeks to the point where as play will resume tonight, they are only two full games behind the White Sox. And they have their own Midwestern apocalypse taking place in Cleveland in Jacobs Stadium there this weekend. So we could have the circumstance in the American League of two of the three divisional races being decided in the most delicious way, head-to-head competition on this weekend. The third division should be settled perhaps as early as tonight as California--as their so-called magic number over Oakland is down to two, and they are playing each other, so if they win tonight, there will be the two that they need, and that will be that. So all eyes presumably this weekend will be--half of the eyes will be on Cleveland and the other half will be in Boston.

NAYLOR: And the other part of this drama is while the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Indians are all fighting for their divisional leads, one of them is likely to wind up being the wild card.

Mr. RYAN: It's a--well, one will be the wild card and someone will be on the outside looking in. It's a--if you can picture a giant game of musical chairs, it's exactly what this is. There are any number of possible scenarios that could happen. There could be a playoff game involving either Boston or New York or Boston and Cleveland and New York and Cleveland on Monday. The coins have been flipped to determine where the sites of those games will be. Boston will be out of luck in that case. They are going to be on the road against either team. There could also be a circumstance if the Indians are to--are--suddenly falter and are eliminated from this discussion by Sunday, there is an outside but certainly, you know, a conceivable possibility that on Sunday, both the Red Sox and Yankees would be celebrating something if the Indians are knocked out. Now you could--depending on how this all shakes out, we could have a circumstance in which, depending on the outcome of Sunday's game and the outcome of Cleveland from now and then, both the--someone would win the American League East and the other one would, in fact, be the wild card. They could both be celebrating in some kind of giant hug out at second base sometime around 5:00 on Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park. Can you just picture...

NAYLOR: That would be something.

Mr. RYAN: ...Joe Torre and Terry Francona clinking champagne glasses and sort of--or maybe better yet, they should have kegs out there and--in a rugby fashion. That seems to be the sport of great comraderie.

NAYLOR: We've got time for one quick call, and I'm gonna go to Steve, 'cause you're in Cleveland. Steve, what are your thoughts about what's going on?

STEVE (Caller): It's amazing. These four teams that he's just been talking about, one of them's not gonna be playing, and the good possibility is they'll have at least 95 wins, while in the National League West, the San Diego Padres are very possibly gonna be in with a losing record. I mean, to me this is just incomprehensible that a team with 95 wins will be sitting on the sidelines, and a team that might have 80 wins could be in the playoffs.

Mr. RYAN: Well, this is the consequence of...

NAYLOR: Thanks, Steve.

Mr. RYAN: ...all sports expansion. There are so many teams, they have to split them up into these divisions, and create possibilities that we don't like, and this one ...(unintelligible).

NAYLOR: Bob Ryan, I got to stop you there.

Mr. RYAN: All right.

NAYLOR: Thanks very much.

He joined us from his home near Boston.

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