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NL Central has been one big dud

Special to

August 26

It was going to be Oscar Night every night, the Super Division with the stars that needed to be covered by E! and Maxim. Ken Griffey was introduced in Cincinnati and suddenly the National League Central was the stage for Junior, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell and Sammy Sosa. It was going to be the best division, the best race and the best entertainment in baseball because it was the home of the stars.

Mark McGwire
Due to injuries, Mark McGwire has seen limited action this season.

But as they head down the dog days of August to the final Labor Day turn, the NL Central once again has proved one thing -- this is not Hollywood. As much as some agents detest the notion, baseball is still a team sport, and the star-laden NL Central has resembled The Badlands.

The NL Central was a combined 67 games under .500 through Friday's games. How bad is that? They are so bad and they have absorbed so many beatings by so many other divisions that not one other division is more than a game under .500. The NL West (+40), AL West (+14), NL East (+8) and AL Central (+8) all had combined winning records, while the AL East (-1) continues to go back and forth across the .500 line daily.

And you can't blame it all on the mediocrity of the Pirates or Brewers because five of the six teams in the division are under .500. And you can't blame it on the stars, although that hasn't stopped people from focusing on them.

McGwire has been hurt. And while the Cardinals have been under .500 since he went down and struggled to mirror their April record for home runs, it has been their bullpen and other malfunctions that has led to the Cards' struggles.

But Griffey has played a brilliant center field and has 35 homers and 106 RBI. Sosa, meanwhile, has hit 43 homers and has 117 RBI. Through the Astros' season of horrors, Bagwell has put his head down, having one of the best seasons of his distinguished career with 39 homers and 105 RBI. Bagwell has not felt the wrath of Houston fans, but Griffey and Sosa have been singed by the flames of media and fans, who think one star can carry the franchise and have focused their venom on the stars as the team goes awry.

The Astros' biggest problem was their pitching completely disintegrated. The Reds, meanwhile, actually have led the division in pitching despite the lack of veteran starters and the current reliance on first-year starters Rob Bell and Scott Williamson. But so far, they have been a disjointed offense, playing like an Earl Weaver/Casey Stengel managed team that relies on the three-run homer rather than its design as a turf team.

The Cubs simply aren't that good. And when you talk about the Pirates, there's actually one brilliant name that comes to mind: Brian Giles, who is seventh in the NL in OPS at 1.041. That total isn't far behind Bagwell's 1.062. Giles also is in the NL's top five in RBI (105) on a club where on-base percentage is a foreign language. Giles certainly has had a season to match any of the other stars, but he didn't shoulder the sort of expectations that McGwire, Griffey, Sosa and Bagwell have to live with on a daily basis.

Hey, Sir Laurence Olivier was once in "Clash of the Titans." U2 made "Pop." This all means that stars don't guarantee anything. They just give everyone around them a better chance to succeed, which ironically is what McGwire was trying to explain to everyone when he reached the 70-homer plateau in 1998.

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