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Baseball: Strike Threat Casts Shadow on All-Star Game - 2002-07-08

Major League Baseball has reached its mid-season break. Familiar teams continue to top the standings, while labor problems are looming.

The American League champion New York Yankees have won eight of their last 10 games, and have a two-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the East Division. The Yankees have won 55 games, the same number as the Seattle Mariners, who lead the West Division by three games over the Anaheim Angels. Last year at this time, Seattle had won 63 games, on the way to tying the single-season record of 116 victories.

In the Central Division, The Minnesota Twins are in first place at the break, just as they were last year. But in 2001, they slumped badly in the second half of the season, and finished six games behind the Cleveland Indians. The Twins have the biggest lead of any of the American League teams, as they are 7.5 games ahead of the second-place Chicago White Sox.

The team with the biggest division lead in the National League is the Atlanta Braves. They have the best record in baseball at 56-32, and a 9.5 game cushion over the Montreal Expos. The defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks are in second place in the West, 2.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The St. Louis Cardinals have overcome a slow start and the sadness of two deaths to lead the Central Division by two games over the Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals beloved veteran broadcaster Jack Buck died of multiple illnesses at age 77 on June 18. Four days later, the Cardinals' 33-year-old starting pitcher, Darryl Kile, shockingly died of a hardening of his arteries.

St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa says the team has had to overcome a lot. "This has been unbelievable," he said. "I can't give this club enough credit, except what I'm saying - and I'm choking on it a little bit - because there's a whole half to play. You could ruin it by sleepwalking through the second half. But to this point, unbelievable, incredible club."

The second half of the baseball season, however, remains a big question mark because of a potential labor problem between players and team owners. As the first half of the season wound down, owners went on a public relations offensive, trying to show fans they are eager to reach a new deal with the players' union. Issues include revenue-sharing among teams, a payroll tax that would limit player salaries, drug testing and even eliminating teams.

Major League Baseball has seen eight work-stoppages since 1972, but the most recent one, in 1994, was considered the worst because it wiped out the World Series that season. Only time will tell if the threat of a players strike proves real, and there's little doubt that another such labor dispute would cost a huge amount of fan loyalty.