Saturday, April 17, 2004

Rants From the Upper Deck by Steve Reynolds

Whew, what an offseason. That snapping sound you heard was the Ranter’s neck twisting with every new and intriguing development since Josh Beckett’s wonderful masterpiece to close out the World Series. There was so much going on that it seems like R.E.M. could have re-recorded “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and replaced some lyrics with baseball items. Sing it with me now: “Schllling/A-Rod/Nomar/Manny/All Going Nowhere/Vlad’s an Angel/Pettitte’s Gone/Clemens Unretires/Brown’s In/And Now Vazquez/Pete Rose/BALCO Steroids/A-Rod Again/Maddux Goes Home Again.”

After a stunning post-season that kept me glued to the edge of the recliner like no other, I wasn’t that surprised at the intensity level baseball maintained over the winter. While other parts of the U.S. moved on to other sports for a while, New Yorkers still focused on the Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry (due in no small part because both football teams stunk up the stadium across the Hudson River and the Knicks and Rangers kept up their not-so-loveable losing ways). The Post and Daily News sports pages devoted so much ink and paper to A-Rod (between the failed and successfully completed trades) that he should donate part of his salary to plant trees somewhere.

Many folks (including some of my fellows Zisk staffers) have argued that the Yankees fantasy league-inspired spending needs to be reigned in with a salary cap of some sort. While I’d love to see the Yankees somehow stopped (and they will be again this year, which I will explain later), forcing them to curb spending isn’t the answer. George Steinbrenner has laid out the biggest amounts of cash in the majors the past three seasons, but that hasn’t bought him another championship. The Yankees of 1996 to 2000 won not because they had the biggest payroll, but because they had a good core of homegrown players and smartly chosen free agents. (Well, that, and that five-year pact with the devil Joe Torre signed.) Yes, the baseball economic system is still out of whack, but a salary cap isn’t the answer. A salary minimum and a specific amount of shared revenue that must go towards payroll? Now that’s something I can get behind.

The BALCO case is bound to take up headlines throughout the season, and deservedly so. Yes, players obviously were able to juice their numbers over the years. And yes, they were stupid to risk their health for so many years. And yes, they look idiotic for not coming up with a stronger testing plan ages ago. But if steroids make everyone play better, why aren’t Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco still playing in their late ’30s like another alleged user, Barry Bonds? If Bonds is found to have used steroids, people will say his single season home run record is tainted. Well, last time I checked, steroids don’t make your eyes as good as Bonds’s. And it’s not like Bonds wasn’t one of the most talented players ever before the alleged steroid scam started. (And trust me, I would never want to defend the pricks of all pricks Bonds, but somebody has to cut through the crap with this case.)

And while we’re on the drug front, does steroid use by major league ballplayers need to be mentioned in President Bush’s State of the Union address? Does Attorney General John Ashcroft need to hold a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the findings of a grand jury all the way across the country? Might there be some more pressing issues at the moment? Perhaps trying to find out where Osama Bin Laden is? Or figuring out where the intelligence breakdown happened over weapons of mass-destruction? Or why job growth has been at its slowest in decades? Politics has pushed the steroid issue further into the spotlight, and if it wasn’t an election year, Bud Selig and Don Fehr would be nowhere near a Congressional committee. That being said, let’s hope the owners and players sit down and hash out a real testing plan at some point so fans and sanctimonious sportswriters will be happy.

So now that the dust has settled on the off-season, what will 2004 bring? Well, for the AL East—perhaps more properly called the AL Beast—it’s a season in which the division is far and away the best in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays could most likely win the AL Central or NL West with the young pitching and hitting they have, while the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays could be .500 teams in the Central. I’ve heard of the East Coast bias about West Coast sports teams, but who in their right mind could not think that the battles in this division will be like no other this year. And in the end, the Ranter will go for Yankees winning the division with the Red Sox again claiming the wild card.

The AL Central is stocked with three teams (Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians) that have put a successful small market plan into action. By growing their own players and picking up a quality free agent here and there, these three teams have set foundations to compete for the next few years. But the Indians aren’t quite there yet, and the Twins lost too much bullpen in the off-season. So the Royals will become division winners for the first time since George Brett roamed the infield.

The AL West is the second best division in baseball, with the Oakland Athletics, the Seattle Mariners and California Angels all making the postseason with the past three seasons. Alas for Mariners fans, they look like a team that’s about to go on a down cycle as key parts get older (Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Jamie Moyer) and a front office that made only one decent move in the off-season (signing “Everyday Eddie Guadardo). The A’s lost another former MVP (Miguel Tejada), but still have great pitching. However, both teams will be trumped by the Angels, who were busy spending their new owner Art Moreno’s money. And he’ll be happy, as Vlad Guerrero and Bartolo Colon will be just the pieces that manager Mike Scioscia needs to get back to the playoffs.

In the NL, the East and Central divisions will both come down to the last days of the season. The Braves lost a third of their offense with the defections of Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinnie Castilla, so the possibility of them not winning the division looms large for the first time. The Phillies will finally be able to close some games with Billy Wagner in the pen. But what most folks seem to overlook are the World Champion Marlins. Derek Lee is gone, Pudge Rodriguez is in exile in the Motor City and both closers (Brandon Looper, Ugeth Urbina) are gone, replaced by Mr. Choke himself, Armando Benitez. But the young core of this team is still together and has been battle-tested by last year’s playoff run. I think the Marlins will take the division led by Josh Beckett blossoming into a premier pitcher, with the Phillies as the wild card to save Larry Bowa from the ax.

The NL Central will once again by a three team race. The St. Louis Cardinals have a great lineup, but they still don’t have the pitching. The Houston Astros now have pitching with the additions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite, but Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are certainly on the downside of their careers. This leaves the Cubs, who not only have the pitching but also have solidified their hitting the trade for the Marlins’ Derek Lee. The Cubs will repeat as division winners for the first time ever.

The NL West is up for grabs—I’ve even seen someone taut the San Diego Padres as potential division winners. The guess here is that the Giants will make the playoffs for a third year in a row, unless the steroid scandal truly blows up and Bonds is suspended.

As for the playoffs (here comes that Yankee theory I promised), the ALCS will come down once again to the Yanks and Red Sox, with the Sox taking it in seven games because the bullpen will hold a lead this year. The Yankees will once again go without a title, which can be blamed upon one man—George W. Bush. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. The Yanks drought can be blamed on the Republican party. The New York Yankees have won 19 of their championships while Democrats have been in the White House and only seven with Republicans in the Oval Office. The last time the Yankees won a title with a Republican president was 1958. The Eisenhower curse will live another year. Steinbrenner better vote for John Kerry.

In the NL, the Cubs and Marlins are destined for a rematch, and this time Moises Alou will catch the winning out. Which means—yes, I am crazy—a “world is coming to an end World Series” with the Cubs versus the Red Sox. And the winner? Does it really matter? Baseball, indeed, all of America will be the big winner this October. (But I’ll definitely be rooting for the Sox).

No comments: