King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

American League preview: The Yankees and Red Sox won't be 1-2 in the East, but pinstripes will still be all the rage in October.

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“How can I get my leading lady’s name in your paper,” a Broadway publicist once supposedly asked George S. Kaufman, the great playwright who also happened to be a drama critic for the New York Times, despite not being related to me.

His answer: “Shoot her.”

Baseball has used roughly the same strategy to keep its name in the papers over the winter, with news of even megastars like Alex Rodriguez and Curt Schilling switching teams in a lively hot-stove league dwarfed by the steroid scandal emanating from a bust at the BALCO lab in suburban San Francisco, where Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and others were clients.

Commissioner Bud Selig and players union chief Don Fehr were even dragged into a congressional hearing room this month, where a grandstanding Sen. John McCain browbeat Fehr over the union’s refusal to agree to a stricter testing program.

Players and former players began accusing each other publicly of steroid use. Rockies pitcher Turk Wendell said it was obvious from looking at Bonds that he was dirty, and former Pirates star Andy Van Slyke, once a Bonds teammate, said essentially the same thing.

Former Orioles great Jim Palmer said in a radio interview that he didn’t know whether Brady Anderson took steroids before his sudden power surge for Baltimore in 1996, and he made it clear that by “I don’t know whether Brady Anderson took steroids,” he meant “I think Brady Anderson took steroids.” Barry Bonds too. And so on. Schilling said he was all for strict testing, but he doesn’t trust the people who run baseball to administer it.

The grand old game!

All this tsoris breaks baseball’s one-year streak of having relatively smooth offseasons. Last year, other than a little of the usual grubbing for tax dollars to build stadiums, baseball was quiet, happily basking in the afterglow of a fresh labor agreement and a thrilling World Series.



The year before that, a thrilling World Series didn’t stop Selig from shooting the game in the foot with the threat of “contraction” — the killing off of teams, maybe yours! — which in turn was the culmination of a bizarre, years-long campaign by Selig to try to gain leverage in labor negotiations by insisting to the public that his company was providing a terrible product.

This year yet another dandy of a Series segued almost immediately into tales of needles, designer steroids and suspiciously slimmed-down sluggers like Jason Giambi of the Yankees, who insisted that he’s only four pounds lighter than last year, the result of kicking a cheeseburger habit. Giambi followed that statement by riding a winner in the sixth race at Tampa Bay Downs.

Don’t worry, though. Baseball’s on the case with its latest gambit to show fans that the game isn’t just a collection of rapacious millionaires and billionaires chasing every last dollar no matter the effect on fans who cherish the national pastime: starting the season at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the better to sell Yankees caps to Japanese teenagers.

What, you were sleeping or something?

Never mind. We turn now to my annual fearless and almost entirely wrong predictions, first for the American League. We’ll get to the National League Thursday. Last year I correctly picked the A’s to win the West and the Yankees and Red Sox to make the playoffs, though I had them reversed, the Sox as division champ and the Yanks as the wild card. In the Central Division I took the White Sox, who lost to the Twins by four games. In other words it was an unusually good predicting year for me, which I trust you’ll agree was a fluke.

As always, I stand alone among national typists in organizing this sort of thing West to East.

WESTERN DIVISION

I want to pick the Angels in this division because I want to reward new owner Arte Moreno, who seems to be doing things right. He’s cut prices, made an effort to market to the gigantic Latino community that surrounds this team, and made a splash in the free-agent market with that dramatic, late signing of Vladimir Guerrero, the big prize of the winter.

But the Angels still look like a third-place team to me. I look at them and see David Eckstein still at shortstop. I see Darin Erstad. I see a nice free-agent pickup in Bartolo Colon, but he’s supposed to be the ace? I don’t see it. If the Angels were in the A.L. Central, they’d be serious contenders. But you can say that about almost every team in baseball that’s not in the A.L. Central. The Angels are in the West, which is just as tough as the East. It just doesn’t have as good a press agent.

This division will come down to the A’s and Mariners again, as it has for almost all of this century, and I’ll take the A’s. The M’s are formidable, but gosh, they’re old. Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer are both older than I am, for crying out loud. Newcomer Rich Aurilia is 32 and looks like he’s heading downhill. Did you know that free agent outfielder Raul Ibanez will be 32 at midseason? John Olerud is 35. Bret Boone will be too in a few days. The Mariners had a nice offseason, but not a great one. The guys they brought in — Aurilia, Ibanez, reliever Eddie Guardado — are decent players with familiar names, but they won’t be busy All-Star weekend.

The Mariners do have Ichiro, though, and just because Boone and Co. remember “The Cosby Show” in first run doesn’t mean they won’t have big years. But injuries are a real risk, and the Mariners’ pitching isn’t all that good. Safeco Field makes it look better than it is, and they do get to play half their games there, but still. There’s a team in this division with a trio of terrific starting pitchers. The A’s will go as far as Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder take them, which should be pretty far.

Oakland got to boohoo about losing 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada because he became too expensive for a small-market team that needs a new ballpark, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, if it ever hopes to retain stars like that, but the club’s little secret is that it thinks Bobby Crosby is ready to step in at short as a perfectly adequate, if not quite MVP-level, replacement. (And remember Tejada, though very good, wasn’t really an MVP-level player in ’02 either, not to mention ’03.)

The A’s are sort of solid all around and terrific at third base with Eric Chavez. Unless Arthur Rhodes is a complete disaster as a closer — and maybe even if he is — or one of the Big 3 goes down, the A’s should roll along to another 95 wins or so and a fifth straight playoff appearance, especially if Billy Beane is able to do his trading-deadline thing again to fill any holes in July.

This division also features the Texas Rangers, who no longer feature Alex Rodriguez.

Predicted finish: Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim, Texas

CENTRAL DIVISION

Ninety wins was enough to win this division last year, and that’s including all those games against the Indians, who had the same record as the Brewers, and the Tigers, who were 25 games worse than that. Take away the champion Twins’ 15-4 record against Detroit and they played .524 ball, worse than the Blue Jays, about the same as the Dodgers. Take away the remarkable, vastly improved, third-place Royals’ 27-11 record against Cleveland and Detroit and they start to look like the same old 90-loss team we’ve come to love.

I don’t think it’ll take 90 wins to take the Central this year because the Tigers will be a little better — they can’t help being a little better, having signed actual major league players Ivan Rodriguez and Rondell White — and the Royals, Twins and White Sox seem about equally matched, the Royals perhaps a bit less equal than the others, and will beat up on each other all summer. I think the Twins, who finished four games ahead of Chicago last year, lost a little more in the offseason than the White Sox did.

Who comes out ahead is of little interest to those of us who don’t live near Kansas City, Chicago or the Twin Cities — until October, when one of these teams will be someone’s opponent in the divisional round of the playoffs. Which of them that will be is no small question, as the A’s found out two years ago, but we needn’t worry too much about it while the flowers are blooming and the short skirts are just coming out of the closets.

I’ll pick the White Sox and leave it at that because I want you to be able to write me outraged letters wondering how I could analyze the American League Central without mentioning a single person who doesn’t play for the Detroit Tigers.

Predicted finish: Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit

EASTERN DIVISION

It’s a rite of spring for me, picking the Red Sox to win the East and the Yankees second. I do it every year, and every year I’m wrong. Some people clean their houses. I do this. I don’t pick the Red Sox because I like them or root for them or even because I particularly think they’re going to win. I pick them because I feel like I am a decent person, one who for all my flaws tries my level best to live a good life and do right by others, and I deserve to see someone other than the New York Yankees win the Eastern Division in my lifetime.

And if it ever happens I’ll be damned if I’m going to be caught having finally given in and picked the Yanks that year. It would be like playing the same lottery numbers every day, then not playing them on the day they come up. That’s something that happens to losers, and I’m a loser, but that’s not going to happen to me!

Now, I have this feeling in my trick knee that either the Yankees or Red Sox are going to stumble this year. They both have used their economic advantage to make themselves so powerful, they appear to be a division unto themselves. The Yankees added A-Rod, of course, after Boston failed to do so. But don’t cry for the Red Sox, who got Schilling and Keith Foulke and kept Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. The Yanks also lost Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to the Astros, but you may have heard of newcomers Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Gary Sheffield.

It’s so obvious that the Yankees and Red Sox are going to finish on top of the East, such a given, that I don’t think it’ll happen, because the obvious just doesn’t happen in baseball. I realize this is the kind of reasoning that leads people to play certain lottery numbers every day even though those numbers lose every day, as any others would, but I don’t care.

I’m putting my money on the Blue Jays, who have been doing good things as an organization the last few years, have some good hitters in Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells and maybe Eric Hinske and Josh Phelps, and have the Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay. They’ve brought in a bunch of third- and fourth-starter types to fill out the rotation, and the bullpen looks pretty rickety, but I’m betting Miguel Batista and the others will do fine and I figure there will be relievers available in July if the Jays are in the hunt.

The Red Sox seem to me more likely to trip than the Yanks — Boston has Pokey Reese, after all, and who wins with him around? — so New York is my wild card pick. It’s another annual pastime for me to pick the Devil Rays to finish ahead of the Orioles in fourth place. Even though Baltimore’s picked up Tejada and Javy Lopez, and I don’t share the optimism of that rare breed known as Rays fans that things are looking up, I’ll do it again this year, just to keep myself off the streets. The O’s won’t get many people out this year, and while Tejada’s a fine player, if you think Lopez is going to have another monster season as he did with Atlanta last year, you’re a kinder, more optimistic person than I am, and Mr. Lopez has a good friend in you.

Predicted finish: Toronto, New York (wild card), Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore

Predicted American League champion: New York Yankees. They’re built for the playoffs, and though I might pick the A’s if I had no memory, I’ll believe that they can win in the postseason when I see it.

Thursday: The National League

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