When we last saw baseball, Jay Bell of the Arizona Diamondbacks was leaping into the arms of his teammate Matt Williams, having just scored the winning run in Game 7 of one of the great World Series of all time.
While we've been away, baseball has been behaving badly.
Commissioner Bud Selig announced that Major League Baseball would "contract," that is, eliminate, two teams. Baseball has a revenue sharing system that forces the more successful teams to give money to the less successful ones. This sounds like a good way to offset the fact that, since most baseball revenue is local, larger market teams make more money. The problem is, or at least one problem is, the system doesn't force the recipient of the shared revenue to invest it in the team. I guess I'm not sophisticated enough to understand why baseball can't just force the receiving owner to invest the money in its team rather than pocket it, which annoys the giving teams.
Carl Pohlad, the billionaire owner of the Minnesota Twins, volunteered to have his team "contracted," for which he would get a fat check, after the people of Minnesota declined to build him a new stadium with their tax money. This is known in advanced economic theory as the "Screw me? Screw you!" gambit. The Montreal Expos, a team with virtually no fan base anymore, figured to be the other team, though Selig never spelled out his plans, and there were rumors that the Florida Marlins might be targeted. An injunction in Minnesota prevented contraction from happening this off-season. This week, the Minnesota House, heretofore reluctant to spend public money on a stadium for the Twins, passed a bill to sell taxable revenue bonds to finance a ballpark. The state Senate had already passed a similar bill. It's amazing how a little carefully applied pressure can focus the legislative process.
Selig has also been on what one baseball observer has called his "extortion tour," on which he travels from one spring training camp to the next, nodding solemnly as he says things like "I think people understand in South Florida that the Marlins do need a new stadium." If that sounds to you a lot like when the neighborhood mobster says, "I think you and I both agree that it would be just terrible if anything happened to your family," go to the head of the class.
Selig went before Congress over the winter to plead his ridiculous case that baseball is losing money. Major League Baseball released figures showing a loss of about $519 million in 2001 on about $3.5 billion in revenue. A first-year econ student would be able to spot the accounting tricks baseball uses to make profits disappear. And Selig would not allow the players union to talk about the presumably more reality-based numbers baseball had provided it.
As Doug Pappas of the Society for American Baseball Research points out on his Web site, Major League Baseball's numbers show that revenues have risen 156 percent since 1995, while player salaries, supposedly the cause of baseball's financial woes, have risen only 113 percent. Meanwhile, other expenses have risen 134 percent. If baseball's in such financial trouble, why is it allowing non-salary expenses to skyrocket like that?
Because baseball's not in financial trouble, that's why. No franchise in modern times has ever lost value. Incredibly rich people keep paying incredibly steep prices for franchises -- the Red Sox were bought by a group led by John Henry this month for $660 million. Henry had just sold the Florida Marlins, a team so pitiful it's in danger of being "contracted," for $158.5 million -- to Jeffrey Loria, who had just sold the supposedly worthless Montreal Expos to his fellow owners for $120 million.
When Selig was talking about baseball's financial difficulties on Capitol Hill this winter, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., repeatedly and pointedly reminded him that he was under oath.
Let's put aside the "contraction" talk -- which is now widely seen for what it was, a hammer in the league's stadium extortion racket. The real cloud hanging over the game as it heads into the new season is the expired collective bargaining agreement, which means that a work stoppage, in the form of either a player strike or a lockout, is not out of the question in 2002. To get an idea how bad things are, consider that when Selig promised this week that there would be no player lockout through the end of the World Series, the players took it as a veiled threat that he would try to impose new work rules -- such as a salary cap -- or lock them out as soon as the Series ends.
Depressed yet? I am.
The thing is, if you're paying attention to even a little bit of this stuff, it's becoming less and less fun all the time to be a baseball fan, and that's without even taking into account the outrageous ticket prices, Dot Racing and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Loyal fans find themselves wondering why they're spending their hard-earned money to support this incredibly lucrative business that gives them back almost nothing but heartache, all because of bickering over how to split up the ungodly wads of loot.
I don't have an answer to that question, except to say that the game itself is still fun enough to keep most of us around. Once they start playing for keeps each April, it becomes a little easier to forget the greed and the lying and the nonsense, at least for a few hours at a time. A home run is still a home run, a wicked two-strike slider still just that.
In the spirit of sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the evils baseball assaults us with in favor of enjoying the game between the lines -- the foul lines, that is, not the lines of billionaire owners with their hands out -- I offer herewith my preview of the 2002 season, with the usual caveat that I'm usually wrong about who's going to win what. But then again, so are you. In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or one of those old birds that sentimental baseball writers like to quote at this time of year as they wax lyrical about fields of green and the youthful renewal of spring and all that blather: "Dat's why they play 'em."
We'll start with the National League, and because these things always go east to west, we'll start with the Western Division. In order of finish:
1. San Francisco Giants: The Giants won't be that different from the team that won 90 games last year. Their lineup should be a little better with the addition of Reggie Sanders in the middle and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, not an ideal leadoff hitter but at least one with a pulse, at the top. Their starting rotation will be a little better with Jason Schmidt for a whole year. Their bullpen will still be very good. They're a little banged up coming north, what with Barry Bonds nursing a hamstring and Schmidt a sore groin muscle and Jeff Kent out with that wrist he broke while simultaneously riding his motorcycle and washing his truck, or something. But none of the injuries appear to be long-term threats, and the Giants should win the West.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks: This is the same team that won the World Series last year. That's the problem. That was an old team that managed to stay healthy. Now they're all a year older. They still have that dominant pitching duo, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, but basically, this was a team for which everything went right last year, and you can't count on that happening twice in a row. Matt Williams, who must be near the end now, was the first casualty, with a broken leg. Backups Erubiel Durazo, who's -- whoops -- 27, and Greg Colbrunn, who's 32, have joined him on the disabled list. Still, the wild card is a possibility, and we saw last year that if the Diamondbacks can get to the postseason, those two great starters make them dangerous. We also saw last year how wrong I can be by predicting the Diamondbacks will suffer from a run of injuries.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers: If everything goes right, the Dodgers can contend. The first thing that has to go right is Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby, their talented but fragile top two starters, have to stay healthy. The next is that someone has to emerge as a closer. And then a leadoff hitter. And then Eric Karros and Adrian Beltre have to have big comeback years. And then sometimes-effective Hideo Nomo and Odalis Perez and untested Japanese import Kazuhisa Ishii have to come through. Could happen. Probably won't. But chalk them up as another possible wild card team.
4. San Diego Padres: Listen very carefully, Padres fans. In a few years, you'll have a new stadium, and then (maybe) everything will be OK. In the meantime your best pitcher is 12-game winner Kevin Jarvis, and your two big sluggers, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin, are saying all the right things, but not very convincingly, about being moved from their positions to accommodate shiny new rookie third baseman Sean Burroughs, who had better show some Little League World Series style results in a hurry or it could get ugly in a way that will have you longing for the days of Nate Colbert and Ollie Brown.
5. Colorado Rockies: How do you win playing in that crazy ballpark? I don't know. The Rockies don't know either.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: For all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in St. Louis, the Cards are a much better team with Tino Martinez having replaced Mark McGwire. That's the only real difference between last year's wild card team and this one, along with the addition of an actual closer, Jason Insringhausen. The best starting staff in the league, maybe in all of baseball, combined with the pop provided by J.D. Drew, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, should be plenty to bring the Cardinals the Central Division crown, especially if they can avoid the first-half malaise that held their win total to 93 last year.
2. Houston Astros: There's nothing wrong with the Astros, who beat St. Louis on the last day of the regular season for the division title last year before flopping in the playoffs again, costing manager Larry Dierker his job. Houston will be good again. But while the Cardinals should be slightly better, the Astros lost Moises Alou, and his replacement, poor-fielding slugger Daryle Ward, doesn't figure to be his equal. Playing in the same division as the woeful Pirates, Brewers and Reds will give the Astros plenty of chances to stockpile wins and take the wild card in a tight race over some combination of Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Florida, Arizona and Los Angeles, not necessarily in that order.
3. Chicago Cubs: You know the Cubs only finished five games out last year? Except for their incredible right fielder, there's nothing spectacular about this team, but the Cubs can pitch some -- quite a bit if Jon Lieber can repeat his 2001 and Kerry Wood can ever stay healthy for a whole year -- they can hit some, especially with the addition of Alou, and they have a pretty smart manager in Don Baylor, whose relative success in Colorado is looking better and better every year. Newly acquired Antonio Alfonseca, if healthy after back surgery, as he appears to be, will make up for the loss of injured closer Tom Gordon. Can the Cubs win the Central? I don't think so. Can they contend for the wild card? See the above entry, and the next one.
4-6. Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds: I can't hold my nose long enough to type three separate entries for these teams. They're all capable of losing 100 games. Maybe one of them will surprise everybody with a 2001 Minnesota Twins-like resurgence, but, you know, probably not. If I had to pick one of the three to do it, I'd pick the Pirates, because they're young and hungry and they have Brian Giles and they just don't seem to be quite as screwed up as the Brewers and, especially, the Reds. Geez, the Reds. Their big pickup this off-season was outfielder Juan Encarnacion, who was run out of Detroit on a rail. Detroit! For the record, I'm picking these turkeys in the above order, and I'm not saying the Pirates are going to have a Twins-like resurgence.
1. New York Mets: The Mets certainly had a busy little off-season, didn't they? They went out and got Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, Pedro Astacio and Shawn Estes, among others. They'll have a scary lineup, solid pitching and, you know what? They're going to win the East. If Bobby Valentine could win the pennant with that bunch he had in 2000, he can win with this bunch, barring a rash of injuries, which, with a veteran club, is a real possibility.
2. Atlanta Braves: Everywhere he goes, Gary Sheffield has a year or so of gruntlement before becoming disgruntled, so he should be a nice addition for the Braves this season before turning on them like last night's 12-pack in 2003. He's a better hitter than Brian Jordan, the man he was traded for -- heck, he's a better hitter than almost everybody -- but it's not like a day-for-night transformation. Jordan was fine. The Braves are another year older and still without quite enough pop. They'll contend for the wild card, but their run of division titles ends here unless the Mets all get hurt. Four words say all you need to know. "Starting tonight: Albie Lopez."
3. Philadelphia Phillies: The Phils have a good lineup, from second-year leadoff man Jimmy Rollins -- who'd practically be in the Hall of Fame by now if he played in New York -- through Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu and, if he comes back successfully from a knee injury, Mike Lieberthal. They can hit, run, catch. The problem is the pitching. Jose Mesa had an amazing year as the closer in 2001, but even if he can repeat that as he turns 36, the Phillies don't have the starters to get to him. They played a bit over their heads last year to stay in the wild card chase for so long. Manager Larry Bowa seemed to get the best last year out of players who can't stand him. Two years is about the limit on that sort of thing.
4. Florida Marlins: Who knows how the off-season ownership fandango will affect this team, but trading starter Matt Clement to the Cubs for maybe slightly better starter Julian Tavarez -- and by the way throwing in closer Alfonseca -- was not exactly a sign that new owner Loria is in anything-to-win mode. Clement blasted the Marlins after the trade Wednesday: "You wouldn't think a team that's 29th in salary would be trimming payroll, but obviously that's their motive," he said. Loria, who has said the Marlins need a new stadium to be able to keep good young players, denies that he's sending a message with the trade, claiming it was a good baseball move. It was. For the Cubs.
5. Montreal Expos: Contending for the wild card is out of the question. Free Vladimir Guerrero! Someday, you know, we're going to miss the Montreal Expos.
The Cardinals' starting pitching and top-to-bottom strength, not to mention their not having to face the two-man buzz saw of Schilling and Johnson in the playoffs, will take them to their first World Series since 1987.
1. Seattle Mariners: The Mariners probably won't be as good as last year's 116-win squad, but they can fall a long way and still be pretty good. Basically, they've traded David Bell for Jeff Cirillo at third, a big improvement, and Aaron Sele for James Baldwin in the rotation, not such an improvement. They've also added the unpredictable Ruben Sierra, who returned from a long exile to play well in Texas last year, but they're going to ask him to play left field, which should be interesting to say the least. The Mariners were magic in 2001. Everything went right, until playoff time. That won't happen again, but they should be plenty good enough to hold off the Jason Giambi-less ...
2. Oakland A's: Oh, they'll be talking for 50 years about Jeremy Giambi not sliding at home in a crucial moment of the divisional playoffs against the New York Yankees last season if this A's team doesn't ever win anything. Their one big chance! In the year before the inevitable departure of their big star, former MVP Jason Giambi! And his brother blows it by not sliding! Oy! Even without Jeremy's big brother, not to mention leadoff man Johnny Damon, this team isn't without hope, because it has a crack young starting staff. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are as good as any trio of teammates in the game, with the possible exceptions of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte of the Yankees and Schilling, Johnson and Roscoe the Miniature Donkey, or whoever else the Arizona Diamondbacks give the ball to on the third day. The A's lost closer Isringhausen, who finally put it all together in the second half last year, but signed perfectly good Billy Koch to replace him. And they've still got some sluggers, including Jermaine Dye, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada. The A's could sort of go either way. Jason Giambi was this team's leader, though I never know if that means anything or not. Who needs a leader? Go hit the ball. But we'll see. If they pitch as they should, they're the wild card team.
3. Anaheim Angels: On the plus side, the Angels have lost the butt-ugliest non-Devil Rays/Diamondbacks uniforms in the sport in favor of suits that look like one of the many models once worn by the Texas Rangers. On the minus side, the Angels, who on paper look good enough to win the A.L. Central, are in the A.L. West. Even if everything goes right -- Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad and even Troy Glaus return to form; new DH Brad Fullmer has a big year; the starting staff, a mixture of youngish (Jarrod Washburn, Scott Schoeneweis), oldish (Sele, Kevin Appier) and both (Ramon Ortiz and his mutable birthdate), lives up to expectations; and somebody gives them some good innings between the starters and Troy Percival -- the Angels still need either the Mariners or, more likely, the A's to stumble a bit.
4. Texas Rangers: They went out and got Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett and Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes and John Rocker, but the key pickup for this team was Todd Van Poppel. Just kidding. Last place again. Lots of high-scoring games, though.
1. Chicago White Sox: The Sox lost Frank Thomas early and meandered their way to 83 wins and third place last year. If the exact same thing happened this year, those 83 wins might win the division. This is much the same team, only with Thomas back and Kenny Lofton leading off. Todd Ritchie has replaced Baldwin as the No. 2 starter behind Mark Buehrle, in case that matters to you, and 6-11 Jon Rauch, who like the entire population of the South Side is recovering from shoulder surgery, has made the rotation, so now Randy Johnson won't feel so lonely and misunderstood because of his height. If enough of the wounded pitchers are healthy enough to keep Chicago in games long enough to get to closer Keith Foulke, the Sox should be fine.
2. Cleveland Indians: The Indians aren't quite the powerhouse they were a few years ago, but they have a decent rotation led by 17-game-winner C.C. Sabathia and 14-game-winner Bartolo Colon, a good closer in Bob Wickman, some pretty good fielders and Jim Thome's home runs. Thome won't get enough help for the Indians to make it back to the playoffs, though. When you essentially replace Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez with Ricky Gutierrez and a very washed up Brady Anderson, you have changed your priorities as an organization.
3. Minnesota Twins: The Twins, after their surprise second-place finish last year, are the hip pick to finish second -- at least! -- again. I think they'll backslide a bit, though. All the contraction nonsense and the ballpark controversy will be a distraction, and I think they'll miss retired manager Tom Kelly. A better bullpen would go a long way on this team with a pretty good young starting staff, led by Brad Radke and Joe Mays, and one of the best infields in the business. Don't expect billions-pinching owner Pohlad to go out and get anybody.
4. Detroit Tigers: The nice thing about the Tigers is that they seem to be trying, as evidenced by their signing some key young players, notably starter Jeff Weaver and closer Matt Anderson, born within a week of each other in 1976. Also nice uniforms. The new ballpark's nice too, I hear. There just isn't much talent here. There's Bobby Higginson, and if Dean Palmer and Mitch Meluskey are healthy and productive, that would be, well, nice. Dmitri Young and Craig Paquette are a couple of solid if unspectacular pickups from the National League. They won't finish last and they won't lose as many games (96) as they did last year. There, I knew I could think of something nice to say.
5. Kansas City Royals: Selig says the Royals have never been considered for "contraction." Why not? They're in a small market; they finished 13th out of 14 in American League attendance last year, 27th out of 30 in the majors; they haven't won anything since 1985; and they haven't had a winning record since 1993 and aren't likely to any time soon. Just wondering. I don't think anyone should get "contracted." But aside from Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney, who will likely be traded soon or lost to free agency at the end of the year, the Royals are really, really bad.
1. Boston Red Sox: Here it is: If Pedro Martinez stays healthy, the Red Sox beat the Yankees. That's a big if, and of course I can't predict whether Pedro's going to stay healthy. The last few years don't offer much hope. OK, Nomar Garciaparra has to stay healthy too, and the Sox need good starts on the days Martinez doesn't pitch. John Burkett will start the year on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, not a good sign. Damon and Rickey Henderson give Boston some long-needed speed, Tony Clark adds some pop, and everybody's just happier than they've been on this club in a long time. Aw, the Yankees'll probably win again. I should just make my peace with it. But I'm picking Boston anyway. A guy can dream, can't he? Say it with me: the second-place Yankees ...
2. New York Yankees: The Yanks are dented up leaving Florida -- Sterling Hitchcock, Rondell White, Ramiro Mendoza, Robin Ventura, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Pettitte have all been nursing aches and pains, and Hitchcock, Mendoza and probably White will start the year on the disabled list. In the long run, though, these are still the Yankees. Even though I think David Wells, who is back, is one of the most overrated pitchers of the last decade, the starting rotation, especially the top three of Clemens, Mussina and Pettitte, is still awfully good, and hardly anybody's as good as closer Mariano Rivera. And that's not to mention the fine setup men, Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Steve Karsay. The lineup's still pretty scary too, with Jason Giambi added and Alfonso Soriano another year closer to superstardom. Still, I'm going to say that the Yankees will battle the A's for the wild card spot and come up just short. I'm not sure I really believe it. Hell, if the Yankees are trailing Oakland in July, George Steinbrenner might just buy the A's. But I'm a good man who's lived an honest life. I deserve to see the Yankees not make the playoffs at least once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
3. Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays, like the Tigers, seem to be moving in the right direction, and maybe a little quicker. The middle of their lineup -- Raul Mondesi, Carlos Delgado and Jose Cruz Jr. -- is formidable, and they've got some good young arms in starters Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, Brandon Lyon and newcomer Luke Prokopec, but none of them has really broken through yet. If everything goes perfectly for the Blue Jays this year, they can hang around the outside of the wild card race for a while.
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Every year, because it gives me something to do, I pick the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to climb out of the cellar and finish ahead of the ...
5. Baltimore Orioles: And one of these years, I'll be right.
The Mariners, fueled by the disappointment of losing in the 2001 ALCS after such a brilliant regular season, will overcome the A's three young starters through sheer force of will and go to their first World Series, where they'll battle the Cardinals for seven games before losing.
As always, here is a recap of my predicted standings, in easy-to-ridicule format. Just check back here at the end of the season and fire up the ol' spleen and the e-mail program.
N.L. West: San Francisco, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona
N.L. Central: St. Louis, Houston (wild card), Chicago, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati
N.L. East: New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Florida, Montreal
A.L. West: Seattle, Oakland (wild card), Anaheim, Texas
A.L. Central: Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City
A.L. East: Boston, New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore
World Series: St. Louis over Seattle