The baseball season began Sunday night in the Bronx. Commissioner Bud Selig got things started by throwing out the ceremonial first steroid user.
Alex Sanchez of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was slapped with a 10-day suspension hours before the Red Sox and Yankees took the field at Yankee Stadium for the regular-season opener. Though the one-sentence official announcement didn't mention steroids, as per the agreement with the players, there was no doubt what was behind the suspension, especially after Sanchez announced, "I'm going to fight my case, because I never do any steroids thing, nothing like that."
News of his suspension shocked baseball fans: There's a team in Tampa Bay?
If the lords of Major League Baseball ever sat down and discussed who they'd pick if they could choose the first player to be suspended for steroids, they might just have come up with Alex Sanchez, a small man, a slap-hitter with no power, a marginal player on one of the worst and most-ignored teams in baseball.
The Devil Rays drew 1.2 million fans last year, about the number the Yankees get by Memorial Day. But even those die-hards don't care about Sanchez, who only signed on two weeks ago after being cut by the Tigers, who employed him at the time he was tested in early March.
He's perfect. I'm not saying baseball invented Sanchez, cooked up the results to make him the fall guy. I'm not a believer in conspiracy theories and that would be a level of cunning and evil there's no reason to attach to baseball. I'm just saying if Sanchez didn't exist, baseball would have done well to invent him.
The reaction around baseball showed why. Yankees manager Joe Torre, speaking before the Opening Night game, said the suspension showed "the fact that the testing evidently worked. That's what we all want to find out, that's what even the players want to make sure, that we get the fans' trust back, and that's the only way that can happen."
The sentiment was echoed all over: This shows that the new testing program has teeth. Baseball's public relations problem with steroids is so bad that a player being suspended on Opening Day -- which would be considered a black eye for almost any other sport -- was a kind of victory.
It's a home run for baseball that it gets to show off its new testing teeth without causing a fuss among the fans. People aren't going to be complaining because Alex Sanchez isn't in center field for the Rays on Opening Day. And Sanchez's stature, playing style and anemic .364 lifetime slugging percentage also let baseball make an important point about steroids.
The surprise with which so many met the revelation that Sanchez was perp No. 1 shows how uninformed we are about this subject. Alex Sanchez? He's not a hulking slugger. He's not chasing home run records. What's he doing chasing steroids.
Almost all the steroid talk has centered around home-run hitters with comic-book physiques, but steroids can do more than just build huge muscles. All those sprinters and hurdlers don't look like linebackers, after all. Anybody can benefit from steroids, as Jose Canseco tells us. People around the game say there might be more pitchers on the juice than hitters.
It's in baseball's interest to make these points. Look, baseball can say, steroids aren't just about home runs. Now let's stop talking about putting asterisks in the record books.
It's a pretty good argument. After all, last season, the first one played after full steroid testing kicked in -- though suspensions are a new wrinkle this year -- home runs and scoring were both up a little, from 2.14 homers and 9.46 runs per game in 2003 to 2.24 homers and 9.62 runs per game in '04.
ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote last week that it's a nearly unanimous opinion among the players, managers, executives and experts he's been talking to this spring that steroid use has been on the decline for several years. Steroids equals home runs is an oversimplification.
Baseball lucked into the perfect perp to illustrate that point.
And then it got down to that first game. The best sign in the Yankee Stadium stands looked like this:
Bet on it
Both of the game's marquee teams showed off their new big-name pitchers, Randy Johnson of the Yankees and David Wells of the Red Sox. Not surprisingly, Johnson came out ahead, Wells giving up a run in the second and coming unhinged in the third, balking in the third run of the inning when he started and then stopped his windup, something you might call a rookie mistake if you could find a rookie who'd make it.
Hideki Matsui robbed Kevin Millar of a home run down the left field line, then singled twice and homered himself. Previous steroids poster boy Jason Giambi got a hit, was hit by two pitches and made some nice plays at first base before being replaced by Tino Martinez, returning to cheers from a three-year exile in St. Louis and some place in Florida where there's reportedly a team. Johnson threw six solid innings. The Yankees romped 9-2.
That's 11 runs, so offense is up again, though that might change over the next 2,429 games.
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The Final Four [PERMALINK]
If you were hoping for the weekend's NCAA Tournament semifinal games to live up to last week's unbelievable quartet of thrillers, you were probably disappointed.
Unless you were watching the women's Tournament Sunday night. LSU, the overall No. 1 seed, jumped out to a 15-point lead over Baylor, but Baylor rallied to tie it by halftime, then took control with about six minutes left and won 68-57.
That was just a table-setter, though. In the nightcap, Michigan State pulled off a stunner, tying a Final Four record by overcoming a 16-point deficit and winning an absolute thriller, 68-64. And the Spartans pulled this off against Tennessee, of all teams, the giant of women's basketball, the team that, when it comes right down to the end of a close game, you just know will find a way to win it.
Baylor and Michigan State will play for the title Tuesday night.
The men's semifinals Saturday weren't nearly so tense. The two best teams in the Tournament, Illinois and North Carolina, showed that they're the two best teams in the Tournament, Illinois beating Louisville by 15 and Carolina beating Michigan State by 16.
Both wins were convincing, though Illinois would have had a lot more trouble with Louisville if the Cardinals hadn't missed about a half-dozen bunnies, open shots from eight feet and in. But here's the thing about Illinois: It wouldn't have mattered. Illinois finds a way to beat you, however well you play.
So far, at least, but Illinois hasn't faced anybody who can play as well as North Carolina.
Almost everybody who filled out a bracket had either Illinois or North Carolina winning the Tournament. I went with Illinois, so I'll stick with that pick. It wouldn't be the first champion I've ever picked, but the last one was so long ago I don't remember it.
Illinois doesn't really have anybody who can deal with Sean May inside, but I don't think May is quite good enough to overcome Illinois' ability to slow down Carolina's devastating fast break and its penchant for raining down threes whenever they're needed. Illinois in a thriller.
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