Saturday, February 23, 2002

2002 AL East Preview

It’s the Yankees' world. Everyone else is just living in it.

New York Yankees:

Star Trek fans know all about the Borg, a collective organism which roams the universe, assimilating the species it considers useful, and annihilating their individuality in the process. The Borg is virtually invincible; its credo is, "resistance is futile." I think the Yankees stole their business model.

Not content with four world championships in six years, Boss Steinbrenner has recently changed his approach from developing talent in-house to assimilating guys like Moose Mussina, Jason Giambi, Steve Karsay, and Robin Ventura into the Yankee collective. Though Yankees management hasn't yet resorted to force, it has shown a Borg-like contempt for the individuality of the players. When asked recently whether he worries about ego clashes among the Yankees' former team leaders, field manager Joe Torres responded, "[W]e don't have to have individual leaders. It's about a group approach to the game." Not to be outdone, Steinbrenner recently ordered Giambi to shave off his distinctive goatee.

What a shame. I’ve never really cared for the Yankees, but unlike the current group of boring model citizens in pinstripes, at least the Bronx Bombers of old had pizzazz. Past Yankees teams were made up of binge drinkers, prima donnas, and wife-swappers. They fought in the dugout. They painted the town red. They even managed to win a bunch of championships in the process. You may not have wanted your daughters to date them, but those Yankees had a certain joie d'vivre. There’s little doubt that they will dominate their opposition, but the 2002 Yankees are going to be the most uninteresting 105-win team in baseball history. They’ll say all the right things to the media. They’ll give each other friendly, but restrained high-fives after home runs. They'll show up with their moms in those Chunky soup commercials. Sad.

But I suppose Yankees fans would willingly give up a little color in exchange for another world championship, and it looks like they’re going to get one. Like the Borg, the Yankees will dispatch their opposition efficiently and dispassionately. The A’s, Mariners, and White Sox may have something to say about it, but from where I’m sitting, resistance seems futile.

Boston Red Sox:

Because of their eighty-three year championship drought, Red Sox fans labor under the delusion that their team is specially cursed. Ask anyone from Charlestown to West Roxbury, and they'll tell you there’s nothing tougher in the world than being a Sox fan. I used to think this was a charming tradition, but frankly, all this talk about The Curse has gotten way out of hand.

The Red Sox may not have won a World Series in our lifetime (or our fathers' lifetime, or hell, some of our grandfathers' lifetimes) but they have rarely if ever been a bad team. Not counting the strike-interrupted 1994 season, the Red Sox have finished in the cellar exactly twice in 70 years, and have contended for the pennant as often as anyone except the Yankees. Beantowners blubber and bawl about the heartaches of 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986, but those four years of near-glory were better than anything the fans of a dozen franchises I could name have ever experienced (the Rangers, Padres, Cubs, and Brewers come to mind). It’s better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all, and the Red Sox have loved plenty.

But Sox fans won't acknowledge that they’ve had it better than everyone else. Well, almost everyone else. When they're not whining to you about their alleged misfortune, they're staring south down I-95 at the source of their inferiority complex: New York. New York and its grander theaters, superior restaurants, more prestigious museums, and most of all, its twenty-six-time world champion Yankees. Its an obsession, really. An obsession that they would do well to drop, because it makes talking baseball with Sox fans a really unpleasant experience. I mean, how churlish can you get?

Besides, there is a lot for Sox fans to like about their own team. Sure, the Yankees may have an all-world, GQ cover-boy shortstop in Derek Jeter, but the Sox have an even better all-world, GQ cover-boy shortstop in Nomar Garciaparra. The Yankees may have a fireballing ace (and former Red Sox star) in Roger Clemens, but the Sox have an even better fireballing ace in Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox may not be as strong as the Yankees from top to bottom, but they have the chance to be really damn good this year, and their fans should enjoy it.

One of two things is going to happen in Boston this season. Either fans will keep comparing the Red Sox to the Yankees, find their boys lacking, and give up hope (which, if history holds, will cause the local media to turn on the Sox as well, giving the Red Sox themselves their usual excuse to throw in the towel), or they’ll realize that their team is just as good as the A’s and Mariners and focus on competing for the wild card. Then maybe they can dream about sticking it to their Gotham rivals in a short playoff series where anything can happen. If they choose the former course, they will definitely be disappointed. If they choose the latter, they may very well find themselves watching October baseball. The choice is yours, Boston. Don’t blow it.

Toronto Blue Jays:

The great sabermetric experiment continues in Toronto. After apprenticing for several seasons under Billy Beane in Oakland, new Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi gets a chance to show Canadian baseball fans that OPS doesn’t stand for "Ontario Parcel Service." It's good to see a stat-head take over the Blue Jays, because sabermetrics is a thinking-man’s approach to the game, and if baseball needs anything, it needs smarter people making decisions.

But will Ricciardi be successful? It's hard to say. On the one hand, sabermetrics doesn’t do a bit of good if you lack top shelf players, and with a few exceptions, Toronto doesn’t have the talent to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. On the other hand, I have found that one of the keys to job security is appearing to be the smartest person in a group of morons, and Riccardi seems to be doing a good job of that. As Baseball Prospectus writer Chris Kahrl reported, the Blue Jays recently caused a stir by being the first team ever to use PowerPoint in an arbitration presentation. If that’s what passes for cutting-edge in baseball these days, Ricciardi has nothing to worry about. The first time he finds himself in trouble with his bosses, he'll only need to threaten them with the "magic" of a laser pointer or a microwave oven, and they’ll back down in a heartbeat.

Though Riccardi’s sabermetric voodoo will probably bring on-field results at some point, the Jays are still a couple of years away from contending. First baseman Carlo Delgado and centerfielder Shannon Stewart are superstars, second baseman Homer Bush and most of the pitching staff are dreck, and that sort of mix usually adds up to a .500 season. Like Boston, however, Blue Jays fans can choose to be pessimists and despair about their team being only the third-best in their division, or they can be optimists and enjoy rooting for the best team in Canada. I have this feeling, however, that they won't be doing either much past August, when the hockey training camps open and everyone traditionally stops paying attention to the Blue Jays. Is apathy worse than pessimism? We’ll find out over the next seven months.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays:

Before the Devil Rays started play in 1998, baseball in Tampa was just a useful bogie that greedy team owners used to scare cities and taxpayers into funding new stadiums or renovating old ones. The Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, and Seattle Mariners all threatened moves to Tampa, but once they got their public subsidies, tax abatements, or shiny new mallparks, they decided to stay put. Later, almost every one of those teams admitted that it never seriously considered moving to Florida.

Tampa's last unsuccessful flirtation with baseball came when current Rays owner Vincent Naimoli agreed to purchase the San Francisco Giants and move the team there in 1993. When Major League Baseball moved in to block the deal, Naimoli threatened to sue. Baseball caved, and in exchange for dropping the lawsuit, Naimoli was promised an expansion team within five years. In the midst of the 1994-95 player’s strike, baseball owners infamously approved Tampa Bay and Phoenix to begin play in 1998, bypassing larger or more dynamic markets such as Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Portland.

Was there ever a demand for baseball in Tampa? Probably not, judging by the sparse crowds at Tropicana Field. But thanks to greed, threats of litigation, and shady backroom deals, Tampa got itself a club. What a club, though. Maybe it's because of the unnatural way baseball came to Tampa, but there's something not quite right about the Devil Rays.

Does it strike anyone else as odd that the Rays play in a depressing eyesore of concrete, steel, and Astroturf even though they're based in what is supposed to be "the sunshine state?" Tropicana Field is a lousy ballpark even by dome standards. Batted balls hit the ceiling of the joint on a regular basis, turning would-be home runs into ground rule doubles. Old Man Alvord’s Buick used to be an automatic double when my buddies and I played sandlot baseball, but we were twelve years old. What’s Tampa’s excuse?

Then there's the unsettling phenomenon of so many star players reaching career milestones while wearing Devil Rays uniforms. Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff both hit their 400th career home run while playing for Tampa, but five or ten years from now no one will remember they ever played there. Even more disconcerting is the curious case of Wade Boggs. After becoming a legend in Boston and winning a championship with the Yankees, Boggs collected his 3000th career hit as a Devil Ray, and had his number retired in Tampa before the Red Sox had a chance to do him the honor. Rumor has it that the Rays and Boggs have a secret deal in which Boggs’s Hall of Fame plaque will show him wearing a Devil Rays cap, even though his tenure there was short and for the most part unremarkable. I’ve not much of a traditionalist, but even I don't like seeing a four year-old team vulture so much baseball history.

And the Devil Rays' unnaturalness shows itself in more harmful ways as well. In late January, prospect Greg "Toe" Nash was arrested and charged with rape, felony theft, and "aggravated crime against nature." I'll say it again: there's something not right about this team.

So how will they do? Terribly. Given their four-year history of ineptitude, that shouldn't come as any surprise. And it shouldn't leave too many people feeling disappointed, either. I mean, ask yourself: have you ever met a Devil Rays fan? Neither have I.

Baltimore Orioles:

Orioles owner/master litigator Peter Angelos made his bones suing asbestos manufacturers, the tobacco industry, makers of lead paint and distributors of the diet drug fen-phen. His legal practice has made him a billionaire. It also taught him everything he knows about running a baseball team.

First, like any good lawyer, Angelos tries to find the loopholes. Outfielder Albert Belle remains on the Orioles roster despite not having played an inning since the end of the 2000 season, and not being expected to play baseball again due to a degenerative hip condition. Why is Belle still listed as a member of the team? Because if the Orioles keep Belle on the roster, their insurance carrier will cover 70% of the remaining three years of Belle's contract, which calls for $13 million annually. Could the Orioles waive Belle and make room for a good young player? Sure, but then they’d have to pay for the mistake they made in signing Belle in the first place.

Second, like any good lawyer, Angelos tries to put a good face on bad facts. With the retirement of Cal Ripken, the Orioles are marketing their team with the slogan "Come out and see the kids play." I have no idea whether the average Oriole fan is buying into the idea that their team is rebuilding with young players, but in reality, the Orioles youth movement isn’t all that youthful. The three players they are counting on the most this year are David Segui, Jeff Conine, and Mike Bordick. Their ages: 35, 35, and 36. I guess you might call them kids if they were thoracic surgeons, but they’re fossils as far as baseball players go, and not very good players at that.

Third, like any good lawyer, Angelos exploits technicalities to gain advantage. Last season, Angelos ordered the outfield fences at Camden Yards moved further out so that the opposition wouldn't hit so many home runs off of his pitching-impaired team. When opponents still hit buckets of dingers, and the O’s bats remained silent, Angelos ordered the fences moved back in to help his anemic offense. Unfortunately for the Orioles, this year’s experiment is unlikely to be any more successful than last year’s. Might it have been more effective in the long run to develop some decent pitching and hitting rather than trying to create the illusion of it by moving the fences? Sure, but why put in the hard work when you can get by on procedural sleight-of-hand?

Going by Angelos’s track record, it would seem that the skills of a good lawyer don't necessarily translate into the skills required to run a successful baseball team. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, as a lawyer who dreams of running a baseball team one day, I worry that Angelos is setting a bad precedent by running the once-proud Orioles franchise into the ground. On the other hand, I’m nowhere near as good a lawyer as Peter Angelos, so maybe some enlightened owner out there would take that as a sign that I'd do a much better job. It’s a toss-up.

I do know this much: this year’s Orioles are going to be the worst thing to happen to Baltimore since Frank Pembleton left Homicide. They’re going to start slow, get worse, and end in last place after a season of uninspired play, empty seats, and nasty press conferences. When that happens, we’ll all get to see Peter Angelos drag out his big bag of lawyer tricks one more time as he employs the litigator’s favorite tactic: shifting the blame. Come late September, he’ll likely fire manager Mike Hargrove for not being able to turn a roster full of talentless, overpriced senior citizens into a pennant winner.

PROJECTED FINISH: New York, Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.