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Summer Game is on, as is springtime nuttiness

The crocuses are up, the birds are on the wing, and the voice of the bull frog is heard booming across the blooming landscape issuing the clarion call of “Play Ball!” And after everyone has played 162 ballgames in 180 days, they’ll have weeded out the mere pretenders.

They say time stands still on Opening Day, but there are seasons when it doesn’t move much from the end of March to the first of November. Is it going to be one of those years? I’ll get back to you on Columbus Day.

In the meantime, we have the usual faintly predictable first-week-of-the season nuttiness to sort out. It happens every spring. Only, when it dramatically embraces the two most exaggerated and over-heated franchises in all of sport, let alone baseball, it gets really goofy.

Indeed, the Red Sox and Yankees both came sheepishly out of the gate, looking even more flawed and vulnerable than some of us expected and as far as the rest of the game is concerned only good can come from this. What might a season in which these two bloated franchises are not greedily hogging more of the limelight than they deserve look like? It would be vastly amusing to find out.

Among the intoxicating ramifications is the likelihood that the Red Sox early jitters only intensify the Bobby Valentine Watch. Nobody in baseball will be scrutinized more relentlessly, which is something nobody in baseball might enjoy more than Bobby Valentine. Like Teddy Roosevelt, our eternally brash new skipper yearns to be the groom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. He got off to a smashing start in reclaiming his suspended stardom at spring training, devoting much of the six weeks to his own assiduous self-promotion.
It will take more than a whacked-out weekend in Detroit to dim this bulb. But if events at the ball yard prove disappointing, you can seek solace at any of the 13 restaurants that opened under his masthead in this town before he managed a single game. Win, lose or draw, Bobby will never bore you.

It was gracious of the Yankees to take some of the sting out of the Red Sox’ embarrassing unveiling by being almost as inept in their opening series in Tampa. If it was only three games, it was quite enough to bring the skeptics roaring out of the wings. The Yankees were the overwhelming pre-season choice of all the savants just a week ago, which seemed almost as dumb as the conventional wisdom that conceded the championship to the Red Sox before a game was played just a year ago. The wonderful thing about people who make these predictions is that they never ever learn from their mistakes.

Look closely up and down this allegedly mighty Bombers’ lineup and you’ll see it loaded with questions, many of them complex-compound. Just for openers, in a game that has become strikingly young, nimble, and dashing, the Yankees are old, traditional, and plodding. Too much of their great expectations are predicated on such shaky notions as the fervent belief that Alex Rodriguez can again be as good as he once was. A-Rod always looks great in March. And then in the second game of the season, the manager feels compelled to give Derek Jeter a bit of rest and use him as DH. What’s that about? In the end, it may be up to the gallant but 40-year-old Andy Pettitte to save them. Yikes!

It’s the mood of the thing in the Bronx; it is just not right. The Jesus Montero trade was a terrible risk. And then Michael Pineda came up with a sore arm. As Queen Elizabeth might say, Brian Cashman’s winter has been rather “horribilis.”

But before you go off wild-eyed about the Tigers and Rays, take a breath. The Tigers have all it takes to win the Summer but lose the Fall. Playing in far and away the AL’s weakest division, they can cakewalk to the playoffs. But with their top-heavy devotion to sluggers and thin pitching depth, it’s a team that’s made to order playoff-bait. They now have the Prince but it’s still a team that rises and falls with the mercurial whims of the easily distractible Miguel Cabrera.

As for the Rays, yes, their pitching is wonderful and Joe Maddon walks on water. But one prefers to see how long and well that no-name offense holds up and whether Maddon, in all of his genius, can avoid burning out his bullpen.

Please keep the smallness of our sample in mind, but after a week the Mets are also undefeated and the Orioles are in first place. So are the Mariners, also picked by nobody. If it’s a new bandwagon you’re seeking, try the Blue Jays. The Giants are winless. The Phillies and Angels, two other pre-season dandies, have one more win than the Yankees and Red Sox. One year ago, Boston and Tampa started 1-6 and 0-6 and ended fighting for the last playoff berth on the season’s last night. The last year the Yankees started 0-3 (1998), they won 114 games and the World Series. The standings on the day after Easter are as relevant as the standings of the Grapefruit League. Case closed, I trust.

But major league baseball, happily, is not just about who wins and what happens in October. Fascinating lesser issues abound and this year like every year there are some gems.

As an ardent fan of loveable losers, one finds the tattered cause of the Pittsburgh Pirates especially intriguing. Can the Bucs, proudly represented over the eons by the august likes of Wagner and the Waners, Kiner, Maz, and the Great Roberto, establish the all-time standard for inept performance not just in baseball but in all of sport by grandly producing a losing season for the 20th consecutive year?

Think of it. George Bush the elder was still running the country when the Pirates last had a winning season. They almost busted out of it last year, actually entering August with a winning record before re-gaining their senses and flopping with glorious misery the last two months. We trust there will be no such anxieties this year. Is a 30-year run of uninterrupted losing within reach? You can count on this much. There will be no lack of effort from the old Buccos.

We hereabouts should find monitoring the works of the defected Theo Epstein amusing. It might even become the favored game within the game if the Red Sox continue to founder while our ex-Boy Wonder suddenly regains his magic touch in Chicago. It’s not likely, given that the Red Sox can’t possibly be that bad nor are the Cubs remotely capable of being any better. But free of the inherent zaniness of the Fenway scene, an older and wiser Epstein can methodically re-build that historically haunted franchise brick by brick without being lashed every inch of the way by the frenzied get-a-lifers of Red Sox Nation.

In the era of big money and ridiculous contracts, the competition for the booby prize as the year’s biggest bust has become a particular interest here. Last year’s co-winners were Jayson Werth of the Nationals and your very own Carl Crawford, both of whom interestingly look capable of repeating their folly this year.

So who gets crushed by the overwhelming weight of idiotic expectations in 2012? It’s not likely to be Albert Pujols, who has long been a great player, although to justify his 10-year, quarter-of-a-billion dollar pact with the Angels, he must be even better through 2022. Highly unlikely!

The burden is even greater on Joey Votto, who has just landed a 12-year, $251 million pact with Cincinnati after just four nice seasons that in no way compare with what Lou Gehrig once did. Yet as one of the weakest of the ever financially-strapped small market teams, the Reds can’t afford for Votto to be much less than as good as Gehrig. Good Luck!

But the pick for this year’s honors is the Rangers’$112 million international prize, Yu Darvish. Call it Daisuke Redux!