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Baseball is back in play; where do we stand so far?

Even if it’s closer to 60 percent of the schedule that’s actually down the drain, the All-Star break is accepted as the interminable and relentless regular baseball season’s halfway point. It’s a time when all the illusions have been shed even if nothing meaningful has been decided. We don’t have any winners yet, but we have a good idea who the losers will be.

So where do we stand this season? Happily, no baubles are dispensed for first-half eminence but citations of some sort are in order for the Red Sox, Indians, and A’s in the AL, and the Pirates and Diamondbacks in the N.L. All five have defied the conventional wisdom, although who would be surprised if none of them made the playoffs. Most likely to survive are Boston and Pittsburgh.

The Red Sox appear to be doing it with mirrors, much as Billy Beane’s irrepressible A’s perennially do. How can a team occasionally featuring an outfield of Nava, Gomes, and Carp possibly have the league’s best record at the break? On the other hand, when they launched the second half against New York, they started seven chaps hitting over .285 while the Yankees had just one. It may be time to take the BoSox seriously. As for the A’s, they’ll be toast if the Rangers’ pitching gets healthy, although Brother Beane – no doubt – likes his chances.

Everyone’s pets, however, are the Pirates. It’s not only been 21 years since they made the playoffs but also a full score since they’ve even had a bloody winning record. In terms of rank ineptitude it’s a run of hapless folly only matched by the historically abysmal works of various Braves, Phillies, Red Sox, and Browns teams that labored hopelessly way back between the two great wars. But there’s no sports story Americans embrace more heartily than the redemption of loveable losers. This season, all true believers are Pirate fans.

They’ve lately fooled us, promising much only to ultimately fizzle. Moreover, you remain suspicious of a pitching staff anchored by the mercurial likes of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano surrounded by such unproven cherubs as James McDonald, New Hampshire’s Jeff Locke, and the torrid Gerrit Cole, whose fastball touches 100 mph. Let’s hope these phenoms hold up. The debut of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and pals on baseball’s post-season national stage would be an utter delight.

As for the under-achievers, top picks in the AL are the Jays, Angels, and Royals. In the NL, the Dodgers and Nationals cop that dubious distinction, though both are poised to prevail in the end.

Toronto again proves pennants aren’t won in January, and with their pitching in tatters, no late and heroic run realizing their lofty pre-season expectations ought be anticipated. The Angels are a joke, while the once-hopeful Royals are a huge disappointment, thereby again affirming the difficulties small-market teams face in struggling to rise from the ashes. With a $220 million payroll about to be swelled at the trade deadline, the Dodgers will survive while remaining suspect. Same goes for Washington – still plodding around the .500 mark – but luckily in baseball’s weakest division.

Prospects of lusty September pennant-races delivering us deliriously to the wire seem mixed this year. Eight teams are clearly in the playoff running in the AL although it seems a stretch to include the badly battered Yankees or exclude the bumbling Angels. Absent a miracle that not only restores Brothers Jeter, Rodriguez, and Granderson but returns them at near their best, the Yankees have no chance.

Odds on said miracle waver between unlikely and ludicrous. As for the Angels, you assume they can’t be as bad as they’ve looked, although in baseball, as in most endeavors, assumptions are foolish.

In the NL, there seem no more than seven worthy contenders with legitimate post-season potential; that is if you assume that the defending champion Giants are cooked and that the Phillies, now tied with the much touted National, will also fade. And I do. Overall, it’s a thin field in both leagues offering slim chance for late-season hysteria. But don’t take it to the bank. Prophecy is the least of our skills.

Hovering above all of this is the drug issue. With a major shoe widely believed about to drop like a bloody sledge-hammer, it’s with a fair amount of jitters that the game proceeds with at least an appearance of what could be called “normal,” whatever that means.

The more thoughtful reporters at last week’s brilliantly pitched but otherwise tedious All-Star game were pained to observe that the issue, while artfully avoided in most conversation, thoroughly haunted the entire festival. There’s the fear that what’s about to happen could this time be devastating. People in this game are scared, among them certainly those who are linked to the latest nonsense and have every right to be so. But there are also those who are perfectly clean and recognize that what they most prize and live is about to be deeply sullied and devalued. It stinks.

Of course, it’s also assumed – that loaded word again – that with appeals and so forth the impact, at least on the field, will be minimized this season. That could prove to be not much of a consolation.
If the outcome brings about the effective ruination of the besotted A-Rod, few will weep. But that would also pronounce the effective end of the Yankees’ latest dynastic run and if you like this game and care about how it’s portrayed, you don’t want to see it end that way. We’re brinking on history here and, like too much history in all the fields, it’s not pretty.

If scandal is near certain to upstage the rest of the season, it ought not be allowed to diminish individual achievement and there’s much of it looming. There’s the potential for some good history – the rather more traditional baseball kind – over the next two months.

Miguel Cabrera will be chasing back-to-back MVP awards and with the Tiger basher leading the AL in four of the five key offensive categories at the break, his chances are superb. As of the writing, Cabrera, with a .365 average, has a 43point lead in the batting race and projects to 52 homers and 164 RBIs over the full season. It’s the sort of performance quite rare since the golden age of the mighty macers when it seemed near every team had a Simmons, a Gehrig, a Medwick, or a Greenberg.

In the most glamorous hitting category, however, Cabrera trails. A home run chase for the ages is being mounted by Chris Davis, a brawny Baltimore slugger hitherto little known. With 37 homers Davis projects to 62 for the season, which would make him in the minds of many the true Home Run King.
In a bitter footnote of the times, the kid’s run for glory has already been intruded upon by widespread speculation about whether he may be on “something,” as if no one can do anything noteworthy anymore without the help of “enhancements.” There are no grounds for suspicion, no reason for questions. But he has been extensively required to defend himself. Much to his credit, he has done that patiently – so far. It’s a shame it’s required.

There’s lots more. Manny Machado, only 20 and another budding Baltimore superstar, has a shot at the 81-year-old doubles record of 67 held by the long-forgotten Red Sox journeyman Earl Webb. At least a dozen pitchers could win 20, something of a lost art of late. In St. Louis, Yadier Molina is authoring a season rare for catchers. There’s a couple of dozen young stars coming of age. Youth has rarely been more ardently served in this game.

Yet the most fetching story of all is about the style and grace of an elegant 43-year-old pitcher who is coming to the end of the line. Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour is becoming one of baseball’s all-time sweetest moments; something fine, original, and from the heart. It’s a powerful counter-point for these troubled times, and of all this man’s fine achievements, none has been nobler.