Baseball’s back, and, yes, it’s gonna be interesting

The happiest and looniest interlude on the entire sporting calendar has reared again, a far more certain harbinger of palmy days looming just around the corner than any frolicking bevy of bloody sparrows. With apologies to the poet: God’s in his heaven; spring training is about to begin.  

Has there ever been a time when enduring a three-hour traffic jam crawling from Fort Myers to Sanibel Isle and back looked like more fun?  Certainly not since 1978, when the addled masses that escaped that epic winter’s fury came crashing down on Winter Haven in record numbers raring to party. Back then it was the nightmare of a night on Route 128 or having to dodge ice floes rolling down the main streets and back roads of the South Shore that further inspired our baseball passions. This year, the inspiration is – incredibly – even greater and scarier. No game benefits more from its place on the calendar.

Bear in mind, dear friends, that this, too, will pass and it’s only a month and a half until Opening Day. Baseball is eternal and so, in your heart of hearts, are the Red Sox.  

As are of course to their respective constituencies the Yankees and Cubs, Mariners and White Sox, Nationals and Royals, even this year the Padres, although there may be less of an urgency  about having to flee San Diego in February.  

The point being that maybe never have  there been more issues and questions, rising hopes and simmering doubts,  controversy for the gasbags of talk radio to bicker over and basic baseball for  diehards of the bleacher seats to feast upon as the dearly welcome Grapefruit  and Cactus Leagues re-flower.

For the common and unquenchable fan, it is a  bonanza. And it all derives from baseball’s historic winter-long Hot Stove Season, which featured 95 old-fashioned horse trades plus 78 huge dollar-packed
free agent signings involving a total of at  least 330 players and it’s technically not yet over (as of the writing) because  there are a couple of days to go before all the camps officially open. Those who keep track of such arcane folderol insist there has never been anything quite like  it in all of baseball history and when you say something has never happened  before in this game you are really reaching.

On average, teams re-shuffled more than a quarter of their rosters. Not one held pat, and some were  utterly out of control. The feisty Oakland A’s, under the tutelage of their  manic GM,  Billy Beane, recast half their roster, including the entire starting infield, even though last year’s squad  was good enough to reach the  post-season. The team from the nation’s capital, scene of so many colorful denunciations of runaway spending, paid $210 million for a pitcher even though they’ve already got arguably the best staff in the league. The consistently pathetic  team from Miami, long run by legendary tightwads, invested $335 million in an  outfielder who got seriously beaned at the end of last season. It was the winter when everyone went nuts, except the Yankees.

Talk of the unprecedented! From Armistice Day to Ground Hog Day, the trafficking in baseball was just plain  crazy.

So who did best? Which team has emerged most strengthened? Does one have the chance to match Kansas City’s stunt of  surging from abject mediocrity to a berth in the World Series? Sorry, pal, but I  ain’t going there. Reading those tea leaves before spring has even sprung is pure folly. Moreover, “winning the off-season” has become the game’s most  worthless distinction.

Two years after pulling what looked  like a bunch of nifty deals, the Blue Jays were widely conceded the pennant. They finished last. A year ago, the Red Sox – fresh from a championship and  seemingly set at every position – were widely applauded for doing nothing while  hanging on to their dozens of so-called prized prospects. They, too, finished last  and now can’t give away some of those alleged phenoms. Baseball is a strange game. Only dang fools and the more foolhardy members of the media dare try to predict it.

For what little it may be worth, the  more learned pundits seem to most like what the Cubs, Padres, Mariners, Marlins, Jays, Chisox, Mets, and Bosox  have  done to upgrade themselves. What’s interesting about this list is that it  prominently includes teams that, save for Boston’s, have been more often than not lackluster, even traditional doormats. This perfectly reflects the  changing baseball scene. In an age of prosperity and with a much wider  distribution of profit than historically the case, no baseball team is truly  strapped and all of them can now belly up to the bar capable of going for broke. Could it be that there is no such thing as a doormat anymore?

All of this, of  course, comes as particularly bad news for the New York Yankees, who can no  longer bully the field with their big bucks. Can’t really comment meaningfully on  most of these aspirants. Teams like the Padres might as well come from Southeast Asia for all we get to really know about them. But the rising tide of great  expectations on behalf of the Cubs and White Sox is particularly interesting. If there’s an undisputed off-season winner, it’s the city of Chicago. The annual baseball yearbook of

the Sporting News – no longer the “Bible,” but still  possessed of much clout for us old geezers – flat out predicts the Cubs will go all  the way this season and win it all for the first time since 1908  when Tinker & Evers & Chance were all the rage and Mordecai Brown  pitched with only three fingers.  

The News finds Theo Epstein’s off-season moves, topped by his Jon Lester coup, to be quite dazzling although I  remain confident the Cubbies will somehow find a way to screw it up. Not that I would root for that, mind you, because it would be just dandy to have the Cubs  and the also greatly improved cross-town White Sox meet at the brink next  October in what would gloriously

be a reprisal of their 1906 epic, memorably won  by the “Hitless Wonder” White Sox back when Chicago was truly a toddling town.  Such wistful yearnings are at the core of spring training’s magic.  

Talk of wistful yearnings brings us  back to the Red Sox, a subject on which I’m always from Missouri. But I do  think there should be legitimate doubt about the wisdom of their off-season  investment of $200 million in a third baseman who has a conspicuous weight  problem and a leftfielder who has never played left field but does have a well  established reputation for being fragile and possessing a poor attitude.  Reference being obviously to those big-buck imports, Messrs. Sandoval and  Ramirez. Nor is the pitching staff that impressive, although a trade with the  Phillies for lefty Cole Hamels, still rumored a strong possibility, could change  that abruptly. As usual,

I shall wait and see on these blokes.  

On the other hand the measure of what  the Red Sox did has much to do with what the Yankees didn’t do because as you  further know it’s always all about the Red Sox and Yankees. But if the Hot Stove seemed cool in the Bronx that’s mainly because we’re so accustomed to it running  red hot. Actually, they were quite busy, albeit with moves more subtle than usual. The fact that they have finally renounced the idiotic policy of throwing  huge and mindless gobs of money at every problem is noteworthy. “Prudence” is  their new watchword. Will wonders never cease?  Now they face a training camp that  could easily be turned into a flaming circus by the unwelcome return of prodigal son A-Rod. At his best, he could turn their spring scene upside down before  anyone gets the chance to bend over and touch their toes.  
Obviously, deeper explorations of all  these issues are in order. But we have all spring for that, and beyond.  

As Robert Browning’s dear Pippa might say, “Baseball’s back. All’s well with the world.”