Summer is launched with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. But of comparable import for those addicted to the happy season’s requisite passion, Baseball, the day also serves as the first marker in the long, grueling run to October. For those hitherto pre-occupied with the Bruins’ dramatics, the Celtics’ pretensions, and the Patriots’ draft, it will come as a shock to learn that nearly a third of the regular baseball season has come and gone.
Which is both time and sample enough to get at least a slant on who might be for real and who might be just another dog and what might begin to distinguish this year’s contenders from the inevitable annual pretenders.
Note the use of the word “slant” as opposed to “fix” or something stronger. Recall that at this point last season the consensus held the Red Sox were getting their act together and the year before – also right around Memorial Day – they were being proclaimed “a team for the ages.” It was indeed at this very point last year that every card-carrying know-it-all in this dodge was declaring the Yankees to be cooked. They would, of course, go on to win the division as usual. You can blunder badly by jumping to conclusions at the first marker.
Still, there are trends that at this point become reasonably clear. Tendencies that are revealing. Issues that are becoming pervasive. And stories developing that will be fun to follow the next four months. Herewith, some examples:
The reincarnation of the Red Sox and Yankees – Neither resembles their forebears and ain’t that grand! Each has been stripped of its bloated, pampered, obscenely pricey, increasingly boring, core nucleus of celebrity headline-grabbers (although we still have a stray David Ortiz littering that issue). Both teams have stumbled entirely by accident on the fundamental truth that you can’t acquire happiness, love, or success in baseball entirely with money. And both are much the better and more likeable for it. At least, so far!
On Memorial Day morning, those ancient blood foes from the Bronx and Back Bay were deadlocked atop the AL East, separated by puny percentage points while boasting the AL’s 2nd and 3rd best records, respectively, and playing at a pace that would guarantee both 99 wins and post-season berths. It’s amazing considering the disgraceful state Boston abjectly plunged to last year and the simpering mess New York was wallowing in only two months ago, with nearly half their payroll germinating on the disabled list.
Time for a huge caveat! This is a classic example of how you can make a bloody fool of yourself with a mad leap in your logic to rash conclusions at the first marker. Nothing is written in the wind yet. By the second marker – the all-star break – both the Sox and Yanks could (and probably should) be back where they belong: in the middle of the pack and struggling to remain relevant. Both these teams have huge issues yet to be resolved and aching questions that have so far been artfully dodged. Days of reckoning are inevitable.
But in the meantime both are deserving of much praise for having exhibited highly admirable pluck over the first third of this season, a credit, no doubt, to the genes of both. Do players somehow get bolder, braver, and better when they don pinstripes? But of course, old Sport. For merely the latest solid affirmation may I refer you to Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, and, above all, Lyle Overbay.
The AL Manager of the Year over the first third of the season is Joe Girardi. The General Manager of the year is Brian Cashman. But Messrs. Farrell and Cherrington are first runners up, and closing fast.
Other teams deserving kudos – How about the Cardinals projecting to 108 wins. When and how did they become so almighty? The Rangers let Josh Hamilton walk yet have the league’s best record. Arizona and Colorado share leadership in the NL West and I have no idea why. Best such story in the AL is Cleveland’s Indians. Terry Francona had them soaring until Boston whacked them three-straight, much doubtless to the delight of the Red Sox unforgiving ownership. On top of all the other indignities they made Francona endure, it seemed needless.
And then there are the Pittsburgh Pirates and like all red-blooded baseball addicts one pulls for the bashful Bucs to reach the modest goal of having a winning season for the first time since Bush the Elder was president. As usual, they’ve started well and are now stride for stride with the Cards and Reds in what may be the game’s best and toughest division. It’s precisely the scenario they conjured the last two seasons when they sank like millstones in summer’s dog days. You can’t take the Bucs seriously until the third marker, at Labor Day.
Other teams deserving of rebuke, or worse – The Mets and Cubs remain jokes. The Blue Jays, runaway winners of the off-season, are proving again that those who win the winter can flop in the summer. Cursed with shabby pitching, they won’t recover. More was also expected from Kansas City, a trendy pre-season pick to make waves for the first time since Georgie Brett retired. San Francisco’s Giants have been unimpressive defending champs. Washington’s Nats – widely proclaimed team of the times – are barely above .500. Philadelphia’s Phils, ex-team of the times, are clearly finished. It’s not nice to say baseball teams “stink,” but no other adjective aptly conveys the folly of the Marlins and Astros. At their current pace, Miami finishes with 120 losses.
But first prize in this dubious business of calling out the clinkers goes to La La Land where both the Dodgers and Angels have been embarrassments while placing plans for the first Orange County World Series on indefinite hold. Injuries have been critical factors but it’s reckless, goofy spending that’s ravaged both, leaving managers Mattingly and Scioscia on life supports. Currently working on an eight game win-streak, the Angels are awake but remain ten out. Sympathizers are few.
Injuries. Injuries. And more Injuries! – Frequently agitated about to the point of harangue in this space, it’s the issue raging like a brushfire in this game, and the explanations are inadequate. The march to the DL is a dreary daily drill. The evening the Red Sox disabled Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks, the Yankees lost Curtis Granderson for another month, the Blue Jays lost J.A. Happ for two months, and the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa broke his wrist. It’s crazy! Nor can it any longer be dismissed as “just part of the game.”
Rookies and other phenomena – Call it the Shoeless Joe Charbonneau caveat, but we don’t do rookies in this space until they’ve lasted at least three quarters of a season. But there is this one rookie question begging to be answered. Has Jackie Bradley Jr. been admitted to the Hall of Fame yet?
Change? – Deeper students of the game are already agonizing over statistical phenomena that begin to suggest altered baseball dynamics. It seems that strike outs are markedly up and base hits are definitely down while the overall collective batting average – that would be of everyone who has had an at bat this season – is the lowest it has been in 40 years.
So what does that mean? Could we be brinking on a new era of pitching dominance that will lead to demands that they lower the mound? Or might it be evidence that the influence of steroids and other enhancements has at last been totally purged. But then weren’t pitchers abusers, too? Home run-hitting has not been much affected. At the marker, 10 sluggers project to hit 40 or more and that’s hefty.
Greatness? – Already, fascination builds with the potential of the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera to have a season mighty rare. At the marker, Cabrera leads the AL in batting, hits, runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and is second in homers.
With his average at .385, it’s not too early to wonder if he can do .400. And with 55 RBIs in his first 45 games he projects to 198 for the season. That would top Hack Wilson’s MLB record by eight and Lou Gehrig’s AL mark by 14.
But it’s early we stress, one more time.