Wonder of wonders: It’s time to ‘Play Ball!’

The crocuses are again pushing their way marvelously up through the snow fields still blanketing much of the Republic, including its ball fields. The voice of the turtle – in its contemporary rap – is heard again all over our land bellowing “Play Ball!” Rarely has the wonder of it all been more welcome.

It is baseball’s ultimate calling card, this happy happenstance of its place on the calendar that allows it to take credit, in our rich imaginings, for the ushering upon us of spring, glorious spring, even if it debuts in what the poet correctly observes to be the cruelest month. Hey, illusion can be mightier than truth. Especially in baseball!

So, what manner of merry madness do you expect of the 2015 campaign? The field seems especially open.  Plausible arguments have been advanced for at least 20 teams as legitimate contenders, 11 of them in the American League, and there’s not a one of the many wildly optimistic briefs I’ve seen that I’d have a problem with – at least not in April.

In the brave new baseball world of rampant riches and fragile bodies and deep minor league systems featuring a total parity that’s rigidly enforced by payroll controls aimed at crunching reckless free-spenders, every team is but a stray break or two from true contention. Just ask them. Though it can get confusing.

Bear in mind that last year no team winning a division on the basis of six months of grueling endeavor made it to the World Series. We had a Fall Classic matching also-rans. Two teams that had lain stealthily in the weeds from April through September got to waltz at the Last Dance, with the wild card that emerged from the regular season with merely the fifth-best record in its league, only seven games over .500, ending up as the champion of the baseball world.

There are still a few of us hyper-reactionary Luddites still kicking around in our dotage who feel that ain’t fair. But everything is relative nowadays, very much including strength, legitimacy, potential, and even supremacy in the game of baseball.  Suckers fret over finishing first. The smart money is on the wild cards.  

So where does that lead us this year? The deck has been re-shuffled in surprising ways. Consider the remarkable novelty of the past winter’s Hot Stove League hijinks, which starred such unlikely suspects as the San Diego Padres, Washington Nationals, and Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox as the most raffish of the idiot-spenders while the Yankees and Angels, usually among the most silly and wanton spendthrifts, were exhibiting caution, restraint, and an obsequious deference to the luxury tax. And yes, somewhere in the middle of this oddly conflicted maelstrom one finds your Red Sox, who also spent heavily, if questionably, while raising as many questions over what they declined to spend.   

It’s always all about the Yankees and Red Sox, of course, although the relationship is not what it used to be, their mutual loathing having sadly diminished along with the Yankees’ customary hegemony. Still, even in this current odd afterglow, they tend to find a measure of themselves in each other, which likely means this season will be something of a success for Boston’s olde town team, even if it ends in September.

The Red Sox will contend, although their mediocre pitching will unravel them in the end unless they do something mighty dramatic about it between now and late July. Amidst all the bombast that attends every Red Sox April, the presence of Koji Uehara on the disabled list ought to be more chilling to the Nation than seems to be the case nor is Joe Kelly landing alongside him less than ominous. It’s hard to conceive of the Red Sox going all the way with the staff now constituted, even if Uehara, Kelly, and all the rest get, and remain, healthy.

Many still quibble about the decision to pass on Jon Lester, which may not prove that disastrous. Not enough question what possessed them to pass on James Shields, an old-fashioned innings-eater with a big- game mentality, given that he ended up with less than half the money Lester demanded. For them, Shields would have been a bargain. A bit of a character, he might have thrived in Fenway’s giddy atmosphere. Instead, for a few bucks less they’ve loaded up on Wade Mileys. Interesting!

But they’ll hit, usually enough to appease Fenway’s allegedly discerning patrons. Self-anointed man of the people David Ortiz is getting long in the tooth but they’ll get lusty numbers from imported Bash Brothers Sandoval & Ramirez, if hardly worthy of a roughly $200 million price tag. They’ll deliver in the short term, but you’re going to loathe those contracts before they expire, I promise you.

What we have here this season, it seems to me, is a fairly traditional Red Sox team, of the sort that makes much noise and finishes second, which of course nowadays might be good enough for a wild card. But I could be wrong. Yet again!

The Yankees will have interesting moments, but in the end will also unravel as near everyone is saying and, for once, near everyone is probably right. For the erstwhile Bombers to prevail, their pitching which, in theory, could be wonderful must also remain perfectly healthy and there’s no way they can sustain both slices of such a remarkable phenomenon faithfully all the way from April Fool’s Day to  Halloween.

The season’s governing over and under in the Bronx has something vaguely to do with how many days Brothers Teixeira, Beltran, Rodriguez, Pineda, Sabathia, and the classy Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka collectively spend on the DL. It was, however, unnecessary for retired Red Sox agitator Pedro Martinez to flat out predict Tanaka will blow out his arm soon. Can you just imagine how our flamboyant prima donna might have reacted had some wise-acre Yankee made that comment about him back in his heyday. Someone should remind Martinez that wise-guy ragtime is unworthy of a Hall of Famer.     

What to expect from the Yankees? Little! It would be an irony bordering on the painful if resident outcast A-Rod revives meaningfully while all about him fades further. If it’s to be a throwaway season, the last thing the Yanks may yearn for is to be obliged to dispense $6 million bonuses to A-Rod for smiting essentially irrelevant homers.  It could happen. Even as the season just begins, learned Gotham pundits are speculating the A-Rod sub-plot – as thin, tiresome and tawdry as it has become – could end up the star attraction this season in the Bronx. What an abominable prospect.

What to expect elsewhere? Who knows? This space tries to limit its forays into prophecy, predicting the future being the least of our skills as well as among the worst of journalistic gimmicks. We’ll ride the tide with you all. But there are things one would like to see and/or hope not to see.  

The injury thing:  What’s it about? Where are the answers? Players were dropping again like proverbial flies in spring training. The season opens with 100-plus lads disabled and with another parade to the Tommy John operating table well underway. If all of baseball history is a guide, it makes no sense.

The new look: A campaign to speed up the game and purge dead spots is supposedly being waged. Umpires will be asked to enforce the rules and oblige batters to quit posturing and dilly-dallying in the box and pitchers to throw the bloody ball lest we nod off between pitches. Is it too much to ask? We will find out.

The technology invasion: Another year of instant replays bears close monitoring. Some want to expand its usage, the consequence most dreaded when it was introduced.

The new Czar:  It has only been a few weeks but Rob Manfred seems off and running in displaying an open mind on issues like expanded rosters, shortened seasons, reformed post-season formats, delaying tactics, defensive-shift elimination, even Pete Rose. Could be an interesting pontificate.

We’ll see how it all works out come October. Meanwhile, the time for the singing again is at hand, as the Solomonic wisdom quaintly avers. Let the flowers appear anew.

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