At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Play Ball!

The division playoff series of major league baseball is winding up. After tonight's Tigers-Athletics clash in Oakland, we'll know who the final four are in the race to the World Series. As the Fall Classic is right around the corner, I thought I'd ruminate a bit on America's pastime. You might not agree with everything I say, but passionate argument can be the heart and soul of this game.

1. I like that Pittsburgh has a reason to cheer in October. Despite the Pirates' thumping loss last night in Game Five of the NLDS to St. Louis, the Pirates have given their fans cause for future hope. And given that the Steelers have forgotten how to play in the NFL, it's good to know folks near the three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela) have a chance to enjoy something other than praying that Sidney Crosby stays healthy on the ice for the Penguins. The Pirates had endured twenty consecutive losing seasons until this year, and it looked like their blown Game Seven lead against Atlanta in 1992 has permanently cursed the franchise. But players like Andrew McCutchen have blossomed and pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Gerritt Cole have turned in good seasons. This is a team we could see in the World Series in the next couple of years.

2. The Cardinals keep chugging along. It's difficult to imagine a scenario when the opposition would be favored against a pitcher like St. Louis' Adam Wainwright. The Cards are in the NLCS for the third consecutive year and are brimming with the confidence that comes from playoff experience. Rather than the helter-skelter track of 2011 when they stormed from behind to win the Series (see video above), the Cards are moving along with all the expectations of what is arguably the best organization in baseball. Hits came off Matt Carpenter's bats this year like fire fell from heaven on Elijah's Mount Carmel altar. One would almost be tempted to mail the Cardinals into the World Series, if not for...

3. The Dodgers, who--like Cher, Barbra Streisand, and 99% of Christian rock--have quietly continued to exist all season and now the world wakes up and says, "Oh, my gosh, they're still around!" There is something spooky about this team that has crept to the verge of their first World Series since 1988 and the Kirk Gibson money shot off Dennis Eckersley. You can't discount a team that gets just enough offense from Carl Crawford, Yaseil Puig, and company. And that pitching...even if you're just talking Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke...can give the Cardinals fits.

4. The Red Sox. I love Boston as a city. I love the Celtics; they are my NBA faves. I admire the resiliency of a city that endured the Boston marathon bombings and gave new meaning to "Boston Strong". The Red Sox pushed aside the Tampa Bay Rays and look poised to make the World Series. I just hope they don't. The one positive is that I don't hate the Red Sox nearly as much as I despise the New England Patriots (the NFL equivalent of Idi Amin).

5. The Athletics. I really, really would like to see this team get to the World Series. Plus, a 25-year anniversary rematch between them and the Dodgers would be a great storyline. It's tough being Oakland, a team that isn't really overflowing with money and resources, playing in the last of the critically-panned multipurpose stadia of the 60s and 70s (the Colesium), possibly looking at a move to Cisco Field in San Jose (The San Jose A's? Are you kidding me?). That being said, few teams know the curse of losing Game 5 of the ALDS at home like the Athletics do, and they need to overcome that tonight against the Tigers if they want to move on. Personally, there's a part of me that wants the dream of Moneyball to come true, and that GM Billy Beane will finally win the last game of the season.

6. The Tigers. You have to feel for a team that gets so much right in a city that has gone so wrong (by a year from now, wild animals might be grazing in Comerica Park for all we know). The Tigers are plucky and have good pitching, and they survived some decent runs down the stretch from the Indians and the Royals to survive and repeat as division champions. I just don't know--given Cabrera's injury--how deep they can go in October.

7. The Rays. Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games each of the last four seasons and five of the last six. But they always seem to be the bridesmaid and never the bride. It's hard to imagine a scene in which that changes, but their situation looks a lot more rosy than...

8. The Rangers, who collapse down the stretch each of the last four years. 2010, they go belly up in the World Series against the Giants. 2011, they are within a strike of the title...twice...against the Cardinals, who rally to win. And after Ron Washington's foul-mouthed motivational speech before Game Seven that year (which still doesn't compare to the Cubs' Lee Elia's 32-F-bomb tirade in three minutes on April 29, 1983), things haven't gotten better, fading to a late Athletics charge each year in the division and bowing out meekly to the Orioles and Rays with the wild card on the line. They are this close to irrelevancy, but that doesn't cause me nearly as much pain as...

9. The Braves. I used to hate the Braves. Hate them! But Atlanta is a fabulous city (and I'm not just saying that because my wife is from Atlanta), and I like how this team scraped out a division title in the NL East this year. They have a lot of good talent. I was in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1991 when they clinched the NL West title then, after years of suffering. But for all their success over the last two decades, they've managed to win only one World Series (1995). It's like they get close to the brass ring and lose confidence, drop their moxie, something. There is something missing in the playoffs every year, and no one seems to know how to fix it. It's a shame because those fans deserve better.

10. Team that needs to revolt against its owner: The Miami Marlins. And the gap between this team and whoever is in second place is this category isn't even close. Jeffrey Loria makes a career out of destroying ball clubs (Montreal Expos, anyone?). In 2006, he fired Joe Girardi...Joe Girardi!...after Girardi took a team with minimal talent after Loria's fire sale, somehow scraped together a 78-84 record, and was named NL manager of the year. Apparently, Loria didn't like it when Girardi told him to stop criticizing the umpires during a game when all of 3,400 fans found their way to the stadium. Loria's an idiot. The very fact he's allowed to be anywhere near baseball is a pimple on the sport's rear end.

11. Team that has bright days ahead: The Kansas City Royals. There's a lot of excitement in KC about the future, and it's not just due to the NFL Chiefs' (my team!) 5-0 start. The Royals have great young talent, good pitching, and a camaraderie that spills over onto the field. Their 86-76 record this year was better than the Yankees even though New York's payroll is $235 million and the Royals' is only $80 million. If they can keep their key pieces on the chess board and avoid injuries, we could see an AL Central division title in 2014.

12. Finally, the Cubs. My team. Our 105th consecutive rebuilding season approaches. No World Series title since 1908. The housecleaning began last week when team president Theo Epstein fired manager Dale Sveum, which I believe was a great move. Epstein engineered the Red Sox renaissance last decade that brought that cursed franchise not one but two World Series crowns. The turnaround in Chicago might be slow but--to quote Ronald Reagan in 1981--such ills (though baseball ones and not the economic ones of which Reagan spoke) "will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away." The worm is turning at Wrigley Field. The Cubs will win the Series before I die. Book it. Yes, Phil Collins, I can feel it coming in the air tonight.

Hold on....

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