Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Sports Scene, with Richard Berger

Note that this post is vaguely in the realm of being about Delino Deshields, just to warn you. Now without further adieu, from the world of Sports, guest columnist Rich Berger:

The Big Lebowski Baseball Preview:

“Forget it, Donny. You’re out of your element.”

This quote goes to the Boston Red Sox, who open the baseball season as defending World Series champions for the first time in 86 years. How will Red Sox Nation react to being the team to beat? Easy, they will point to the Yankees’ off-season moves, particularly the Randy Johnson trade, and say they’ll take a TEAM of idiots over a bunch of mercenaries any day. Look for the Red Sox to make the playoffs again behind the best offense in baseball. If their pitching holds up (Schilling gets healthy, Clement and Miller pitch to their potential) they can take the division, otherwise they will be the wild card team again, but they sure didn’t mind that last year.

“You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.”

The Dude speaks for America here, and he’s talking about the New York Yankees. They do everything they can to win and you can’t really fault them for that. They just happen to have more money and more prestige than any other team in the major leagues, allowing them to go out and get Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson in back-to-back off-seasons. They can also overpay Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano and think nothing of it. We hate them for it, and that’s all we can do. But the Yankees are still assholes, and let’s hope that their World Series drought continues for as long as possible.

“Just because we’re bereaved doesn’t mean we’re saps!”

This quote goes to the St. Louis Cardinals, 2004 National League pennant winners and World Series losers. They may have been upset about being swept by the Red Sox, but this winter they went out and only got better, acquiring multiple-time All-Star Mark Mulder to bolster their somewhat suspect rotation. If Mulder can overcome his late-season struggles he will be a very effective top-of-the-line starter for St Louis. The Cardinals will also have the services of Larry Walker for an entire season, to go along with the incomparable Albert Pujols and the rest of the best lineup in the National League. They have an excellent chance of a repeat trip to the Fall Classic.

“…Dude, uh, tomorrow is already the tenth…Just, uh, slip the rent under my door.”

This money-related line goes to this winter’s big spenders, the New York Mets, who made a big down payment, but might not be able to keep on the monthly “rent.” The Mets lavished large sums of cash on free agents Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, and Kris Benson, and these superstars (and career underachiever) will be expected to produce immediately, if not sooner. The Mets committed approximately $200 million in contracts to these three players, and the fans (including myself) will expect to have something to show for it. You can be certain that even if it’s only May and the Mets aren’t in the thick of the National League East race, all the optimism of the winter and spring will be gone and new General Manager Omar Minaya will wish he still worked for the Expos (or Nationals). That said, I think that the Mets will be competitive in the NL East this season, with David Wright poised to become a household name. But ultimately New York will probably fall short in a division that could be won by anyone but the Nationals.

“This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”

This memorable line from Walter goes to Sammy Sosa and the Baltimore Orioles. Sosa’s story is one of a steroid-propelled, selfish superstar who walked out on the team that made him an icon. His first reward this season: a trip to Washington, not to play the new Nationals, but to testify before Congress and further tarnish his reputation (after the corked bat and the walkout, he’s not exactly in people’s good graces). His second reward: he joins a mediocre and overpaid Baltimore team stuck in the most difficult division in baseball behind the Red Sox and the Yankees and with almost no hope for a playoff spot. Good luck Sammy, you’re gonna need it.

“I hate the fucking Eagles, man.”

This is what might be on the minds of the perennially underachieving Philadelphia Phillies. Favored to win the division last season, they were a total flop, and with the Eagles finally making the Super Bowl this season, Philly fans will probably be expecting some sort of breakthrough from their baseball team too. Maybe the Phillies will be better off without all the high expectations, but in a division in which three other teams will be contending for the title, don’t expect a lot from these not-so-loveable losers.

“Stay out of Malibu, deadbeat!”

Now I respect Arte Moreno for constantly trying to improve his team and be a fan-friendly owner, but renaming the Anaheim Angels the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is just a joke. The team is clearly not in Los Angeles and does not play its games there. It would be like the NFL’s Jets and Giants saying they were from New York…wait…that’s a whole separate issue. But seriously, I understand that it might be easier for Moreno to market Angels gear that can capitalize on the famous initials L.A., but this move sets a bad precedent and serves to further marginalize small-market teams and the cities they play in. In addition, it creates illegitimate competition for the Los Angeles Dodgers who really do play in Los Angeles.

“…Eight-year-olds, Dude.”

This reference to Jesus Quintana’s pederasty could just as well be used as part of a description of the Oakland Athletics’ starting rotation. Featuring young guns Rich Harden, Danny Haren, Joe Blanton, and Dan Meyer, along with 26-year-old “veteran” Barry Zito, this retooled staff will be critical to the success of a team that missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999 last season. General Manager Billy Beane typically ignores conventional wisdom and this off-season was no different as he traded away two of the three pitchers (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) who were critical to the A’s recent run of success in the American League. But Beane, who works with a smaller budget than many other GM’s, usually knows what he’s doing, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt and expect the A’s to be highly competitive again in the American League West this season.

“…That rug really tied the room together, did it not?”

He may not be media-friendly, but, steroids or not, he sure can hit a baseball. I’m talking of course about Barry Bonds, the heart and soul of the San Francisco Giants, and the most dominant individual player in a very team-oriented sport. Bonds could miss the whole season, although I think that is unlikely, but any time out of that lineup would be devastating for a veteran-laden team whose World Series chances get slimmer with each passing day. He is an irreplaceable force, changing the entire manner in which teams approach the Giants’ offense. The loss of Bonds for a significant portion of the season will thus illustrate the mediocrity of the team that has been surrounding him for the past few years. The Giants will struggle considerably without Bonds, but if he returns early enough, they still might have a chance to beat either San Diego or Los Angeles in the National League West.

“I didn’t blame anyone for the loss of my legs, some Chinaman in Korea took them from me, but I went out and achieved anyway.”

This quote goes to General Manager John Schuerholz and his Atlanta Braves, the team that now reinvents itself every season yet has still managed to win the National League East a record 13 times in a row. After the remarkable successes of J.D. Drew, Johnny Estrada, and Jaret Wright last season, Schuerholz was forced to be at it again this winter as he had to replace both Drew and Wright. Instead of complaining, he simply brought in Athletics’ ace Tim Hudson, put former 20-game winner John Smoltz back in the starting rotation, and replaced him in the bullpen with All-Star closer Dan Kolb. Those moves look like pretty good bets for success, but it will be more interesting to see what happens with reclamation projects Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan in the outfield. One thing is for sure: you can never count the Braves out (until the playoffs) and this year is no different. They will surely challenge for the National League East crown and until someone knocks them off, they are probably still the favorite to win it.

“If you will it, it is no dream.”

Courtesy of Theodore Herzl and Walter Sobchak, this could be the slogan for a Detroit Tigers team looking to make a surprising run in the American League Central. The Tigers won 72 games last season, a 29 game improvement over 2003, and with Magglio Ordonez and an improved bullpen, there’s some excitement at Comerica Park for the first time in its existence. But, alas, being in contention probably is a dream for Alan Trammell’s team, as they will most likely miss the playoffs for the 18th straight season.

“You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”

Except in this case, Jesus is Johan, as in Johan Santana, the defending American League Cy Young winner. Santana was the class of the AL last season, dominating hitters with ease, particularly in the second half of the year, including two excellent outings against the Yankees in the playoffs. There is no reason to believe that he won’t a be a force again this season, and his performance will be crucial for a Twins team that has won the division three years in a row, but has only made it past the first round of the playoffs once. Helping Santana out will be a slew of younger players, highlighted by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two players with the potential for breakout seasons. The Twins, despite potential competition from the Indians and White Sox, are distinct favorites to win a fourth consecutive American League Central title, but they want more than that.

“His girlfriend gafe up her toe! She sought we’d be getting million dollars! Iss not fair!”

This one goes to out to the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering fans who would probably do anything at this point to experience what the Red Sox did last year and finally win a World Series. The past two seasons have been especially frustrating for Cubs fans as they first had to deal with the Bartman situation and a loss in the 2003 NLCS, then watch the Red Sox win it all in a year in which many, including Sports Illustrated, favored the Cubs to take the title. The Cubs lost two big bats this off-season in Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa, but they should still be competitive if their pitching can get back to where it was supposed to be last year. The keys to the pitching staff are Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, both of whom are struggling with injuries right now. If healthy, they can team up with Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux to form a fearsome foursome, but if not, the Cubs may have to wait ‘til next year yet again.

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