Every baseball season brings new surprises. Boston Red Sox of 2004, St Louis Cardinals of 2006, Colorado Rockies of 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays of 2008 are four recent examples of anything can happen in baseball. Sometimes we're treated to career type years from unsuspecting players. On the flip side, plenty of disappointing moments from the games biggest names rattle fans too.
Here's a few standouts, high's and low's, in our 2009 baseball season...
New York's New Stadiums: New York was buzzing for two years anticipating new stadium masterpieces. So far, critics have completely panned new Yankee Stadium and CitiField. Both stadiums have their headaches. In the Bronx, Yankee Stadium is giving up homeruns at alarming rates. In Flushing, fans and former players feeling disrespected due to lack of any recognizable recognition shown towards "New York Mets" teams and patrons.
Alex Rodriguez: Plenty of pre-season buzz surrounding scandal ridden ARod. Steroid usage to book allegations ranging from personal insecurities to extramarital affairs. Lack of meaningful contribution so far plus continuous terrible performances vs arch rival Boston can't sit well with the Steinbrenner clan.
San Francisco Giants: These guys are on a roll. One of MLB's early surprise teams. They began '09 2-7 before going on a 30-21 run. Not bad for a team scoring the fewest runs in National League play. They do the little things well from manufacturing runs for their powerless lineup... to smart defense... and very solid pitching. Hardly anyone seems to be noticing SF's recent rise which affords these guys to play pressure free baseball (at least for now). Personally, I had these guys pegged for dead last. Imagine where they'd be with production from 1B/3B?
Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees: American Leagues most prolific rivalry has been completely one sided this year. Boston has dominated New York. Eight games... eight wins. Boston brings out the worst in New York. Yankees play terrible defense, bullpen implodes, hitters fail in clutch situations and baserunning embarrassingly poor.
Zack Grienke: Kansas City Royals starting pitcher began the year on fire. In his first six games he allowed just 3 runs. He was 6-0, 0.40. Grienke's first loss was by 1-0.
Washington Nationals: Does this team want to win? Ever? Only a few very good players (Zimmerman, Dunn, Johnson). It's amazing this franchise was handed money to build a new stadium without first building a respectable team. Not much future help in minors. From top to bottom, nothing good on the horizon.
Manny Ramirez: Idiot of the Year Award. How can anyone, especially someone of his calibur, get busted for PED's after all of negative attention surrounding baseball's cheaters? MLB suspended him 50 games.
What happened to these guys in '09? (low's): David Ortiz .204, Jimmy Rollins .217, Garrett Atkings .193, Brian Giles .201, Ken Griffey, Jr .211, Chien-Ming Wang 14.34
Steinbrenner's: Hal and Hank remain very quiet cheerleaders. How long would Boss George have kept quiet after 8 consecutive losses to Boston?
Texas Rangers: AL West, 35-25, 1st. Old Rangers fans expecting team to wilt in 100 degree summer months. New fans have hope. Watch out, Angels are getting healthy in rear view mirror.
Florida State University: Ok, so they're not a pro team. But, a 37-6 playoff slaughter deserves an encore.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Baseball's best record 41-22. This team can play with or without Manny. Very well balanced top to bottom. My bets are riding on either LA or Philly to represent NL in Series.
All Star Game Voting: Talk about stuffing ballot boxes. MLB.com allows up to 25 votes per email address. National League hasn't won a game since 1996. Maybe it's time for fans to pick better players.
Quiet Rumor: No more 'roids. So, does this mean baseball's are juiced again? There was a quasi-quiet rumbling early on suggesting baseball's were flying out of parks. Were owners or league officials nervous of home run production slipping with steroids swept under the rug? When Major League pitchers complain of baseball's not feeling just right, something's probably up. This rumor floated around with greater attention only a few short years ago. High scoring games attract larger crowds. I'd like to think there's nothing to this rumor. Then again, it's not as though baseball is above unscrupulous activities.
Remember charismatic player turned manager Bobby Valentine? Bobby V was very well liked as a player during his unspectacular 10 year journeyman career. His popularity soon soared during his managerial career in Texas and New York (Mets).
Bobby V quickly became an icon in Japan as manager of Chiba Lotte Marines. In his 2nd stint as Marines manager they were pennant winners in 2005 for the first time in 31 years. A few games later, Chiba won their first championship since 1974. Bobby V mania soon took over. Players and fans love him in Japan. Management seems to be another story. I don't have concrete details other than hearing brief reports stating past personality clashes and ownership currently not willing to renew V's contract beyond 2009.
ESPN recently reported 100,000 Marines fans signed a formal "petition seeking to keep the American as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines beyond the 2009 Japanese baseball season." Will it work? Who knows? 100,000 signatures certainly solidifies Bobby's stature in Japanese baseball regardless of managements decision. His folklore can only grow if this stunt works.
I know of a few Texas Rangers fans keeping fingers and toes crossed hoping for Valentine's contract to expire without renewal. After a recent texting session with friends, it's clear fans in his large circle definitely want owner Hicks to rehire their most beloved former manager. I witnessed Valentine's Dallas area popularity while living in Plano years ago. If the Rangers (currently 1st in AL West) pull another one of their usual summer fades from grace ... then there's little doubt local talk radio (The Ticket) and area fans will lobby for Bobby's return.
I was not one of Bobby's bigger fans when he managed the New York Mets. He had a terrible time handling self indulged personalities during playoff runs. Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonilla and Armando Benitez were clubhouse disasters. Bonilla never lived up to super hyper NY contracts and often wore ear plug to drown out Shea Stadium boo-birds. Henderson famously left NY's dugout during NLCS vs rival Atlanta to play clubhouse poker with Bonilla and others after being removed from the game instead of using their veteran skills to motivate Mets teammates. At other times, Valentine made rookie type mistakes ranging from illegal lineup substitutions to failing to demand Roger Clemens ejection after throwing a bat at Mike Piazza during Mets 2000 World Series loss vs Yankees.
One of his most famous Mets incidents occured in 1999 after being ejected. He snuck back into the dugout after changing clothes, wearing a faux mustache and dark glasses. This moment was replayed over and over around New York. Fans ate it up. If Mets fans endure another classic September choke Bobby's name will quickly become local headline fodder campaigning for his return to the Big Apple.
If Japanese fans have their way then Bobby Valentine stays. If he's cut loose then I hope Texas Rangers will quickly jump at an opportunity bring back V. To be fair, Bobby knows how to inspire young players. I'm sure team prez and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan knows this fact. Rangers have a young nucleus of talent. Bobby V might be the perfect fit.
Speculation and rumors surrounding Brett Favre's possible return from retirement is heating up once again. Currently retired, at least for now, Favre's name has become a hot button issue in Minnesota. Favre is currently rehabbing his surgically repaired right arm. NFL's Minnesota Vikings want to tap Favre's arm, leadership ability, Hall of Fame credentials, MVP talent & Super Bowl Championships to lead their squad in 2009.
Favre proved last season plenty of bullets remain in his six shooter. Misguided Jets fans place 2008 failures squarely on Favre's shoulders when management, coaching & shoddy play calling gets my vote. After an incredible career in Green Bay, Favre was to become New York's deliverer. Super Bowl dreams clouded fans minds. Favre had little time to learn Jets offense. Play calls should have been made based on Favre's strengths and most practiced plays. I cringed often at terrible calls on critical downs coming from the sidelines. Jets softness regarding Favre's practices & commuting also upset team chemistry.
I'm pretty sure Minnesota learned from Jets mistakes. Coach Childress runs a tight ship. He's known as a no nonsense detail driven demander of perfection. Childress seems to have this situation under control. Vikings need a field general. Current qb's aren't up to snuff. Favre's rehabbing. Only he knows if there's one more year left after surgery. I'd make a large bet right now... if he feels good enough to start 16 games... then he'll be one of the games best again in '09! Childress trying to play it cool on the outside. Everyone in Minnesota hopes Brett regains arm strength and mental toughness for one more season.
Favre will not return as a publicity stunt. It's not about old broken down sports figures holding on for one more year. No way. Not this qb. If Brett comes back it'll be purely for his desire to win. Too many wrote him off after a few losses at the end of last year. That's mainstream press... promoted Favre as the hero deliverer of Super Bowl dreams when first signed... written off as selfish loser after Jets stumbled down the stretch to miss playoffs.
Minnesota has a good team. A very disciplined head coach. Favre is the missing link for a great 2009 season. Otherwise, it'll be another fine tuning for their future kind of year in a very tough NFC North division. Vikings (10-6) won it last year led by star RB Adrian Peterson. Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit all gained tremendous talent for '09. I'm figuring on NFC North being one of NFL's toughest. Adding Favre is Minnesota's best chance of success.
Let the countdown clock begin. I'm betting Favre makes a decision before the end of this month. Most likely by next weekend. Keeping my fingers crossed one of sports best competitors laces 'em up for one more season. Bring it on.
Baseball's biggest rivals are currently tied for first place with identical 34-24 records heading into tonight's action. Boston and New York have battled for division honors for decades. "The Curse" was owned by Boston and brought to life on many late season and post-season mishaps (chokes). From last day losses to handing away the 1986 World Series when they were one strike from winning it all.
In 2004, New York was one strike away from sweeping Boston in the ALCS and advancing for another shot at championship glory. Suddenly, by way of clutch baserunning and late inning heroics, Boston found a way to win. "Reverse the Curse" was 2004's mantra. Boston has won two World Series titles (2004, 06) and seem to win most big games vs New York ever since.
Fast forward to this season. Both teams sitting with 34-24 records. Both teams have battled key injuries. Yanks began the season losing more than winning before pouring it on lately. Baseball purists and superstition crazed fans wondered if the Yankees ghosts would follow the team to their new stadium (and location). Old Yankee Stadium was considered sacred land by players and fans. The new ballpark has been subject of harsh criticism due outrageous ticket prices and an alarming amount of early season home runs surrendered... some of which look like routine fly balls.
It's too early to nail down true ballpark effects as of now except for one. And, it's a BIG one. Opposing teams no longer fear playing in Yankee Stadium. Out with the old as the saying goes. Out with it goes history, dominance, mystique and aura.
There's something else too. The Yankees haven't figured out how to beat Boston this season. Boston owns the Yanks so far... 6-0 in '09. Red Sox hitters have pounded pinstripe hurlers for 45 runs. Sox pitchers keeping NY hitters off balance. Stark differences between these two foes. Boston is ready to play. They're upbeat on the field and smart hitters in the box. Yanks seem out of step vs Sox. Pitching horribly, shoddy defense and weak hacks. Of course, with this now in print, NY will win in Boston tonight. Only the first of these games has played as closely as the score might indicate (5-4, 16-11, 4-1, 6-4, 7-3, 7-0). On April 24th, Yanks were leading in Boston 4-2 with two outs in the 9th inning. Rivera pitching... deja vu. BoSox Jason Bay crushes a monster home run to tie the score at 4. Yanks lose in extra frames.
Yanks lost hard. Heads hung limping off the field. They were 9-6 before the loss. A tailspin soon followed dropping their record to 15-17 before they shook it off. 34-18 vs the rest of baseball. Pretty good. 0-6 vs Boston could prove costly after game 162. Part of this is mental. Boston has Rivera's number. And they seem in the heads of most NY players. To me it looks like the Yanks and Sox are in complete role reversal from years ago. Boston (and their fans) used to wonder how they'd blow the next game. Or, by wondering how they manage to foul up another chance at glory. Yanks were always the confident team even when trailing by large margins. It's the other way around these days and it shows.
I love how sports has names for alleged curses. Cities of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Minnesota and others all have lived through slogans tagged on their franchises. "The Curse of the Bambino" lived for years.... right up until the season Alex Rodriguez arrived in New York (2004). How ironic. It was the Red Sox who traded for Rodriguez right before the beginning of the '04 season. MLB denied the trade due to salary restructuring which would have broken MLB Players Association rules. Yanks quickly jumped into the mix and out foxed the Sox... so it seemed.
ARod was given a curse type tag early in his career. As a Mariner, his team lost back to back ALCS to NY in '00-01. Texas offered a ridiculous salary of $250M as a free agent. ARod took the deal (who wouldn't ???) and soon was harassed by fans around the league. He put up huge numbers for a Rangers team which finished dead last in each of his 3 seasons down south. Yanks were coming off a 2003 Series loss to Florida. Trading for ARod was supposed to guarantee championships. Yanks haven't gotten beyond the first round after losing '04 ALCS to Boston. Irony, Boston curse ends in ARod's first Yankees season. As a matter of fact, after Game 4, ARod went 1-12. Playoff performances were absolutely pathetic in following years. He's 8-56 (.143) after Yanks Game 4 choke ('05, 2-15; '06, 1-14; '07, 4-15). Cursed? No. Not at all. Choker? Big time, most of the time. Oh, by the way, he received a multi-million dollar extention from NY too! Curse and choke chatter will pick up if Yanks fail again this year. Especially, if he falls flat again in playoff action.
As for the rest of the squad. In games against Boston they're flat. Shoddy defense, poor swings, getting picked off bases.. even steady vet Andy Pettitte surrendered a stolen base. Pettitte fell asleep with Ellsbury on third base. Ellsbury took off and was nearly home before Pettitte delived the pitch. He stole HOME! A clean swipe.
What will it take for New York to solve Boston this year? I say they need a big time spark. I think it'll need to be a fluke play, bunt, or jarring collision at home to go their way before snapping out of this current funk vs Boston. Red Sox gain confidence and cockyness with each victory against their hated rivals. Sox either smash the ball or Yanks give free bases, errors and poor decision making. It's been a team effort. Someone needs to step up and be team cheerleader. They're too stiff on the field and extremely un-Yankee-like quiteness resonates in their dugout. Current score at posting time... Boston 3 - NY 1 (3rd inning).
Yes, baseball is a funny game.