Sports

Opening Day: Time For Meaningless Predictions

It's the pastime-within-the-pastime to guess what surprises the season has in store. A few of the country's best baseball writers open up.

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Every year, during the week before Major League Baseball opens its season, there’s an eye-wearying overload of predictions from the country’s sportswriters—on rare occasions offered with sincere self-effacement—profiles of the game’s superstars and promising rookies and nostalgic essays of allegedly more innocent eras. (The reminiscences, of course, depend on the author’s age: my Tony Conigliaro is the next person’s Mike Schmidt.)

As a guy who believes in fair play, before continuing on, and dumping on a few purveyors of purple and plain vanilla prose, I’ll tell a highly embarrassing story that still causes my Irish mug to turn red. It was Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in 1968 and my Simpson Jr. High history class took the bus from Long Island to the Bronx on a field trip that was, for once, something to really look forward to. Our seats were nearly in Queens, but as the Yanks were crummy the year before and had no expectations for the season ahead, the Stadium wasn’t packed and so during the fifth inning several buddies and I broke ranks and wandered down to the box seats. And there, roughly in the vicinity of where Rudy Giuliani and Billy Crystal have held court the past two decades or so, were Simon and Garfunkel, at their peak of popularity, with “Mrs. Robinson” playing on transistors across the nation.

I whispered to Bobby Ringler—a trustworthy friend but not exactly steeped in pop music—pointing to the tall Art Garfunkel, “Hey man, there’s Paul Simon!” I’ve no idea how this blunder came to pass; it’s not as if I hadn’t seen the duo on The Ed Sullivan Show or a Smothers Brothers special, but even Bobby knew the correct identities of the celebrities and ribbed me for weeks on end. Could be I anticipated Randy Newman’s funny and controversial “Short People” nine years later, figuring that the frontman of the group had to be the tall one, but probably not.

Penance completed, at least for this Monday, here’s an example of some really dumb sportswriting from a beat writer at The New York Post. Wondering whether the trio of new Yanks Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia—who set back the Steinbrenners a bull market $423.5 million in the offseason—can handle the pressure of New York City and tabloids like his, Joel Sherman writes: “What did William Shakespeare, the Bill James of his day, write? ‘To thine own self be true.’” I’m not sure if that’s just a very lame joke or whether James, the much-admired statistics factory, has on some level really attained that stature. I suspect the latter; after all, Barack Obama’s routinely likened to Stalin, just as his predecessor was dubbed another Hitler. One of the perils of the new communications age is, indisputably, that with so many millions upon millions of words written every day, historical analogies have been stripped of meaning.

The Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman stuck to the mundane in his April 5 round-up, writing: “Just one day before Red Sox Opening Day and one eternal truth remains: I love the smell of horsehide in the morning… Enjoy the moment, listen for the crack of the bat and join me in a quick tour of both leagues to see what to expect.” Man alive, that’s pretty wretched.

More egregious was the opening paragraph of Tommy Craggs’ gooey profile of the Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia in the current Boston magazine, mainly because it’s so flat-out wrong. He writes: “The new face of baseball, at the dawn of what we’re now all solemnly calling the Post-Steroid Era, has a scratchy sort of beard that has annexed the lower precincts of his cheekbones and a nose that curves faintly skyward, giving him the perpetual air of someone looking up at the world.”

Aside from repeating, later in the article, that Pedroia—certainly one my favorite Bosox players—is “scrappy” for about the millionth time (and unfairly trashing David Eckstein, the catalyst for the 2002 Series champs Los Angels, in the bargain), let’s think about the “solemnity” of Craggs’ initial premise. This, in fact, is not the “Post-Steroid Era,” and not just because players have undoubtedly moved onto other PED’s that haven’t yet become illegal, but mostly for the obvious reason that baseball, like most other industries, is entering “The Deep Recession Era.” So A-Rod’s exposed as a ‘roider? That kept my attention for less than a day, although it did tickle me, and inspired the thought that maybe Mr. Vanity might not be as productive this year.

The real baseball question in 2009 is what the financial toll will be for the already struggling franchises by the end of September. The San Diego Padres, for example, an awful-looking team, could hit Florida Marlins-like attendance figures; Detroit’s Tigers, just three years removed from blowing a Series win, are expected to hold a fire sale of their best players if the team tanks early on. The beleaguered Pittsburgh Pirates, housed in what&rs quo;s considered an extraordinary stadium, will lose and lose and lose some more, but have few players to sell off.

The Orioles, here in Baltimore, will be terrible again, and it’s a chin-scratcher as to why they don’t—future arbitration concerns or not—have the ballyhooed catcher Matt Wieters in their opening day lineup. His presence alone would help fill the seats of detested owner Peter Angelos’ Camden Yards, and at the least create some excitement in a very downtrodden baseball city. It’s no skin off my nose if the Blue Jays—a team I’ve always disliked, not Yankees-intensely, but enough that I dread listening to their awful commentators on the MLB Extra Innings Package—have to flip over their Roy Halladay card and mortgage him off to the highest bidder. And the Marlins? Well, I guess that team’s management was ahead of the curve since they jettison players like daily newspapers, and where Hanley Ramirez is playing in August nobody knows.

I asked a few people to contribute a paragraph or two about their thoughts on the upcoming season, centering on what they hope does and doesn’t transpire over the summer.

Jonah Keri, whose writing doesn’t appear as often as I’d like on ESPN.com, emailed: “I hope the Rays win the World Series, and my forthcoming book on the best-run team in baseball consequently sells 80 kazillion copies. What I hope doesn’t happen is that the economic downturn forces several teams to prematurely strip down their rosters: Detroit fans, in particular, have suffered enough.”

My virtual buddy Craig Calcaterra, whom I’ve interviewed twice in the past year, is consistent with the economic theme, and also reacts to my prediction that the Red Sox will finish third in the A.L. East. His comment:

I think there's no escaping the economic situation's impact on baseball this year. Tom Hicks may work out of his current jam, or he may have to unload the Rangers in a fire sale. The Yankees and Mets will no doubt get great crowds as the lightbulbs flash at their home openers, but I can't shake the feeling that there are going to be a lot more empty seats in those new palaces than anyone expected as the season progresses. And look for an extreme buyer's market as all but the most financially secure teams act far more aggressively to unload big contracts at the trade deadline.  Even teams that are far from being out of the playoff race.

Not that everything is going to be gloom and doom this year. For one thing, I think the Yankees are going to have a deliciously disappointing season. I think Jeter, Damon and Pettitte are going to look really old. I think A-Rod is going to be missed much more than anyone can imagine for the first one or two months of the season. I think three of the group of Nady, Matsui, Posada, and Cano are going to have rough years, and one of the group of Burnett, Sabathia, and Teixeira will disappoint as well. Meanwhile, I think the Red Sox will be the Red Sox and that Evan Longoria will have the most notable anti-sophomore slump since Paul's Boutique, helping the Rays stay near the top of the division all season. You have the Sox going wire-to-wire in third? I have the Yankees there, with Joe Girardi getting canned the day after the season ends.

Otherwise: The Indians romp, the Rangers surprise, the Mets finally figure it out with the help of a Cy Young season from Santana, the Phillies hang tough with the wild card but miss Pat Burrell a lot, the Cubs cruise, and Manny powers the Dodgers with an MVP type season. Give me the Cubs over the Red Sox in six games, one of which is postponed by a Nor'easter, causing people to once again call for a neutral site World Series. I'm then put in jail for 20 years to life for beating those types of people with a lead pipe.

In other words, it's gonna be a fabulous season.


Another fine writer, Tim Marchman, who put all the Manhattan competition to shame with his baseball commentary in the late and lamented New York Sun (and now can been seen on numerous websites, including this MLB preview) threw in his sawbuck:

I don't know that I'm hoping for much to actually happen this year other than a Cubs World Series victory, and that's just because I live in Chicago and would love to see what the city would do. Most of what I'm hoping for is in the way of things not happening. I'd like not to see any team bankruptcies and not to see the names of players who tested positive during the 2003 survey testing come out, for starters.
 
On the field this should be a pretty good year. The American League East will have a fantastic race, and there are a lot of boring clubs like Baltimore and Cincinnati quietly putting together interesting young clubs that could be really good if everything goes right. Also, not only is there an amazing amount of young talent in the game right now but players like Hanley Ramirez and the Upton brothers are stylistically really refreshing coming up after a long era of take-and-rake baseball.
 
What worries me is the off-field stuff. Baseball is a lot better off than it might be, especially because there were rules put in place a few years ago constraining debt-to-equity ratios; compared to the Premier League or the NBA, the majors look fine. But recessions have been really bad for labor peace and with succession issues coming up both in central baseball and the union I worry about a dynamic where younger power brokers push a hard line because it's in their personal interests. And the character of the current crisis is especially bad for the kind of corporate spending on luxury boxes and advertising that baseball relies on so much.
 
At least the worst is behind us, though, with the New York parks having been christened. I haven't been to either yet but I'm repulsed by both on basically all levels, and can't imagine any developments this year that could top the openings of these parks as a bad thing for the game.

David Pinto, the excellent blogger behind Baseball Musings, added his two cents:

 

I would love to see a three-way tie for a playoff position.  I think we have two good chances for that.  The Rays, Red Sox and Yankees are very evenly matched in the AL East.  If they can beat up on the rest of the league and split their head-to-head matchups, we have a chance at a three way tie for the division and wild card, resulting in a two-day playoff.  In the AL Central, five mediocre teams go head-to-head in a race that's too tough to call.  It's quite possible none of the contenders in that division finish over .500.  With that many poor teams evenly matched, the race should go down to the wire, and the multiple tie is possible.  The unbalanced divisions, with three great teams in one division and five poor ones in another increase the chance of a massive tie.

 

Not everyone, of course, is excited about the new season. My colleague at Splice Today, Zach Kaufmann, who has attended exactly one game in his life, said:

Ah, baseball season. You're back yet again to piss me off. And of course Opening Day would be on my birthday. For the next six or seven months I've got to put up with out-of-towners and county folk trafficking up my fair city of Baltimore, walking their fat Orioles-jersey-wearing asses around the Inner Harbor, keeping the Cheesecake Factory and the shitty Hooters in business, and generally making it impossible for me to go anywhere near the waterfront. Other countries came up with perfectly enjoyable sports: Soccer, rugby and sumo wrestling. Our national pastime: the most pansy of all sports, as George Carlin made clear. And yet for some reason they're still all on steroids. It's designed to be a game where literally almost nothing happens. Why even go to a game? You end up so high up in the stands you can't see anything anyway. And stop with the fucking wave already. You never do it right. Baseball’s slow, it's boring, and God help me it's all I'm going to hear about till November.

In conclusion, despite my crankiness above, I annually play the prediction game as well, and since most picks are fairly random, I’ll have to check back during the season to see exactly how ridiculous they were. The team I favor, the Red Sox, is touted as the franchise to beat: nuts to that! Yes, the pitching’s great, but when you’ve got an offense riddled with aging and injury-prone vets like David Ortiz, Mike Lowell (DL by May) and J.D. Drew (who’ll play less than 80 games), we’re looking at a lot of 3-2 games. Also: the Rays, Twins, A’s and Yankees (wild card), make the playoffs, as well as the Phillies, D’Backs, Cubs and Mets (wild card). I say the Rays advance to the Series, where they sweep the Phils in a triumphant re-match. One more: 2009 will finally be the year when Mariano Rivera is not a sure thing for the Yanks, and, ever the gentleman, he’ll retire in October

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