Fenway at 100

The Red Sox honored Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary by recreating as much of the ballpark’s 1912 debut as possible. Conveniently, their first opponent remains their rival today, though they had to morph from the NY Highlanders into the Yankees.

The game itself failed to duplicate Boston’s 100-year old win (Red Sox 7, Highlanders 6), but New York did score precisely the same number of runs in a 6-2 victory. Both teams wore throwback uniforms: gray for the Yankees with a splashy NY on the chest, and serene white shirts, pants, and hats for the Sox. No uniform shirts were besmirched with player names, or even numbers; the teams looked pleasantly casual, and Boston’s bright red bands on their high socks seemed exotically old-fashioned.

The first pitch was at 3:05 pm on a Friday, a time so inhospitable to viewership and advertising that the Sox are either remarkably pure in their homage to history or supremely confident that the money will follow them wherever they lead.

Of course, the money followed. Via TV, I joined those taking time off work on Friday, and the pre-game celebration launched me into observations on how baseball measures time.

The ceremony was simple. The Red Sox invited all living players who’d suited up for Boston to come to Fenway and stroll out of the big left field maintenance door to stand, once again, at their position on the field. The procession was not orchestrated as a parade, or in any order of ascending majesty, save for holding Carl Yastremski for the finale and starting off with Jim Rice.

The 216 players and coaches who appeared qualified solely by the credential of serving time on the team. Perhaps some winced when Jose Canseco was eager to take them up on their offer so he could strut to right field, flexing his biceps the whole way. And the host of players I couldn’t recognize by sight or place by name were there not to give me the little thrill of seeing a hero but the deeper knowledge that baseball is better characterized by the small successes and failures of dozens of journeymen than by Carlton Fisk’s delightful hopping up the first base line, willing the ball fair.

Click to see that hopeful hopping one more time.

But Fisk was there, of course, and a little flood of Fenway memories that I never bothered to inspect came roaring out. I’ve seen more games there than any other park, and I spent some of my most worshipful moments slinking down in the late innings to lurk behind the batter’s on deck circle, rapturously watching Fisk swing with the donut on, tap it off, stretch, and kneel to wait his turn.

Now, let’s not over-love Fenway. I’ve spent some games craning around an iron post, or retreating from the heat and humidity in the second deck by leaning out into the scant breeze accessible from the dimly lit concession area. The seats are skinny and hard, and the sight lines sometimes woeful.

But it was in Fenway Park that I once saw Pedro Martinez pause, pace, mutter, and sink down to a crouch on the mound briefly. He was in a typical pitcher’s jam, and it was the Yankees that got him there to boot. His fastball wasn’t much that night. He was on the ropes. He raked his hand through the dirt a couple times and then he simply willed himself to roar back at them. I remember staring at him, and wishing he could do just that, unlikely as it seemed. I remember staring at him composing himself in the least private place on earth, the pitcher’s mound in the middle innings of a Red Sox-Yankee game, and if there is a collective intelligence that forms in crowds, when he stood back up he drew our need from us and packed it inside that baseball and threw it for a strikeout.

I’ve felt the crowd in Fenway at other times too. Something pulses, connecting us all, and if Fred Lynn manages to convert it into a home run, or Nomar Garciaparra into a single, or Dustin Pedroia into a sac fly, well, you can’t deny you had something to do with it. You sat right there, rooting, with nothing but this moment on your mind.

Today as the former players and coaches began dotting the diamond in their Sox jerseys, we were watching little collisions in the dimension of time. There was more than a moundful of pitchers, a battalion of catchers, and an especially dense crowd at second base, where Bobby Doerr held court as the player with the longest reach back into Fenway’s past: he started his career in 1937.

But one of the clearest statement’s of Fenway’s history came from the much smaller pool collecting in left field. Yes, there’s some recent clutter there, but the Red Sox have a true Shaker elegance in the lineage from 1939 to 1989: Ted Williams (through 1960), Carl Yastremski (61 to 74), and Jim Rice (to 1989). I still prize this piece of trivia: Rice was succeeded by Mike Greenwell, pretty much breaking the spell.

In sports, one aspect of time turns backward. Each spring it’s a new wave of players—I can age, but the starting shortstop need not. But on Fenway’s warm field today, we looked back and saw many of the men who’d taken that field. I realized how long I’d been watching baseball, and how the Red Sox had been the team that drew me back to it, once I moved from Ohio to New England. Suddenly I’m shocked to realize how long it’s been since Dwight Evans (Dewey!) was rocketing the ball back in from right field, or Wade Boggs was eating pregame chicken before manning third. These and other players are now my collection of antiques, unimaginably distant for the modern fan, endlessly comforting those whose baseball investment is measured in decades.

This afternoon we all gaze on the powdery green walls of Fenway, projecting ourselves back in time and trying to grasp what it means for a place to have contained so much. The players summoned today are only a subset. This field has held hundreds more, and just to try to imagine all the games played half hurts, half overjoys.

The Red Sox mingle recent history with their deepest past by having their most recent retirees Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield pilot the wheelchairs Doerr and Johnny Pesky now require. Here I pause to think what ending a sports career must feel like. Yes, you’re invited back; yes, you can wear your World Series ring or tote whatever other memorabilia you’ve acquired. But what looks like a pretty pageant to me this afternoon has to have its wistful side for the men on the field.

No matter how magnificent the athletic accomplishment, the simple fact that you have to live so many years after it’s occurred is a bit harrowing. What does the future look like to, say, Jason Varitek? He may be able to keep a nice glow of money and fame about him, but presumably the new things he has to hope for pale beside the past.

Sports always makes a taunting little jab at death because it celebrates youth and physical power. We watch, and we age, and the players—effortlessly young—enliven us. But in this arc of entertainment, the players are consumed. We cheer, we offer as much devotion as possible, but we replace them one by one.

The field at Fenway is finally filled with chatting, milling ballplayers. And then the members of the current team spring from the dugout and trot to their positions, joining their predecessors in crowds clotting each base and outfield spot. What is today is superimposed, literally, on what is yesterday. The tunnel of time becomes, briefly, a cascade of sparks. Fireworks blazing, burning out, and glowing on in memory.

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

Among baseball matchups, Twins-Yankees contests have moved deep into hyperbolic territory. Obviously, they’re not keen regional rivals, but over the last decade these teams play to settle one single question: Under what planetary alignment could the Twins possibly beat the Yankees?

The Yankees win when it counts. In four Division Series against the New York, Minnesota’s record is 1-3 (2003), 1-3 (2004), 0-3 (2009), and 0-3 (2010). A decade of making noise in the AL Central, only to have the Yankees (and in 2002 and 2006, the Angels and As) shut you up.

The postseason deflatings have been gruesome, but they simply carry on the rich regular season tradition of pure Yankee dominance. Before the four-game series that started this Monday, the Twins had played 73 regular season games against the Yankees since 2002. The Twins have won 20 of them, a statistically distressing 27% success rate.

And it’s anomalous. In that same span, the Twins have suffered against the Blue Jays, but only to a 30-41 record. The Yankees have clobbered the Royals nearly as well—a 68% beatdown pace—but KC lost to everyone in that decade. Something just happens when hallowed pinstripe meets Midwestern pinstripe.

Add in the bonus oddity that Yankee Stadium, old or new, is especially well suited to the hitting skills of the Twins’ predominantly lefty lineup and you are left wondering why an interlocked N and Y have such a definitively mesmerizing effect on the Twins. They fare no better at home, whether in the Metrodome where they used to enjoy a decisive home field advantage against all teams not from the Bronx, or in new Target Field.

For a decade, the Twins’ sole project has been to offer themselves up for the Yankees to devour.

So when I settled in for this series, played in New York, I began with a simple, feeble hope: just win one of the four games to shake off at least a little of the feeling of doom. The Twins 2012 season is off to a predictably lousy start—2-7, dead last in the division, with the only bright spot confined to a Justin Morneau homer that might (might!) signal that his concussion symptoms have truly started to dissipate. The Yankees are 5-4, tied atop the AL East with Baltimore and Toronto.

Even staunch Twins fans can’t expect much from the team this year. They’ve brought in Josh Willingham to try to make up for the power lost with the exodus of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. The rotation is rickety, and now Scott Baker will be lost to Tommy John rehab for the year, leaving behind Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins made a madcap, high-risk pick of closer free agent Joel Zumaya, who didn’t make it past spring training before suffering the type of injury that every other general manager in baseball adequately foresaw. Sift the roster however you like—there’s little there but some hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau might hit a little and Danny Valencia can finally win manager Ron Gardenhire’s love with some handy hitting.

The Yankees, on the other hand, replace All-Star with All-Star whenever an injury or a more favorable pitching matchup requires. However, for all the glory in their stat lines, it’s important to note that it’s an aging hitting lineup: catcher Russell Martin is the youngest of the offense at 29. They’re tall, they’re trim, they’re well-conditioned and cared for, but trying to wring a little more out of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones starts to look a little like a rich man’s a creepy kind of science experiment.

The pitching staff has a bloom of youth in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, but they’re joined by oldsters CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda, hope of the future, is nursing his shoulder back to health. As reluctant as they are to shed any bit of the luster that was Yankee glory in the 90s, Jorge Posada has retired and Andy Pettitte is standing by in the minors, while Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter continue to merit spots on the roster.

Jeter is off to a hot start this season, his perfect career evolving into a perfect and long one. So, for game one, Carl Pavano versus Freddy Garcia, my lowered expectations were as follows: win one game of the four, and maybe get Derek Jeter out a couple times.

Yes, well, that will not be possible. The Twins start strong, scoring 2 in the first, but if you really want to feel gloomy, you can remind yourself that the Twins started with the lead for so many of the games they lost to the Yankees that it’s almost an eerie prediction of failure. Still, a double from Mauer and a single from Morneau, plus RBIs from Willingham and Doumit make it feel like the turning point might at last be at hand.

But in the bottom of the first, Jeter needs only two pitches from Pavano to find the one he’d like to launch to his right field homer zone. It’s the standard punch in the gut, but perhaps Pavano can reinflate himself? Not quickly enough. Curtis Granderson also likes the look of the second pitch he sees and whips his bat around to park it a little higher in the same right field porch.

Two lead off homers and this is starting to look like a classic Yankee massacre. Classic, as in Why did you bother to try to play against us? The frail little tie lasts a few minutes, but Mark Teixeira drives in Alex Rodriguez to make it 3-2. The entire universe settles: Yankees ahead, Twins paralyzed.

I could dream about a turning point, but there’s a grim sameness now. The good news is that Pavano regains every speck of his composure after that insta-collapse first inning. He becomes efficient, focused, and deals a few crisp strikeouts while leaning on a double play to solve the third.

Garcia, meanwhile, also got said mojo back and began dispatching Twins at a brisk clip until the fifth, when the Twins retook the lead on a double from Alexi Casilla, a single from Jamey Carroll, and a double from Mauer. It looked like more was building: with Mauer on second, up comes Willingham, the Twins best hitter at the moment. It’s an ideal scoring opportunity, but Willingham settles for a fly out.

The Yankees were done for the night; Pavano made it through seven without the slightest flashback to his first inning woes. But the Twins notched a few more runs, the most encouraging of which was Morneau’s lofty solo homer to deep center. Final score: 7-3. Essence of a turning point.

Tuesday’s game pits Liriano against Sabathia. Liriano has already had two miserable starts, but I’m not the only observer who can’t shake memories of the brilliance of his first full season, in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP. There have been surgeries, injuries, lost seasons, stumbles, and just about every disappointment you can name, but the image of 2006 persists. I watch because there’s always this wild chance Liriano will bloom again.

Wait a minute—flowers don’t do that. Baseball is so good at lodging stories about players in our heads, but I’ve got to let the real evidence chip away at my idealized Dominican lefthander. Well, the Yankees are happy to slam me back to earth.

Liriano has a shaky first but escapes after allowing a double and a walk. The Twins score in the second, with Willingham keeping his 11-game hitting streak going with a homer off a pitch Sabathia hangs. It’s a puny lead, but I’m no longer willing to write it off as another Twins folly. Last night they not only held on, they got better as the game progressed.

But Liriano is not comfortable on the mound tonight. A feeling of pure Twins futility returns, and it’s such a familiar feeling. It’s clear Liriano no longer has the velocity, location, or the requisite pride in his calling. In fact, pitching may no longer be his calling. Time and injuries have turned a 95-mph fastball into a 91-mph not-fooling-anyone pitch. One only wants Liriano lifted as the hits and runs keep clunking over on the odometer. Rick Anderson sedately visits the mound with the same implacable expression—largely constructed from a motionless salt and pepper mustache—and Liriano stays in, not least because the Twins have little else in the bullpen to offer up to the hungry Yankees.

The Twins tick off two more runs, but the Yankees go on to take four more off Liriano, and three from Minnesota’s motley relief staff. Final score: 8-3 Yankees, and the turning point seems to have turned back to the inexorable Yankees.

Yet there is a bright spot. If Yankee mystique has overwhelmed the Twins for ten years, the new players in the lineup seem a tad less sensitive to the virus. There’s that little sleight of hand in a lineup like the Twins’, where low expectations allow for surprises. Tonight Clete Thomas, Jamey Carroll, and Alexi Casilla all get hits. These pale before the Yankees’ clobberings—only A-Rod goes hitless, while little-known backup catcher Chris Stewart has two hits and three RBI. The Yankees even win on unlikely sources of hits.

Sabathia has an OK night, with seven Ks and only four hits, though he does give up three earned runs. This is an improvement on his two previous outings this season, but it’s not easy to tell if his season will settle around his career averages or show some real decline. For now, the Yankees sleep calmly with the series split 1-1.

Game 3 features a pitching matchup that no fantasy team is sporting this season: Hideki Kuroda versus Jason Marquis. Kuroda has a rocky first inning, precisely in keeping with the tenor of this series. Denard Span leads off with a hit, Carroll follows right along with a single, and Mauer hits a sweet double to score two. Josh Willingham’s bullet to left is snared by Derek Jeter, but Justin Morneau hits his second happy homer of the series, deep to right center. The inning ends with Twins up 4-0—what better present for Jason Marquis in his Twins debut?

Well, it’s the first inning. It’s a bottomless pit for pitchers in this series, so Marquis proceeds to give up 3 runs and fidget with two on and one out. It looks like a pure and absolute collapse—30 pitches worth—when Alexi Casilla starts a double play that gets the Twins out with the lead intact.

Neither pitcher has much of a grip on things tonight. The big suspense is whether Marquis can survive the fifth inning. With the game at the halfway point and the Twins up 6-4 after a second homer from Morneau in the top of the inning, there’s still no sense yet that momentum has tipped Twinsward. Thanks to a double play that, honestly, appeared not quite swift enough to snare Cano at first, Marquis notches his 15 outs and is done for the night.

The seventh begins to look like more trouble. Jeter leads off with a single against Brian Duensing, who’s given up a leadoff hit in all three innings he’s pitched this season. The bullpen is warming up and the great weight of Yankee destiny is felt again. Teixeira rips one to left and it’s men on first and second, one out. Cano is up, and he’s already turned in an RBI double and solo homer tonight. The Twins slim edge here is the lefty-lefty matchup.

Cano hits a grounder to Casilla, but it becomes a fielder’s choice instead of a double play. Teixiera’s erased, Jeter’s swaying proudly at third, and Cano stands at first. Jared Burton comes in to face Nick Swisher.

If I’m so keen on turning points, I have one now. The series is even, the Twins are ahead in the game, and the Yankees are threatening. Put them away and the 2-run lead may stay safe for a victory. Crumple, and the whole series is lost.

Burton’s first two offerings are balls so far out of deception range they wouldn’t lure a child. I remain convinced this is the critical at-bat of the game, but it’s plainly not going to be one of those heroic showdowns of might against might. Swisher fouls one off. Burton produces a nifty changeup for a swinging strike and now I lean forward in anticipation. Something is materializing here.

Swisher fouls off another. It’s 2-2, 2 on, 2 out, with a 2-run lead—as twoish as it gets. Baseball often suspends itself on twos; three is always the final note, the last beat, the one you can almost hear before it falls.

Another foul back, another delay in reaching whatever conclusion this confrontation has to offer. It feels like the ninth inning to me.

Burton hurls a splitter and earns a swinging strike. That’s it!

If this is the turning point, if one could actually see a turning point as it happens, it has unspooled itself slowly over a long inning, with two pitchers struggling slowly. It will take time to prove whether anything turned or not, but I think I feel a few atoms realigning.

Matt Capps does the honors in the ninth. With one out, Jeter munches through 10 pitches to achieve his desired, god-like result: a solo homer that cuts the lead in two and opens the door for further Yankee settling of accounts. Capps dispatches Granderson and Teixeira, though, and the Twins lead the series 2-1. Final score: 7-6.

By game 4, irrational hopes sprout up. The Twins could take home quite a pretty scrapbook here if they pulled off a decisive 3-1 series win. It will be up to Anthony Swarzak, the best hope in the Twins’ depleted rotation, who faces Phil Hughes.

Once again, the first inning is a banquet. The Twins score 4, the Yankees 3. There’s something so prompt about these Yankee responses to an opponent’s runs—it feels like they’re staying on top of their e-mail. In this case, Granderson starts off with a home run, as if cluttering the bases with singles would just take too long. He has a whippy swing, and it looks almost like the bat head is spinning away from him, that he’s barely harnessing the centrifugal force as he lunges out to the ball. His homers are so brisk they feel inevitable.

The Twins try their own version of answering back in the second, and this time it’s Mauer, with one on, hitting the ball deep to left. This is the spot where he can hit opposite field homers; in his 2009 overachiever season, even Yankee Stadium wasn’t safe. This time, the ball lands in Ibanez’s glove with plenty of warning track to spare.

Mind you, the Twins are still ahead in the second, but now it’s time for Derek Jeter to flick his wand and send in the tying run. Then Granderson hits his second home run in a 40-minute span to push the Yankees ahead.

To unravel how they can make such things come true, we need to look at what constitutes the bottom of their order. Swarzak was not able to retire Eduardo Nunez, playing second base tonight to give Cano a DH turn. New York has strength wedged against strength.

By the fourth, the Yankees are in cruise control. The Twins have yanked Swarzak and are trying on Jeff Gray in middle relief. After one out, when Granderson steps up, it simply doesn’t seem necessary for him to keep hitting. But there is a tuning fork he can hear especially perfectly today—his swing is in some special Yankee ballpark harmony. Third home run of the night.

Phil Hughes never exactly overwhelms, but he keeps the Twins at bay. Hughes looks a bit like Beetle Bailey on the mound. His has is not pulled especially lower than other players’, but with his mouth always half open and the dark shadow of the hat bill making it impossible to read his eyes, there’s a regular schlub’s mild helplessness about him. But hapless GI or not, Hughes has turned the page from his first inning’s troubles.

Hughes even glides past the gnat-like irritation of stout Ryan Doumit getting his first Twins homer, with Morneau on base, bringing the score to 7-6 in the sixth. There it stays for Rivera to make it official with his darting cutter, retiring Carroll, Mauer, and Willingham—seven pitches, three outs, good night.

Splitting the series 2-2 constitutes an improvement for the Twins, but it’s no full bore turning point. And for the Twins to whip themselves into contention in the Central this season would require miracles outside my range of hope. It’s easier to cheer for the odd little accomplishment while understanding that no big dreams can be attached to this team.

The Yankees, meanwhile, impress well past mere payroll. I complain about them, groan about them, suffer their annihilating force—but I must concede their majesty. These guys are good. They’re making the most of a less than stellar rotation; they’re sending up a lineup organized around a sequence of strengths; they’re keeping players healthy. Heck, they’re fine-tuning Granderson’s swing to the point of a 3-for-5, 3 homer night.

There are times the Yankees look like a synthetic collection of talent—fantasy baseball run wild. But when you see them play the game, they do the little and large things, and they do them with each other. Hustling to make plays, advancing runners, keeping their heads in the game. Money makes them impregnable, but talent and desire make them win.

game 3 Adaptation

Basbeball’s long string of games is built from thousands of at-bats, but these aren’t a test of endurance. They’re a test of adaptation.

Batter and pitcher are usually so evenly matched that the advantage arises from finding one small point of weakness, chipping away until it’s visible and then pouncing.

Today the Marlins and Reds concluded their series, after the Reds won their home opener and the Marlins claimed victory last night. The final game of a tied series may not mean much at this stage of the season—if we can call the trickle of games played so far a stage at all. But as managers busily calculate the pace they must flog their horses to emerge atop a division in October, winning the series is the benchmark to heed.

The Marlins send up Carlos Zambrano, the pitcher rescued from his weird captivity in Chicago. He spent 2011 having tantrums, “retiring” from the team, and intermittently claiming that he’d solved his anger management issues. Needless to say, one doubts that a pitcher like Zambrano will emerge calm and collected, even given the benefit of a brand new team and a manager who is especially good at distracting the media from his players by having outbursts of his own.

Zambrano has a first inning that should go in the cautionary tales video collection for major league pitchers. First innings are a special trial for many pitchers, for a hitter is more likely to arrive ready to make contact than a pitcher is ready to organize his full catalog of pitches into the mix that baffles or defies.

Zambrano is a tall, big man who seems to mutter on the mound. He has an angry energy that some might celebrate as competitiveness but that I always see as loathing—for the hitter, even for the game. He rarely seems happy about anything that happens on a baseball diamond.

And so when his first pitch, to Brandon Phillips, is firmly singled to center, you sense Zambrano’s joylessness climbing a degree. Now he faces Zack Cozart, the rookie shortstop who has begun this season with a homer and is batting .675 over two games. Ah, the distortions of the small sample size at the beginning of the season. Cozart is, for now, striding like a titan. So he takes a strike from Zambrano and then launches a double to very deep left center, which scores Phillips easily. Three pitches from Zambrano and it’s 1-0 Reds.

Joey Votto, a solid power threat, is the beneficiary of Zambrano’s mood plunge, drawing a walk. The pitcher has little better to offer to cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick: walk number 2.

Jay Bruce is up with that most golden situation: bases loaded, no outs, and a pitcher on the rails. On a 2-1 count, he offers up a measly infield grounder that the Marlins can’t quite convert into a double play ball. It scores one run, erases the runner at second, and leaves the Reds with two on, one out, up 2-0.

Zambrano, I assume, is reaching meltdown temperature. His pitches and his fielders are deserting him. Miguel Cairo, however, is not in great command of his at-bat, but his ground out to third scores the third run of the inning. Zambrano finally escapes with a strikeout to Drew Stubbs.

My memory can’t be definitive here, but as I think of this inning as whole, it seemed to me the Reds swung at any pitch Zambrano placed in the strike zone. Plenty of his offerings moved well out of it as the inning decayed. But if a pitch crossed the zone, a Reds batter made contact. Zambrano’s velocity is well down from his heyday. He’s trying to make 86 mph work, and he didn’t appear comfortable building his game around location and pitch selection.

In short, the Reds were feasting. It looked like it might be a laugher of a day, with the score run up and a homer or two launched over the riverboat smokestacks.

Meanwhile, Bronson Arroyo starts for the Reds. He is an immensely beautiful pitcher to watch. So much so that I am guilty of failing to understand how mediocre are his results. Last year he was 17-10 with a 3.88 ERA, allowing 59 walks to 121 strikeouts. Put all that in a blender, and it comes out a 1.145 WHIP. Nothing to build your fantasy team around, but I think his delivery makes up for it.

Arroyo is 6’4”, slender as a skewer, and his legs are so long he verges on standing on stilts. His signature move is a high leg kick. His left leg rises to ninety degrees, as effortlessly as a flag run up a pole, and then it hinges cleanly downward as he completes his throwing motion. There is an otherworldly elegance to the balancing point he achieves.

In the stuff dimension, however, he has a little less working for him. His approach is simple, and heartily recommended by many pitching coaches: throw the first pitch for a strike. Make the count work for you.

This sensible approach is going to include giving up a good number of hits, but Arroyo isn’t surrendering them in bouquets. The Marlins scratch at him for three innings but never mount a threat.

In the fourth, though, a lightbulb goes off somewhere. If he’s offering a first pitch strike like a toaster with every new account, we might as well collect. The Marlins begin swinging at the first pitch, quite certain of what they’ll find. Three singles and they’ve scored a run, then manage another in the sixth. They’ve cracked the code.

On the other side of the scoresheet, Zambrano has done the very thing I expected least. He has not only settled down, he has made his own use of the first pitch strike principle. He doesn’t seem content on that mound, but he has found a way to bottle up the Reds. He retires 12 straight. That sweet streak ends with a Jay Bruce homer to nudge Cincy up 4-2.

The score tells a story based on the damage the early runs did, but I saw the tide of adjustments inexorably moving in favor of the Marlins. And in the seventh, they got their three runs to take the lead. Arroyo did not adjust, but the hitters did. Two of the hits in the inning were on first pitch swings, and the others came after foul balls.

After an interim reliever stopped the bleeding, the Reds brought in gangly flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the eighth and ninth. He mowed the Marlins down in a holding action while the Reds offense collected themselves for an assault on that one-run deficit.

The Marlins relief corps appears undistinguished to me, but it takes a long time to see enough work from middle relievers to know them. What I do know is that they brought in Heath Bell, a prize new acquisition, in the ninth. Bell saved 42 or more games in each of the last three years for San Diego, so one imagines a one-run lead, frail as it is, can stand up.

Jay Bruce leads off, and works the count to 2-1 and then scalds a homer to left. Game tied.

Now, for pure strategy, one would prefer a man on base to a dinger. Bell retires the next batter, then sees Stubbs send a liner to Hanley Ramirez, still getting accustomed to the hot corner. Ramirez leaps and reaches but can’t time the move and the ball clips over his glove for a single.

Bell makes some pickoff attempts, and he’s wise to worry about a runner getting to second with only one out. Who’s to say if his zeal on this point blinds him to the batter, but Ryan Hanigan does indeed produce a single. Stubbs is running hard for third, and the ball from the outfield is over thrown. If Bell hadn’t backed up the play and snared the ball, the game would have ended right there, with Stubbs scuttling home on a wild throw.

But that would have deprived venerable Scott Rolen, now in a pinch-hitting role, of a shining ninth inning opportunity. With Stubbs at attention on third and the game tied, Rolen punctures Bell’s first save attempt with a simple single and the Reds win.

Whether it will be true next time or not, I saw a pattern today. Arroyo is a pitcher that hitters can figure out. He’s a soft tosser with some good ideas about approaching hitters, but he can be dissected and beaten. Zambrano is able to rebuild his concentration after adversity, and is actively exploring ways to work around his reduced power.

The Marlins hitters were able to adapt to Arroyo, while the Reds mashers appeared puzzled at how their prowess deserted them. It came back, of course, when it really counted but it felt more like luck than cunning in that ninth inning.

And I had to adapt too. What I thought I knew about Carlos Zambrano was, today anyway, dead wrong.

game 2 Does It Matter How You Win?

Winning, we are pounded to understand, is everything. Coaches, fans, and players are in fervent agreement here—nothing matters except winning, and winning it all: the World Series is all that counts. Everything short of that is practice or failure.

The hyperbolic extension of this motivational speech is that there’s nothing to sports but the score and, for that matter, no reason to watch a game until October. But most of us want to follow the path to the outcome, not just tick off a win or a loss.

On the second day of play, I am nothing but a sponge ready to soak up some baseball. In many ways, winning is not on my mind at all. I’m curious to see Detroit’s new lineup, with Prince Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera shifted to third. I’m eager to see if Justin Verlander can prove that the offseason has not eroded his velocity, competitiveness, and serene composure on the mound. And I want to watch the Red Sox, with Bobby Valentine newly at the helm, try to wipe the slate clean after last September’s collapse.

But before too long, it’s clear that I’ve made up my mind about this game. Verlander should win it, as the first step on another season’s march to results like last year’s 21-4 record. I polish up this hope after three solid innings by both pitchers, with Verlander and Jon Lester both mowing down opposing hitters. If I’m here to see some pitching prowess, let’s wish for Verlander to reveal that staggering edge he has.

It’s a day game, the first true Opening Day contest, and the temperature’s in the mid-40s in Detroit, under cloudy skies. Why do I love Verlander? And why does his unpretentious ease with throwing baseballs impress me so? Today it tells in his nutty choice to go with short sleeves, white polyester fluttering lightly over bare arms. Lester, sensibly, is wearing a red long-sleeved shirt beneath his Boston grays. Is Verlander from our planet?

Both pitchers continue gathering quick outs. Detroit musters leadoff hits in the first, second, and third, only to have Lester passionlessly erase them with double play balls. Lester is a quiet pitcher, prone to curling his wrist to bend his gloved hand up flat along his shoulder, like a violin, while he waits for the sign. His eyes are starkly shaded by the cap he’s pressed down into a simple round dome, in the peakless style now in favor. He doesn’t seem to be hearing music up there, and that black wing of leather perched on his shoulder is less an instrument than an appendage. He hurries, betraying no emotion.

By the fifth inning, Lester gets into a genuine jam after giving up a leadoff hit and then walking the next batter. Now Alex Avila is up, the Detroit catcher who earned, and deserved, the starting All-Star spot last year. I watched him many times, and learned to respect his hitting abilities that well outdid Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, the player I confess to loving beyond all reason.

Well, in this at-bat Avila does not impress. He lunges, without a lick of timing or balance, to stab his bat into bunting position but punches nothing but air. He is flailing, as only a player not quite burnished from spring training can. Lester strikes him out. Was 2011, Avila’s second full year, his apogee?

Lester converts the rest of Detroit’s threat into fly outs, and the game stays scoreless. Verlander has had fewer brushes with danger, but he was called upon to strike out David Ortiz with a man on second, which he did by dialing up the velocity on his fastball. Clearly, both pitchers would take us into that most dangerous time in baseball, the seventh inning.

In the American League, if a starting pitcher is on his game, the seventh inning will surely decide how firmly he’s on it. It will be the third trip through the order, and the pitch count will be nudging ninety. All flaws will now be revealed.

Verlander handles his half with dispatch. His fifth strikeout of the day is on a curveball that freezes Kevin Youkilis down to his ankles. Ryan Sweeney is retired looking at another of these plummeting curves. Twelve pitches, two strikeouts and a fly out, case closed.

Lester starts off with two swift outs. Funny thing about two swift outs—it seems to suggest a kind of power, a strict momentum that cannot be budged, but there is no such thing as one out causing the next.

Indeed. Jhonny Peralta doubles to left on the first pitch. It could be one of those classic cleavings-open to which seventh innings are subject. Or it could be an idle moment in the game. But now Avila is up for another try, lefty against lefty. He looks at a strike, perhaps unwilling to flounder as he did in the last at-bat. Accepts a ball, then lunges grotesquely at an outside pitch to bring the count to 1-2. Now he lays back while Lester tries to bait him again. Two balls bring the count full. Is Avila ready to start his 2012 season now, or is he still hunting for that maddeningly elusive timing that spring training did not restore?

Ah. The pitch is up on the outside edge of the plate and Avila shoots the thing deep into the leftfield corner. Cody Ross gallops to overrun the ball, which thuds to a stop by the 345’ mark as the first run of the game scores.

This hit was on Lester’s 103rd pitch, another irritating piece of evidence in support of pitch count limits. But this game seems to showcase the Seventh Inning Turning Point still more. Does the arc of the game wear pitchers down, the sheer concentration on at-bat after at-bat? Is it trips through the order, which bends in favor of the hitter’s adjustments? Does the pitcher-catcher game plan begin to unravel under game conditions? Or is it, of course, pure exertion, as the pitch limits partisans say?

I have only the limited insights of a fan, but I don’t believe that it’s a physical wall these well-conditioned pitchers hit. I think it has more to do with the subtle, constant, mental agility that it takes to play baseball—refining a swing, rethinking a pitch sequence, anticipating a location. The game lasts nine innings not to repeat itself but to grow into pattern upon pattern.

Lester bars the door against further damage. It’s a 1-0 game, and no margin is smaller. Verlander strides out for the eighth and crosses the 100 pitch mark while easily retiring the side in order. The Red Sox, however, have finished with Lester and send up Vicente Padilla, whose first pitch becomes a triple off Austin Jackson’s bat. Valentine gets to move his bullpen chess pieces during a grinding, pesky inning which includes Prince Fielder using his uppercut in nearly golf mode to produce the sac fly necessary to score Jackson. 2-0 Tigers.

Cue Jose Valverde to whip through the bullpen gate, make a knees-to-chest energy hop, and take the mound. Everything is as it should be. Verlander has picked up right where he left off and so should Valverde, who completed 49 consecutive save chances last year.

He faces Dustin Pedroia, a player so scrappy he’s exhausting. Pedroia is in a mood to tussle, and he drives up the count and then knocks a hit into the right field gap for a double. Pure Pedroia, and you have to admire a man who revels in the fact that there’s no clock in baseball.

Well, the inning unravels and pretty soon Valverde is looking at a mess he can’t clean up. I saw him take things to the brink last season yet always pull back in time. Today, he allows Ortiz to hit a sac fly to score Pedroia and just as we’re all congratulating ourselves on that go-ahead run Fielder punched in last inning, Valverde serves up a triple to Sweeney that ties the game.

You can’t do worse by a starter than let him pile up eight innings and seven Ks, while allowing two hits, one walk and no runs, and then take away his win. But it’s gone now.

The Tigers now try to make amends for this tragedy, and after starting off the bottom of the ninth with an out, Peralta raps out a single. Avila is up again, which seems to be the signal that we’re at another key juncture in this game. He spends a good bit of the at-bat fouling pitches off—I really feel I can hear the gears grinding as he tries to find his form so he can emerge from this defensive posture. Now he finds that last little bit of inspiration and singles to left. The Tigers are back to having an opportunity.

I’ll skip over the pitching changes and intermediate batters. Our hero is revealed: it’s Austin Jackson, who goes 3 for 5 by ripping a sharp liner past the diving third baseman to score the run.

If winning is everything, all is well in Detroit. The danger’s past, and we really only had to survive suspense for a half inning. I got the outcome I wanted, but I’m not so sure winning feels like everything right now.

The win in the score book actually goes to Valverde, along with an awfully big meatball of an ERA—he’ll be trying to digest that 18.00 for quite some weeks. Verlander sees his team in the win column and gets to carry around a 0.375 WHIP and 0.00 ERA for a while. What he doesn’t get is the win.

But we do. If winning is everything, it’s a dull and brutal and black and white world. I enjoyed the journey much more than the result today.

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 3

Predictions are a dime a dozen; for a wild and disparate collection of them, check ESPN’s roundup. Here are mine for the NL.

Miami
Philadelphia
Washington
Atlanta
New York

The NL East has had a clear marching order for the last several seasons, but all you really have to do to shake things up in baseball is wait for time to pass. In this instance, it’s time for the Marlins to combine some free-spending (on Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes) and renewed commitment to fans, in the form of a new ballpark. Whether new manager Ozzie Guillen helps build a Latino fan base or infuriates players and customers alike remains to be seen, but the team taking the field includes an almost ideal mix of rising stars and proven talent with a little bit more to prove. This is a buy low-sell high pick.

It is age that will unseat the Phillies. The rotation remains formidable, and I have no trouble imagining 20 wins from either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but they need some runs to drape the W’s on. With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard struggling with injuries that defy return timetables, the lineup has guys like mighty Ty Wigginton in for placeholder duty. The full season may allow an offense to gel, but age and decline haunt nearly every Philly hitter now.

What would Nat Fever look like? Please don’t describe it in detail, but it might include a lot of enthusiasm for a rotation that could be remarkable. Imagine Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and new acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson all having great seasons at the same time. It’s not only possible, but likely. There’s less to be enthusiastic about on the offense, and Bryce Harper can’t fix all that on his own, if he’s called up at all. But Washington goes above .500 for the first time in the curly W era.

The Braves can curse all they like about the massive missed opportunity that was 2011. They not only fell during that amazing day when the season ended in a wave of upsets, they may have used up their bullpen getting as far as they did. But even if Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters aren’t plagued by the results of overwork, the rotation may show some cracks, staring with Tim Hudson missing much of April from injury. Atlanta’s fate may turn on Jason Heyward’s ability to bounce back from a sad sophomore season and Chipper Jones’ ability to rally himself, and his mates, to a fine finale for his long career.

They’ve moved in the fences at Citi Field, but that is not going to keep the Mets from sinking to the bottom of the NL East. David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Ike Davis may pound along, but don’t expect Johan Santana to come back from a lost season.

Cincinnati
St Louis
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Chicago
Houston

In this division, it’s a matter of the last man standing, since every team took some hits in the offseason—mostly from AL plunderings. Cincinnati has the best returning squad, which may even have learned a few lessons about overconfidence from last year’s finish. Joey Votto and Brandon Philips lead the offensive charge, while new arrival Mat Latos may click along with Johnny Cueto to handle defense. The loss of Ryan Madson in the bullpen could have serious repercussions, but recent baseball history is littered with surprise closers stepping up. Aroldis Chapman could be the next one.

It’s safe to bet against World Series winners repeating unless they happen to live in the Bronx. The Cardinals still have some solid offense post-Albert, but there are serious stamina questions about the rotation. I always admired Mike Matheny as a catcher steering a game, but I’m afraid St Louis has given him an impossible managerial job, spent in a season-long contrast with Tony LaRussa’s success. It’ll be too bad if Matheny is a pawn in a little “don’t blame me”/”what did you expect” experiment by the Cards top management.

The Brewers still have too much talent for the loss of Prince Fielder to deflate the balloon entirely. All eyes will be on Ryan Braun, who may be asked to pee into a cup by the fans when he rounds third base. I think we can all see a stats falloff coming. But the pitching crew features five double-digit winners, two of whom—Zack Greinke and Yovanni Gallardo—could easily top 20 this year.

The Pirates flirtation with first place last season was always described as a freak accident, but look again. This is a young, exciting team that seems to need some coaching and some goals to convert its raw talent into wins. But there’s also a good case for regression—not only is “fluke” possibly the best explanation for 2011, the addition of Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett does not look like the solution to the rotation’s numerous holes. Bedard has been tried in a host of contexts and the luster is wearing off (though I retain stubborn optimism about him); Burnett is most probably the wrong kind of diva for this squad.

Chicago gets a break this year. Instead of crushing fans’ hopes by ladling out the dollars for a ill-fitting group of costly free agents, the teams gets to call it a rebuilding year while Theo Epstein attempts a second big magic trick. Let’s step aside, give them time, and settle for a Starlin Castro bobblehead day.

When a team loses 100 games, they do so at an average rate of 17 a month. The Astros are a team fully equipped to lose at just such a clip. The only curiosity about this team is how bad they can be in their final turn as a member of the National League.

Colorado
San Francisco
Arizona
Los Angeles
San Diego

Let’s just allow for the usual wackiness in advance, shall we? The Rockies always sneak up on us, and this time I want to be ready. They have a powerhouse in Troy Tulowitski, a potential lefty gem in Drew Pomeranz, and what could be a bounce-back year for Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, there’s an oversupply of creaky veterans, almost as if the GM thought a mentoring program for the triple A squad was key to victory. This pick assumes a few implosions for the other teams in the division, but I’m standing behind it.

It’s a little scary how precisely San Francisco conducted its experiment concerning the value of Buster Posey. Add him in as a rookie, World Series win. Subtract him with a nasty leg fracture, nuthin’. As awesome as the rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner may be, they didn’t get the job done without Posey. He’s added back into the mix this year, so we’ll now complete the next phase of Posey-testing.

Arizona might have seen the best season Ian Kennedy can produce in 2011, but the 21-game winner and the other worthies in the rotation will keep the Diamondbacks in the race. The problem? Counting on Justin Upton to be responsible for nearly all the offense.

Clayton Kershaw may be just the kind of pitcher to match his gorgeous 2011 (a sub-one WHIP, 21 wins, and a Cy Young). Then again, it’s a tall order. And he’ll need Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to contribute enough runs, which perhaps deserves 50-50 odds. Shaking off Frank McCourt’s ownership drama may alone be worth 10 wins. But the Dodgers have demonstrated a firm ability to resist seeing themselves as a cohesive team.

San Diego fans, brace yourselves for another season at the bottom of the standings. This time, you can lean back and watch Cameron Maybin grow.

game 1 Opening Night

Major League baseball, ever on the prowl for more income, has now sliced Opening Day into so many slivers it’s unrecognizable. The first day of baseball season was always a peak moment of spring for me, but with MLB trying to rub its little head over and over, they’ve ground it down into nothing.

The baseball season began with two games just about no one saw, with Seattle and Oakland playing in Japan. I am told they split the series, but as far as most fans are concerned, these games were conducted as Playstation simulations.

Tonight, we have the season’s first night game in North America. Yes, all those adjectives are necessary to distinguish it from tomorrow’s wave, in which day baseball begins, and with multiple teams taking the field. Tonight, MLB guaranteed the Marlins a sellout in their new ballpark by scheduling it as a standalone game.

Even when MLB lets multiple teams out of the gate tomorrow, they still dole them out grudgingly, painstakingly focusing our attention on seven games. We don’t have a full slate until Saturday. Remind me: what constitutes the first pitch of the season in all this throat clearing?

The old rules were gloriously simple: the Cincinnati Reds, ever honored as the oldest team in baseball, got to throw out the first pitch at 1:05 pm in their home field, followed in a thrilling fusillade when all the other teams launched themselves throughout the afternoon and deep into the evening.

It was too much baseball, sure, but only a ritual soaking in the game could set me up for the monumental march through a 162-game season. And after six months wandering in a baseball-free desert, I want that firehose.

Tonight I must be content with a single game, played against a tangy lime green backdrop no less. The new Miami Marlins ballpark is probably a wonderful place to watch a game, but what ESPN nudged me to notice first were the gimmicks: fish tanks, a still-silent home run celebration feature, and a tropical look that seems to integrate the place nicely with its Little Havana environs.

The place was packed tonight, but even the Expos used to sell out their home openers. We need a full season to answer the two big questions: will the ball carry with the roof open, and can the Marlins solve the problem of attracting fans in Florida?

They made bold gambles to do so, and it’s not clear which will be the more attention-getting, the color scheme or non-stop-loudmouth Ozzie Guillen as manager. And they brought in some serious, and costly, talent to compliment a nucleus that was already bursting with potential. Well, did the 37,000 people in the stands see some good omens?

Because an Opening Day always teases us into thinking we’re in on the ground floor, already detecting a direction. Baseball is so absurdly cumulative—a team’s season accretes like barnacles—that no single game holds a clue, but we look anyway.

Marlins fans won’t have liked what they saw. The Cardinals won smoothly, 4-1, with last year’s postseason hero David Freese picking up so literally where he left off it was nearly magical. (It wasn’t just two RBI, it was on a two-strike count with two outs. Again!)

As a box score, the game will look lopsided, even dispiriting to a Marlins fan. But I saw several positive signs. First, Josh Johnson’s return from an injury-shortened 2011 began with a sloppy first inning and a walk-sac-single run scored in the second. After that, Johnson settled in, collecting four strikeouts over 6 innings. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but Johnson could still be capable of building on his 2010 Cy Young season and continue to whittle his WHIP into persistent All-Star territory.

New centerpiece Jose Reyes was the only bright light of the Marlins’ night. The rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize on his two leadoff hits, but Reyes was doing the job they asked him to do. However, the new infield that slides Hanley Ramrirez to third base to make room for Reyes did a lot of staring at a Carlos Beltran single trickling between them in the second. Eeek.

If the Marlins must content themselves with tomorrow-is-another-day, the Cardinals have retained some sweet World Series swagger to start the season. Subbing for an injured Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, who is no one’s idea of an Opening Day ace, kept the Marlins hitless through six innings. It was an ace performance, with single earned run, two hits, and three Ks. Lohse didn’t labor to achieve the win; he was neatly in control all night, locating pitches and baiting nearly every batter with a first pitch strike.

And that earned run that blots his record? Oh, the cruelties of baseball scoring. Let’s break it down as an object lesson in what can make a player, or a fan, mutter. Logan Morrison led off the eighth with a single. We might suspect Lohse is tiring, or running out of shtick on the third trip through the order, but he turns around to strike out Gaby Sanchez. Brand new manager Mike Matheny makes his first pitching change, playing by the book to bring in Fernando Salas. It’s now one out, 4-0 Cardinals.

Salas’s first pitch is a double play ball to Omar Infante. Except the umpire couldn’t quite agree that first baseman Lance Berkman leaned, scooped, caught, and raised his glove holding the ball all before Infante touched first. This wasn’t one of those nanosecond plays, this was a first baseman with his hand raised in success who took about five strides toward the dugout before the umpire’s “safe” call registered.

Well, this appears like nothing more than a mild delay in the end of inning proceedings and the stately glide to a shutout. But I paused to wonder: would it matter?

It did. John Buck chipped a few fouls before hitting a sound double to center that scored Infante. And Lohse is assigned the run, since Morrison was out in what became a fielder’s choice when the botched call granted Infante first. Infante becomes an inherited runner. Dang.

In the span of a season, absolutely none of this will be material. The pesky earned run Lohse must lug around, the crummy first inning Johnson must put behind him, the lost and lonely leadoff hits Reyes tossed into the wind, even Freese’s 3-for-5, 2 RBI resumption of last year’s momentum—these aren’t omens, but they are the way a season starts. One game at a time, some of them distinguished by coral and lime green accents.

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 2

Here’s my kindling for the fire—how they’re finish and a few words about why. I’ve got no great pedigree as a pickster, but it’s not really about getting it right, is it? It’s about having an opinion and enough preconceptions to rouse you to hone your counterarguments. Today, the American League; tomorrow the National.

Tampa Bay
Yankees
Toronto
Red Sox
Baltimore

The Rays are a neatly balanced team, with power, speed, and a great pitching rotation. David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson should combine for 50 wins, and if rookie Matt Moore meets expectations, Tampa Bay can capture the East for the low, low price of a $62 million payroll, or about a third of what New York will spend.

The Yankees are too old to be inevitable this season. The addition of pitchers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda improve the rotation over last season, but the inevitable ageing of the offense will make the summer feel very long. Yes, I’ve heard about Derek Jeter sprinting to first base in spring training, in terrific condition, but every All-Star on this team is over 30—well, Robinson Cano only turns 30 in October. That’s during playoffs, which will not last past the Sudden Death phase of the wild card for the Yankees this year.

I see Toronto mashing and smashing behind proven Jose Bautista and unproven but promising Brett Lawrie. Their pitching pretty much begins and ends with Rickey Romero and Brandon Morrow, plus the potential of Henderson Alvarez, but there are a lot of RBI in those bats.

The Red Sox could spring right back up after the managerial and GM changes, but I’m not sure that the zombie trance of September will be so easily expunged. The Sox haven’t looked like a cohesive team in several years. They’re a great collection of talent, but you never sense they want to win anything, even with Dustin Pedroia contorting in personal agony through every at-bat.

Finally, the Orioles continue to shuffle pitchers in and out while fans (at best) wring their hands about the untapped potential of Nick Markakis and, now, Matt Wieters. They don’t make nearly enough wild card slots for a team like this.

Detroit
Kansas City
Cleveland
Minnesota
Chicago

It’s tempting to buck the bandwagon and ask whether bringing in Prince Fielder might be oversolving a problem. There are plenty of busts in the history of “sure thing” acquisitions, Adrian Gonzalez notwithstanding. And in this case, Detroit must make room for his majesty by shifting Miguel Cabrera to third, with backfire potential rippling through the lineup. But in the end, the remarkable and well-conditioned Justin Verlander could well come close to last year’s stunning stats (those 24 wins were based on a 0.92 WHIP), while the lineup can do every form of baseball damage to opposing pitchers. Case closed for the top o’ the AL Central.

Kansas City is replete with little-known players equipped with soon-to-be-known talent. Their future starts this year. The heartbreak of losing catching prospect Salvador Perez to injury will be offset by the second year exploits of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

Last season, Cleveland refused to match expectations. They outplayed ’em at the beginning of the year, then fell far short when the trades that were supposed to yield a playoff push went awry. The main acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez, proceeded to have nothing in common with the 19-game winner he was in 2010 for the Rockies. Hard to know which season was the aberration for Jimenez, but it’s easy to imagine a breakout year for catcher Carlos Santana and a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo. But what this team needs is the madcap hope and fervor they showed through last July.

Baseball fortunes change quickly. The Twins will spend 38% of their 2012 payroll on Joe Mauer, a noble soul who can hit a lot of singles for a catcher but who won’t be playing catcher all that often, and Justin Morneau, a spectacular player whose career was cruelly cut short by a concussion in 2010. Morneau is going to try again to shake off injuries and lingering concussion symptoms, but it’s looking like a long shot. Worse, he and Mauer aren’t surrounded by much of a team after trades gutted the roster. Fans could spend the entire season actively missing Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel.

Sorry, Chicago. Sorry, bold managerial choice Robin Ventura. Adam Dunn is not going to become a glorious AL hitter, and Paul Konerko can’t keep carrying this team on his back.

Los Angeles
Texas
Oakland
Seattle

The Angels are insatiable shoppers but somehow come off more lovable than the Yankees do on their spending sprees. Owner Arte Moreno is keen to plant butts in seats, and his attraction this season is the incomparable Albert Pujols. There’s no point in fishing for superlatives; Pujols will perform and he joins a way-above-average squad.

Which means Texas’ brief reign will end after two straight World Series losses. New potential ace Yu Darvish might help the rotation gel, but it’s not clear that Neftali Feliz will make the transition from bullpen to starter. Every source of power in the lineup is susceptible to age, and this team could easily drop to third place.

Each year I turn with curiosity to see what Oakland has assembled. This season they’ve gambled some real dollars on a high-risk/high-reward player in Yoenis Cespedes. He comes from Cuba to join the usual gang of oddballs, castoffs, and diamonds-in-the-rough which will include Manny Ramirez for at least a few weeks of the season.

The suspense surrounding the Mariners runs along the lines of, Exactly how bad will they be? A few years ago, they tried a Moneyball variant in trying to field their way to a championship. Well, Franklin Gutierrez remains impeccable in the outfield and there are other fine glovemen on the team, but nary a .300 hitter. And the defensive prowess only helped Felix Hernandez to 14 wins. Now that the Yankees have abducted Michael Pineda, who formed a 1-2 punch with Hernandez, there’s little to fear from Seattle.