For Christians around the world, Easter is a time of rebirth and remembrance. In baseball, Opening Day evokes memories of the previous season — good and bad — that mingle with hopes for the new one. Last October, I experienced the rare joy of not being able to view the World Series in its entirety. As a New York Mets fan faced with the prospect of watching a Fall Classic featuring the despised crosstown rival Yankees and the reviled Philadelphia Phillies, I was thrilled not to encounter a single Derek Jeter T-shirt or reddish-pink “P” cap while overseas on business. Unfortunately, the trip ended and I returned to the States just in time to see the Yankees crowned as champions for only the 27th time since Christopher Columbus discovered America.
By the time the confetti strewn about Lower Manhattan had been picked up and carted away, the offseason drama was already in full swing. Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers were ringside spectators to the ugliest baseball divorce in recent memory, as owner Frank McCourt and his wife (and deposed Dodgers CEO) Jamie fought tooth and nail to ruin one another’s reputation and pave the way for what many believe to be an eventual sale of the club. One Dodgers season-ticket holder commented, “My hope is they both die and go to hell for destroying one of the four top baseball teams in the majors.”
Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington revealed that he failed a drug test last summer. (That may explain some of his pitching decisions.) He admitted to snorting cocaine only once — qualifying as perhaps the first-ever gainfully employed man in America to start experimenting with hard-core narcotics after acquiring AARP membership — but later acknowledged consuming “greenies” (amphetamines) and marijuana as a player in the 1980s. Outgoing Rangers owner Tom Hicks rallied to Washington’s defense (“we believe in second chances”), but former relief pitcher Bob Tufts remembered a very different response from Hicks upon learning of Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs: “I feel personally betrayed. . . . I feel deceived by Alex.” (For a reminder of “how Tom Hicks became the most hated owner in baseball,” read Maury Brown’s column here.)
To no one’s surprise (other than his former manager, Tony LaRussa), Mark McGwire admitted to taking steroids in 1998 — the season in which he shattered Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record — shortly after he was named hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Washington Post had described his remarks before a congressional committee as those of “a shrunken, lonely, evasive figure,” but as NBC Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra pointed out, “Anyone who spent any time looking back at the tapes of McGwire’s 2005 testimony, however, quickly realizes that there’s no basis for even the suggestion of perjury.” (At those hearings, McGwire refused to answer any questions about his past.)
Los Angeles Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, one of the most popular players in the game, described Latin ballplayers of African descent as being not black but “impostors.” Describing ex-teammate Vladimir Guerrero, Hunter commented, “Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.” The Angels’ center fielder subsequently apologized for his “poor choice of words.”
Joe Mauer became the second catcher since Thurman Munson in 1976 to win the American League Most Valuable Player award (the other being Ivan Rodriguez in 1999). The Minnesota Twins subsequently rewarded him with an eight-year, $184 million contract extension, including a full no-trade clause. Baseball Prospectus’s Tommy Bennett quipped about the length of the deal: “The Simpsons will be rounding out its 30th season by the time Mauer’s deal is up.” He then added a bit more soberly, “Given Mauer’s back injuries and increasing time as designated hitter, most are operating under the assumption that Mauer will change positions somewhere along the road.”
Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals was the runaway MVP winner in the National League. Pujols received another present weeks later: His team shelled out $120 million over seven years, with a full no-trade clause, to keep teammate outfielder Matt Holliday in a St. Louis uniform.
The Cy Young Award winners in both leagues pitched for hitting-starved teams. In the NL, the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Lincecum earned his second consecutive award, one month after picking up his first arrest for marijuana possession. Zack Greinke was the AL winner playing for the Kansas City Royals, whose projected 2010 lineup was put under a microscope last December by Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski. Closer Andrew Bailey of the Oakland A’s was named AL Rookie of the Year. Chris Coghlan, the left fielder for the Florida Marlins, took home the NL honors. Manager of the Year honors went to Jim Tracy of the Colorado Rockies and Mike Scioscia of the Angels.
Outfielder Andre Dawson was the sole former player voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He will be the second and — thanks to the disrespect baseball writers have given the candidacy of his fellow outfielder Tim Raines – almost certainly the last player to be honored in Cooperstown wearing a Montreal Expos cap, the first being Gary Carter.
In a three-way trade, the Phillies obtained 2003 AL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and three prospects from the Seattle Mariners, in exchange for sending three top farmhands to Toronto and 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to Seattle. The club promptly locked up Halladay, whose contract was set to expire after this season, for three additional years at $20 million per season.
The Mariners far exceeded expectations last year with 85 wins and, in addition to obtaining Lee, lured Chone Figgins away from the rival Angels. Still, Sports Illustrated’s Tim Marchman cautioned fans about the team’s chances this season, in no small part because the Mariners’ opponents outscored them by 52 runs in 2009. “Run differential tells a bit more about a team’s quality than winning percentage does, so in truth Seattle needed to make some improvements just to hold its ground this year.”
The world champion Yankees parted ways via free agency with outfielder Johnny Damon, who ultimately signed with the Detroit Tigers. Also on the move was World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, who will play this year for the Angels. To compensate, general manager Brian Cashman signed free agent Nick Johnson to replace Matsui as the designated hitter and traded for outfielder Curtis Granderson in a three-team, eight-player trade involving the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tigers. Arizona obtained pitchers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, while the Tigers got pitchers Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke, and rookie outfielder Austin Jackson. The Bronx Bombers also firmed up their already excellent starting rotation by dealing with the Atlanta Braves for Javier Vazquez.
Committed to improving their starting pitching and defense, the Boston Red Sox signed Angels ace John Lackey to a five-year, $85 million contract and brought in Adrian Beltre to play third, Marco Scutaro to play shortstop, and Mike Cameron to roam center field. Moving last year’s center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, to left field meant that the club said goodbye to Jason Bay, who subsequently signed with the Mets for four years and $66 million with an easily attainable fifth-year option worth $14 million.
Other free-agent signings of note: pitchers Doug Davis and Randy Wolf (Milwaukee Brewers), Jon Garland (San Diego Padres), Rich Harden (Rangers), Jason Marquis (Washington Nationals), Ben Sheets (A’s), Jose Valverde (Tigers), and Billy Wagner (Braves), and position players Marlon Byrd (Cubs), Vladimir Guerrero (Rangers), Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson (Diamondbacks), Felipe Lopez (Cardinals), and Miguel Tejada (Baltimore Orioles).
The Great Recession affected baseball’s bottom line, with Major League Baseball reporting a 6.58 percent decrease in total regular-season attendance last season. Still, reports have circulated that the owners are collecting approximately $80-90 million apiece before a single ticket is sold, thanks to central-fund, revenue-sharing, luxury-tax, and local-media revenues. At a time when new contracts tend to be less lucrative than in previous years — except for Holliday, Halladay, Lackey, and Mauer — there are increasing concerns that this may harm management-labor relations.
In the early 2000s, the Oakland A’s were winners on a tight budget, but that distinction now belongs to the Tampa Bay Rays. Owner Stuart Sternberg said that the team’s payroll, currently situated north of $70 million, almost certainly will drop below $60 million after the 2010 season. Still, the prospect of losing left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña, and recently obtained closer Rafael Soriano to free agency after this season should not hurt too much, thanks to other young players on its major-league roster, as well as a highly rated farm system.
Rookie phenoms Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds, Jason Heyward of the Braves, and Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals impressed their employers during spring training, but only Heyward will begin the season on the parent club, as Atlanta’s everyday right fielder. Chapman, the southpaw fireballer and Cuban defector who signed a six-year, $30.25 million contract with the Reds during the offseason, and Strasburg, the 101 MPH fastball hurler who was last summer’s number-one draft pick, will both start the season in the minors.
Anyone who is curious about the profusion of new statistical measures in baseball should read Alex Remington’s (relatively) easy-to-understand primers on such figures as batting average on balls in play (BABIP), fielding independent pitching (FIP), adjusted on-base percentage (OBP+), ultimate zone rating (UZR), weighted on-base average (wOBA), win probability added (WPA), win shares, and wins above replacement player (WAR).
Newsday’s Ken Davidoff named as his offseason winners the Rockies, Twins, Yankees, Pirates, Padres, Rays, Rangers, and Blue Jays. His list of losers consisted of the Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Royals, Dodgers, and Giants. Why did he rate Colorado so high? “The Rockies’ winter largely consisted of fine-tuning, but that’s a credit to what they had accomplished to date — rather than an indictment of any inactivity. . . . ” Why so down on the Dodgers? “The commitments to their young, talented position players shouldn’t be discounted, yet their stinginess on the pitching front — not even offering Randy Wolf arbitration was terrible — can’t be ignored. . . . ” (Nonetheless, he picked Los Angeles to finish ahead of Colorado.)
The 2010 CHONE projected standings for the American League have the Yankees, Twins, and Rangers winning their divisions and the Red Sox earning the wild card. In the National League, the Braves, Cardinals, and Dodgers are projected to capture division crowns, with the wild card going to the Phillies. Last year, CHONE got four of the six division winners correct, as well as one of the two wild cards.
Did I miss anything? The sale of the Rangers from Hicks’s ownership group to a new one headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan will not be completed by the start of the season . . . North Side beat writers and other reporters are still baiting the combustible Milton Bradley, who departed Chicago for Seattle in December, while the largest media market’s press corps continue to do their very best to stoke any story involving A-Rod . . . Howard Megdal discussed whether anti-Semitism prevented Hank Greenberg from surpassing Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record . . . Peter Gammons departed longtime employer ESPN in favor of the MLB Network and NESN, while Orel Hershiser will be the new third wheel in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, joining Jon Miller and Joe Morgan . . . Major League Baseball announced a plan to fingerprint Dominican youths as young as 11 who are interested in playing baseball, as a means to combat age fraud . . . The Mets have the highest payroll in the National League, but they also have so many rotation question marks that the team’s fifth-highest-paid starter projects to be its second-best pitcher . . .
The Twins are preparing to play home games in the great outdoors for the first time since 1981, while the A’s are still imprisoned at the foot of Mount (Al) Davis, even though Commissioner Bud Selig has spent a year evaluating a San Jose relocation . . . Speaking of Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that the team’s former owner is being honored with a statue at the home-plate entrance to Miller Park. There is no word yet if his pose from the 2002 All-Star Game will be utilized . . . A classier idea came from the Pirates, who unveiled a plan for a statue of 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazeroski. Meanwhile, manager John Russell announced his plan to bat the starting pitcher eighth during the regular season . . . For those hellbent on absorbing every new statistic, be sure to try this one on for size: SIERA . . . For some reason, tenor Ronan Tynan will no longer be in the Bronx singing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch . . . An analysis of a vintage photograph showing Rabbit Maranville of the Boston Braves wearing a “good luck” swastika logo on his cap found that the photo was from 1914, years before the Nazis hijacked the Indian philosophical symbol as their own.
Last night the Yankees and Red Sox got the season off to a crackling start with their usual back-and-forth, drama-filled slugfest lasting nearly four hours. With the reigning champs now leading the majors in losses, every team today feels the hope for redemption in what promises to be a glorious spring, summer, and early fall — well, at least until the Mets fall eight games under .500 and the White House declares that all of Israel is a settlement and no new housing may be constructed.
– Jason Epstein, a diehard Mets fan and Nationals season-tickets holder, is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC.