The First Half

The first half of the season is in the books. Yet at the All-Star break -- that mythical dividing line between the mere preparations and the real deal -- it was hard to know whether it’s a genuine epic that we have brewing toward a boil or the makings of a veritable train wreck. Discerning that precious difference is not as easy as it once was which is more and more the case.

You want pennant races? We’ve got three of them in the American League and they shape up as dandies. In the AL East, where they like to boast they have the three best teams in all of baseball, there is the strong chance that the loser of the firefight being waged by the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees could win 92-95 games and still miss the playoffs.

That won’t set well if the AL Central winner barely finishes with a winning record, also a possibility. There are no juggernauts running amuck in the AL West either, the odd hex the Angels hold over the Yankees not withstanding. Moreover, the Rangers may at long last have enough grit to hang around.

In the National League, there’s been only one tight race and that’s in the central where the real story is all about the exquisite agonies of the Chicago Cubs who once again are befouling their own nest after being conceded the World Series before the season even began. Five teams -- all of them ordinary -- remain viable. In the east, the Phillies seem primed to run off and hide. Only in Queens do they believe the Mets retain a pulse. Omar Minaya has a lot of explaining to do. In the west, the Dodgers have been everyone’s pet with Joe Torre at his charming best. But charm has its limits and the Giants have better pitching. That race is far from over.

Thus at the break you have 18 teams within four games of a playoff spot, which therefore validates them as official “contenders”. That’s 18 teams that can legitimately claim to have a stake in a pennant race, even if at the break eight are no better than two games over .500 while three are below that mark. For what it’s worth, there are four more teams in the wings no more than six games out.

Welcome to baseball’s brave new world of “parity” which Czar Bud Selig prefers to loftily proclaim as “the ultimate competitive balance”. Bud won’t be perfectly happy until all 30 teams finish at .500. If the moguls could only figure out a way to add another tier of playoffs to the postseason they could keep every team (save maybe the Washington Nationals) alive into mid-September. Creating two more teams and two more divisions obliging two more wild-cards is another trick they could try. Believe me they are tempted. Only the specter of staging a World Series in a blinding snowstorm in some old northern industrial town during the week of Thanksgiving restrains them.

The baseball moguls, numbering all the owners, love parity. They consider it the key to an ongoing prosperity that survives even the dark economic gloom of the moment much better than experts predicted. It’s why they so love soul mate Selig, whom they regard as the man most responsible for concocting it.

But others -- including such stodgy traditionalists as write about baseball in the newspapers -- believe parity to be a grand illusion and a willfully artificial contrivance. That the Astros with a losing record at this moment may have a better chance to make the playoffs than the Yankees, who are 14 games above .500, strikes them as ludicrous. What the moguls term a blissful state they see as the promotion of something more resembling rampant, pervasive, and surpassing, mediocrity.

The argument won’t be settled until some team with a losing regular season record manages to flim-flam its way into a World Series. That’s when the gnashing of teeth will get prodigious.

In the meantime, there is the strong chance we’ll still be in the throes of the performance enhancing drugs scandal (PEDS) and weeping and wailing over the its brutal effect on the game, its people, its image, its legacy, and its precious record book. It’s a mess not about to go away while there further remains the terrible prospect that the worst may be yet to come.

The nice pennant races, the many terrific individual efforts, the industry’s surprising display of resilience in harsh times have all been big stories over the first half of the season. But once again the biggest story has been a monumental PEDS fiasco with Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, two of the most spectacular performers of their times, falling from grace with inglorious thuds while Sammy Sosa was being outed and Roger Clemens sank deeper into disgrace.

Say this much for A-Rod. At least he has the decency to seem contrite and the sense of guilt to grovel. Nor do I believe it’s only a matter of this admittedly pliable character having superior acting skills. With Manny, on the other hand, there’s no doubt. His defiant indifference is even more aggravating than what he laughingly refers to as “my felony”. With Manny it’s infuriatingly clear he has no clue; not because he’s incapable of processing the matter or appreciating its seriousness but because he so chooses.

From Manny, it’s a willful and profane expression of contempt. In short, he could give a dang less. That he is allowed to get away with this is simply preposterous.

Ramirez should have been banned for the rest of the season. Retroactive punishments for steroid capers committed before the hammer came down may be dubious. But anyone nailed for offenses committed since the beginning of the 2007 season has no excuse and deserves no mercy. The party is over. Pounding home that salient point by landing on Manny like a ton of bloody bricks would have dramatized the issue for every athlete in the universe more effectively than all the belated tests and lofty pronouncements and shrill warnings and Congressional inquiries combined.

Selig and his drug cops blundered when they let Manny wriggle off the hook with a virtual vacation, which he welcomed no matter how much it cost him. But their biggest mistake came last year when they should have heavily censured Ramirez for his ridiculous antics forcing his way out of his Red Sox contract in midseason.

I believe every one of Selig’s predecessors in the Commissioner’s chair would have nullified the deal that landed Ramirez with the Dodgers last summer while suspending him and calling his powerful agent, the infamous Scott Boras, on the carpet. It would have been a landmark case and quite explosive, bringing about a major showdown. But I can see past Commissioners -- certainly including Masters Landis, Chandler, Kuhn, Giamatti and Vincent -- taking this case on willingly in a heartbeat under the “good of the game” clause.

But Selig was afraid of scrambling a pennant race late in the season and hesitant to lock horns with the very tenacious Agent Boras, and wary of the flaky Manny, and unwilling to make life difficult for his buddies, the Red Sox owners, whom he has always favored and who were plainly desperate at all costs to rid themselves of their excruciating “Manny problem”. So good old Bud chose the easy way out. Now Manny is making him pay dearly. There may be some justice -- however perverse -- in all of this.

The first half of the ’09 season has been zesty and there is much to look forward to the rest of the way. On the other hand, there is much to fear as well.

Heaven help Baseball if that list of 104 players who allegedly failed that 2004 “trial” drug test comes out. You know, the one that was supposed to be anonymous and swiftly destroyed. If it does, all hell will break loose and I can guarantee it will become the baseball story of the year. Nothing that happens on the field will alter that. Alas!