More notes from the Florida spring baseball camps where it is already summertime and the living is mighty easy. Unless you play for either the Red Sox or the Yankees, that is. “C’mon down,” as that merry old auto-hustler used to like to say.
Regarding the eternal arch foes, you may be finding the perennial chaos of the Yankee’s scene in Tampa amusing while exulting in the sweetness and light that allegedly abounds at Camp Tranquility over in Fort Myers. But I would hesitate to be too gleeful if I were you, my dear card-carrying lapdogs of “Red Sox Nation.” Unless you have entirely retired that healthy skepticism that was your lifeline until five summers ago, you should be seeing yellow caution flags flapping all over the baseball landscape. In other words, irrational exuberance is uncalled for.
To be sure, the Yankee’s list of potholes, doubts, and potential disasters is very impressive, which gives great solace to those of you still nursing psychic wounds sustained in the great collapse of 1949. But increasingly it seems that when it comes to bad vibes your own kids have been matching the much loathed Bombers this Spring stride for stride.
Who should be alarmed more; the Yankees when Damaso Marte and Robinson Cano return from the Dominican WBC debacle with heating pads on their shoulders and ribs or the Red Sox when Dustin Pedroia is dismissed from the American WBC mis-adventure with one of those dreaded internal muscle aggravations that hobble some cats for weeks? Ah, the World Baseball Classic; what a wonderful idea!
Face it! Both of these teams are loaded with “ifs,” “what ifs,” and “maybes.” The difference being that every hint of adversity that touches the Yankees is played like a six-alarm fire in the Gotham tabloids while the gathering laments of the Red Sox are pooh-poohed and soft-peddled by the house organs of the Boston media. Moreover, rooting for the Yankees to fail has become national sport; the game within the game. Still, if you scrape away all that partisan ragtime, you may see that the Red Sox can match the Yankees, concern for concern.
In New York, they have to worry if Mariano is healthy and, even if he is, will he have staying power at 39: if Jorge can defy the odds remaining a front-line catcher at 37 with a surgically repaired shoulder he seems not anxious to test. If Hideki can run, assuming he can still hit, and if Derek can still play shortstop and if Robinson Cano will ever grow up. How much does Andy Pettitte have left and will Chien Mien Wang hold up? What if Joe Girardi can’t change or Brett Gardner is a March illusion? What if such specs of doubt chipping away at the burgeoning Joba Chamberlain legend have merit and Phil Hughes makes two. What if Brian Bruney can not bridge to the closer while Mark Melancon, David Robertson, and Phil Coke also prove unready?
And then there is A-Rod, the eternal enigma currently licking his assorted physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds far from the madding crowd deep in the Rockies. Maybe the biggest question about this curious fellow is whether they are better off without him. How sad is that?
The Yankees are a Gordian Knot of possibilities and imponderables. Among their very few certainties as the season approaches -- aside from the size of the Steinbrenner wallet, of course -- are the new boys, Brothers Sabatthia, Burnette and Teixeira, the underrated gamer Johnny Damon, and perhaps a stray Xavier Nady, Nick Swisher or Jose Molina, for whatever that’s worth. From them you’ll probably get what you expect. Maybe!
Any other year merely pondering all that besets the Yanks and haunts their late winter dreams would be enough to make true citizens of the Nation mighty merry and bring Spring bursting forth on time for a change. Sorry mates. It’s your own woes you should be considering.
You would be wise to worry if this team has enough offense. Nor is the depth of the pitching any kind of lock. David Ortiz was hitting .083 at last check and while we needn’t be reminded that it’s only spring training Ortiz would be the first to agree he needs to fend off doubts about his ability to reclaim star-status. Plugging along at a subliminal .091 (as of the writing), Jason Varitek -- the winter’s premier cause celebre -- has also not yet begun to allay such doubts. Ditto Mike Lowell. Will the real Jacoby Ellsbury please stand up? Does Jose Lugo’s knee surgery unplug a logjam at short or bring more exposure to Jed Lowrie than he needs? Then there is J.D Drew and his bionic back. How many wins are you penciling in for Brad Penny? Has anyone seen Ramon Ramirez? And just remember that before he throws a pitch in anger for your ballclub, John Smoltz will be 42.
The Red Sox also have their sure things, like most of the starters and who would quibble with that. Kevin Youkilis and the dauntless Pedroia, who will surely shake off whatever ended his WBC flirtation, are as close to money in the bank as it gets in baseball and the firmly planted and jut-jawed Jason Bay isn’t far behind. Unless, of course, his little contract dispute gets to festering. Amazing how a contract dispute will rattle the modern player and agitate the modern team. But with the likes of Bay that shouldn’t be much of an issue. From a distance, team depth seems less imposing, their bench rather thinner. Marginal stuff.
Overall, Theo Epstein likely comes out of the winter with more peace of mind than his Bronx counterpart, Brian Cashman. Seems ironic in that Cash was flat out, trying to prop up the economy itself with his mighty spending spree, while Theo was obliged to do relatively nothing. Maybe Charlie Pierce is right. Maybe they should have kissed and made up with Manny. It is getting much too sleepy and pastoral at Camp Tranquility.
Meanwhile, the unsinkable World Baseball Classic plugs on. With television ratings rising from their indecipherable lows three years ago some are ready to pronounce the thing a success which is farcical. Consider that in what was reputed to be the crucial showdown of the Netherlands and Venezuela to determine who would advance you had the timeless pitching match-up of Sidney Ponson, whose ERA with the Yankees last season was 10.47, against Carlos Sliva, whose log with the Mariners read, 4-15 and 5.93. As the old Scootter might have said, “Holy Cow!”
These things are mere exhibitions and not worth the significant jeopardy they represent for the major league players who are not in proper condition to play them. When Cano and Marte returned from the Dominican as damaged goods, G.M. Cashman -- ever the gentleman -- took the high road and declined to bash the WBC. You can bet, however, that the major-domos of Clan Steinbrenner are seething and who would blame them.
On the surface luck would also seem to have much to do with it, quite as usual. As he was brushing off the Cubans with a brilliant performance Daisuke Matsuzaka seemed in mid-season form. He was pumping and pounding the zone and strutting and fully in charge; the very definition of the unflappable, top of the rotation ace that the Red Sox have so dreamed he might one day become.
The Japanese clearly intend to ride their horse heavily all the rest of the way as they seek to defend their international laurels, dubious as they may be, at all costs. Dice-K has big innings ahead of him and he seems inspired. But will the Red Sox pay the price come August? Ah, now that is the question.
Which only leads to another question. Might the labors of the Red Sox and the Yankees be further opening the door for those wild and crazy Tampa kids, the Rays? August looms as a helluva month.