Report Card ? first quarter

At the far turn of another baseball season -- the giddy first quarter mark -- at least 24 teams remain in contention. You can already say “Goodbye” to Baltimore and probably Oakland in the American League, Washington, Colorado, Pittsburgh and maybe Houston in the National League. If you can arouse them, pass along the word. Even a heavily mandated and strictly enforced parity has its limits.

There are few surprises unless you found upon arriving at Memorial Day weekend the sight of Toronto, Detroit and Texas leading the three AL divisions a tad shocking. At the other extreme there were the Chicago Cubs’ celebrating their stature as the trendy choice to redeem a full century of folly by engaging in their usual pratfalls. The Confederacy may rise again before the Cubs win another World Series.

The first quarter always features a rabbit or two. Last season the Arizona Diamondbacks were 30-15 on Memorial Day and fading into the sunset on Labor Day. This season, they are already ten games out which is where they belong and therefore a safe bet to spare us their pretensions.

It’s the Dodgers who are running wild this year in the abysmal NL West. But it’s early and not even Joe Torre can blow out a bullpen in only two months. You need to wait until August after we have witnessed the restoration of Mighty Manny, man of the people, to get any kind of fair measure of the Dodgers.

If there is a team in the NL that has a chance to run away and hide it is the Phillies. No team hits the ball harder and they can trot kids out of their bullpen who throw a hundred mile an hour. If stalwart lefty Cole Hamels holds up -- and he appears to have his act back together -- they will be there at the end. It’s the first time in their history that they’ve have had a legitimate chance to repeat which is saying something when you consider they have been around since Benjamin Harrison was President.

As for the Mets, there’s the eerie sense it’s a team ready to implode with Manager Jerry Manuel having been set up smartly to take the fall. If the NYC tabloids are to be believed, palace intrigues abound. People shudder over the volatility of baseball life in the Bronx. But it’s much quirkier in Queens.

The nicest teams in the NL have been the Milwaukee Brewers, with a pitching staff featuring Brandon Looper and Jeff Suppan, and the St. Louis Cardinals, with yet another epic Red Sox failure, Joel Pineiro, as their leading winner. They currently vie for the NL Central lead with the Reds and Cubs in varying degrees of pursuit. While not denying the Brewers and Cards their pluck, might it be more evidence of the dreadful disparity between the two leagues? Ron Villone survives in Washington and Bronson Arroyo is on a pace to win 20 in Cincinnati.

The much better action, as has become customary over the past generation, is to be found in the American League. There’s a decent race forming in the west, inevitably to be won by the Angels. And there will be the usual tong war in the central division with Kansas City, thanks to Zack Greinke, adding to the melodrama.

But it’s the antics in the AL East that are compelling. They are saucier than ever. If the Blue Jays can hang in there -- and if they stay healthy they should -- and if the Orioles for all of their terrible pitching can continue to hit the ball -- and they have kids who can really do that -- the mayhem in the East will be a sight to behold before this thing is over guaranteeing a September to remember. There’s no better division in all of Sport.

The smart money is still on the Red Sox but you begin to wonder if their problems are not deeper than suspected. This shortstop dilemma that continues to agonize them is serious stuff. One suspects the very shrewd wunderkind of a GM appreciates that better than anyone. You don’t win with borderline play at this most vital position (save for pitching) on the ball field, let alone with a butcher like Julio Lugo going through the motions. Does the thoughtful Theo believe waiting for young Jed Lowrie to repair is the answer? Or does he believe he can afford that luxury? You can bet this much; he won’t trifle with this issue. He proved that in the summer of 2004.

The matter of the tail-spinning David Ortiz is a lesser problem and one they can work around once they decide that sentiment has decided limits, which Theo and company are eminently capable of doing. (Why, hello there Pedro Martinez!) The humbling of Ortiz has reached classical levels. As a noted sporting wag, David Markowitz, recently noted: “David Ortiz is tied with Houston pitcher Russ Ortiz for the major league lead in homers by an Ortiz, with one!”

If the Big Papi doesn’t snap out of it, he’ll be shunted aside with less noise (if more tears) than attended the banishment of Nomar Garciaparra. It would never have happened in the Yawkey Era. It may be unkind to call the new regime “heartless”. Let’s just say it’s “more efficient”. Sometimes all that comes at a price which Tom Yawkey and his immediate successors, for better or worse, were unwilling to pay. Moreover, it will be relatively easy to patch over whatever hole in the scheme of things the Ortiz matter creates. Decent DH’s abound. The Yankees have six of them.

In the meantime, Boston’s pitching -- believed by the savants to be the game’s deepest -- should sustain them, especially if the roll of the dice on the illustrious ancient, John Smoltz, a vintage Epstein caper, pays off. On the other hand, what do we make of brash Jonathan Papelbon’s sudden hint of vulnerability? By gar but the next four months are going to be awfully interesting.

A year ago this Memorial Day, the uppity Tampa Bay Rays were 12 games above .500 and already the talk of baseball and well on the way to a quixotic World Series date that would fall just a soupcon short. It was, pound for pound, as nice a little Cinderella baseball tale as has been concocted since the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” in 1967.

This season at the first checkpoint the Rays are 23-23. B.J. Upton is hitting .195. Troy Percival may be all done. Aki Iwamura has just ravaged his knee, ending his season. Stylish lefty Scott Kazmir, a stopper last year, has a 6.97 ERA this year. Andy Sonnanstine’s is 7.36. If Carlos Pena still occasionally strikes with the long ball his average is down to .244. Does it not begin to look like a season comparable to what the Red Sox had in 1968?

Don’t bet the ranch on it. They have developed in Evan Longoria maybe the best young player in the game and have lately had the wisdom to re-sign for three more years maybe the best manager in the game, Joe Maddon. Come September, the Rays will be present and accounted for.

And then there are the Yankees. They have never had more to prove. Derided as old, lumbering, and injury-prone. Sneered upon for having resorted -- as usual -- to their fat wallet to repair their woes. Even their fancy and breathtakingly exotic new multi-billion dollar ballpark has been made to seem something of a joke. While their resident avatar, Alex Rodriguez, has been made to appear baseball’s answer to Hester Prynne.

Such teams are dangerous!

So it is at another season’s first checkpoint. The second report card will be distributed at the all-star break. Enjoy!

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