Beisbol starteth

We can thank Buck Showalter, chippy boss of the upstart Baltimore's, for getting our baseball season off to a lusty start. The kiddies were still adrift in the extended reverie known as "Spring Training" when the dogged Orioles skipper snapped everybody to attention by ragging on Derek Jeter and Theo Epstein, reigning demigods of the Athens and Sparta of the known baseball world.

Can you believe the temerity of ole Buck daring to suggest that maybe our Theo wouldn't be quite so smart if he didn't have an unlimited budget to prop up his daring off-season machinations in the free-agent market? Is that any way to talk about a guy who went to Yale? You'd think it was mid-season with a genuine race in progress and the dog days of August beckoning. As Ring Lardner's boy, the peerless Ozark Ike might have said, "Gee whiz, ain't it grand!"

Yes it is "grand," mates. And while it's true that every baseball season looks infinitely sweet, lush and promising in March, this one bristles with many more issues than is the norm. We could have barnburners in every division; that is assuming that the rash talk about the invincibility of the Red Sox is, as usual, rash. Meanwhile, reality has already settled in at the Phillies' camp.

In both such instances the weight of history is clearly on the side of doubt. Spring training opened with every baseball seer, savant, and ESPN know-it-all predicting a Phillies-Red Sox World Series, reprising the unforgettable epic of 1915. As it ends, you hear much less of that bunk. Looks like they are going to have to play the season after all.

The Phillies do have that seemingly awesome pitching rotation of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels, and Blanton widely proclaimed to be the very best since the '54 Indians card of Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, Feller, Houtteman, and Newhouser which makes one wonder what was wrong with the Dodgers' 1963 staff featuring Koufax, Drysdale, Podres, Miller and Perranoski. But we digress. The issue is not the Phils' pitching which is indisputably ample but the rest of their lineup which is aging, bloated, and loaded with problems, and if Chase Utley is gone for the season so may they be. Reportedly, the screws are tightening in Philadelphia even before they play a game that counts.

This season's Phils could feature the mightiest staff ever not to win a pennant since the 1920 White Sox had four 20-game winners (Faber, Cicotte, Williams and Kerr) yet finished second to the Indians and those White Sox were actually trying desperately to win. Baseball is a funny game. You heard it here first. An awkward scenario similar to what besets the Phils -- one that's laden with irrational expectations unleashing hideous pressure -- could be a major problem for your Red Sox as well.

Let's play "Devil's Advocate," something of a favorite game within the game where the olde Town Team is concerned. Understand that the meaningful measure of what Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez bring to them will be how much more they do than Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, the two bats they replace, did do. Of the four, the most impressive in the spring was Martinez who lit up the camp of the Tigers, his new team.

You can quibble about the worth of spring training works, but it's interesting that Gonzalez did not light up the Sox camp. That's because his shoulder is still repairing, the apologists who cover the team kept telling us. They also reassure us his labrum repairs were in his non-throwing shoulder but it's not his "non-hitting shoulder." There are also reasonable questions having to do with the catching, shortstop, relief pitching, back end of the rotation, and center fielder, until proven otherwise.

To the delight of the Nation, the Yankee's issues are at least equally profound. You'll well recall they too had off-season machinations in mind that were thwarted when they got hung out to dry by Cliff Lee in his clever campaign for an epic contract much in excess of what he deserved. The irony was rich. The Yankees, alleged masters of free agent gamesmanship, were made to look like rubes by Mr. Lee.

There's no question that playing New York as artfully as he did was worth roughly 20-25 million to the lefty while also garnering him a better all-round deal than he could have gotten anywhere else, including New York. No doubt embarrassed, they've kept their mouths shut but the Yankees are doubtless still seething. Methinks they needn't. There's the strong chance Lee won't hold up physically over the length of his Phillies' deal, and maybe not artistically either. The loss of Andy Pettitte was as great a blow as the failure to sign Lee.

In the end they may be thankful it worked out as it did. They avoided piling on another millstone of a contract. If stop-gap measures succeed in bridging them to their impressive young and cheap pitching talent ripening down on the farm and if those kids prove to be as good as they now look then not getting Cliff Lee may prove a master-stroke for the Yankees. All that, however, is a lot of "ifs." Fear not. The Yankees will find a way.

As for this season, Boston has the edge in pitching but I still think the New York lineup, one thru nine, is tougher. Slight edge overall to Boston, but it's very slight.

Of course, it's all about the Red Sox and Yankees because it always is even as the Rays keep edging into the conversation. Only this year it may be even less so and that would be a wonderful thing. Why do the Rays, who after all have won the division two of the last three years, get so little respect? Among the many reasons the AL East remains baseball's best division is because that's where you'll find the superior managers. And it's no disrespect to Boston's Francona, New York's Girardi, or Baltimore's Showalter to say Tampa's Joe Maddon ranks with his mentor, Mike Scioscia of the Angels, and the defending champ, Bruce Bochy of the Giants as the very best in the entire game.

Maddon's nice little Rays team has been torn apart by a salary purge necessitated by the franchise's woeful stadium situation. The team's future is on the line. But the Ray's are still strong in youth, speed, defense, and starting pitching. Joe Maddon will find a way.

It would be endlessly amusing if their curious strategy of pinning heavy hopes on those colorful codgers, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, were to pay off. It's a scenario that defies even Hollywood's richest imaginings. But nothing Ramirez ever conjures -- be it good, bad, or ugly -- should ever surprise you. As for Damon, if he proves to have a little more magic left, you should be happy for him. He was always a pro and as honest a player as the Red Sox ever featured. Many will be pulling for the Rays this year.

The fulfillment of revivals in Baltimore and Toronto, both of which made important advances last season, would complete a happy situation in the AL East. One yearns for the day all five teams are again competitive equals and spend the season beating the bejabbers out of one another. Baltimore, under Showalter and with a cadre of very impressive young pitching, is closest to the realization. Toronto, with ex-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell now in charge, nipped at Boston's heels (four games back) last season but has lost ground off-season. Farrell will find the Jays a sufficient challenge.

There's envy in Showalter's fighting words -- after all he once managed the Yankees -- but they no less have merit. The difference is still all about money. Epstein's brilliance would diminish without the support of Boston's mighty payroll which will soon become roughly as obscene as New York's when they stop playing around with Adrian Gonzalez's massive new contract. Nor would Brian Cashman be quite so smart if he were the general manager in Tampa.

Play Ball!

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