Play ball

A potentially arresting baseball season now begins. But is the potential for wonder or disgrace, history or shame? After arguably the most perplexing off-season ever that remains hopelessly unclear.

It seems like a generation has come and gone since your Red Sox danced impishly on the frosty steppes of the Rockies after wasting a poor excuse for a minor league team in the alleged World Series. “Baseball has never been better,” Bud Selig and his army of apologists ceaselessly proclaim. But you could never prove it by the quality of the Fall Classic. We haven’t had one faintly worthy of the term since 2001.

Now, I’m willing to admit that when in doubt I’m pleased to see the glass as half-empty nine times out of 10. It’s the solemn obligation of a sports columnist to be negative at all costs. But it’s not a native nastiness but a concession to the obvious that provokes grave concern for the state of the game. The season of 2008 bristles with challenges that Selig, decked out in his rose colored glasses, and his owner-buddies, grown fat and complacent on the wild windfall profits of the third millennia, may not be equal to.

The Steroid scandal is not going to conveniently disappear. If Barry Bonds goes to jail and Congress lays Roger Clemens out in lavender, the embarrassment all of baseball will bear will be colossal. Meanwhile, the inequities of the Mitchell inquisition still must be addressed. The players union, stung by having been made to take the fall in the drug fiasco, is working itself into a foul mood for the next round of labor talks. They will press for collusion charges. Just wait and see. The last time they did that it cost the owners more than a quarter of a billion bucks.

The National League is a mess. MLB ticket prices across the board are up more than 10 percent, led as usual, by your plundering Red Sox. Feuds over the division of the spoils increasingly divide the owners. Arguments over licensing grow heated. Deadbeat owners, content to pocket their luxury tax booty, threaten to wreck the new order. Hovering over it all, is the prospect of recession. Even in Red Sox Nation where the addled masses are completely gone, will the average family of four be able -- let alone, willing -- to pay $361 to genuflect before the Wall? The questions pile up.

Meanwhile, there will be pennant races. The Red Sox will try to establish a dynasty while vigorously protesting no such intentions. Many tears will be shed as old Shea and Yankee Stadiums are reduced to rubble. Joe Girardi will be measured against Joe Torre; son Hank against papa George. Someone will sign Barry Bonds, if only to mute the collusion issue. After still more quibbling, medical science will tell us there is no way to prove or disprove the use of HGH making every pitcher who smoothly recovers from a sore arm suspect. Alex Rodriguez will be the MVP while Johan Santana had better win a Cy Young.

As obliged by a curious if pointless custom, here’s a team-by-team survey of what to expect, beware, or at least watch for.

In the National League

Mets. There’s much ado about Santana but a healthy Pedro Martinez is even more vital to their hopes. They should worry about how Jose Reyes tanked last September and Carlos Delgado’s very slow bat.

Phils. They’ll edge the Mets again. Howard, Utley and Rollins form the best core nucleus, maybe, in all of baseball.

Braves. Living in the past with 40-somethings Glavine and Smoltz anchoring a staff that includes all-time contract bust, Mike Hampton.

Nationals. Brand new stadium. Same old team. They like to collect incorrigibles.

Marlins. An abomination. Victims of another purge resulting in game’s lowest payroll. Cameron Maybin, prized pickup in the Tigers’ deal, is back in the minors.

Cubs. Everyone is picking them; a good reason not to. Kosuke Fukudome will be thrilling, but closer Kerry Woods may usher Lou Piniella to the edge of madness.

Pirates. A great franchise gone hopelessly bad.

Brewers. Formerly the Selig family toy, they gave Eric Gagne $10.5 million to close. Enough said, as McGreevey might say.

Cardinals. If Rick Ankiel hits more than 40 homers, as many predict, the steroid cops will pounce.

Reds. Decent young talent but little of it pitching. An aging Junior pursues his 600th dinger.

Astro’s. They’ll have Roger back. As a fan.

Giants. They’ll wish they had Barry back. As a player.

Padres. Who are these people?

Rockies. A proper reward for their ugly performance last October would be last place, where they are no strangers.

Diamondbacks. Very trendy pick with so much fine young pitching but is a team that closes with Brandon Lyon to be feared?

Dodgers. Joe Torre’s flight from Bronx lunacy leads him to a team loaded with headcases. A season with Jeff Kent, Derek Lowe, Juan Pierre and a fading Nomar should make him yearn for the company of Hank Steinbrenner.

In the American League

Mariners. Trendy pick. Can Eric Bedard pitch for a good team that has legitimate hopes?

A’s. Billy Beane gets another chance to show how smart he is by rebuilding with smoke and mirrors.

Angels. Loaded with sore arms; not a good sign for team utterly dependent on pitching. Young phenoms are failing. Beware of young phenoms.

Rangers. In the league almost 40 years now and still don’t understand you have to develop pitching.

Twins. A crafty, resilient franchise always stocked with pitching. Can Francisco Liriano win more games in Minnesota than Santana wins in New York?

White Sox. Only three years since they went all the way. Seems more like 30.

Royals. They have young kids who can play, like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Not enough of them, of course, but you should root for them. It’s a nice franchise in a nice town.

Indians. Last year’s playoff meltdown will haunt them. Pitching for a big contract I still wouldn’t trust C.C. Sabathia.

Tigers. Everyone’s favorite to step up should the Red Sox slip. But is Dontrelle Willis damaged goods? How did attitude-challenged Miguel Cabrera merit a $150 million pact? Still, they have players you have to love; like Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Guillen and ...most of the time...Magglio Ordonez. So, why not?

Rays. Let them achieve .500 first. Then we can discuss their rosy future. Too much talk in Tampa.

Orioles. One word for this once illustrious franchise. Tragic! Kevin Millar remains their clean-up hitter.

Jays. Key Off-season pickups ... Rolen and Eckstein ... are brittle. Key pitchers ... Burnett and Ryan ... will always be brittle. Another ‘‘show-me’’ team that talks a better game than it plays.

Yankees. Scorn them at your peril. Girardi was a brilliant choice to manage and an upgrade of the burned out Torre who was never the same after the ’04 meltdown versus the Red Sox. Kid pitchers will do well. The six regulars in the lineup aged 34 or more may be another matter. Could be the year Robinson Cano becomes the next Rod Carew.

Red Sox. As many scenarios for having them fold can be conceived as for having them repeat. Is this a great team? Certainly not yet, although rampant mediocrity all over the baseball map makes them look better than they are. If they are to state their historical case before Manny turns 40, they better get at it this year.

But is this also the year Varitek slides and Lowell begins to? Is Buchholz mature enough? Is Papelbon teetering on the edge? No need yet to take Beckett’s back too seriously but they may be only one more pitching issue removed from trouble. They may win by default. There are no great teams. But Detroit could dispute that. So might New York.

Play Ball! It has a nice ring.

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