April 2012

Jackie Robinson: Nothing Inevitable About Him

One of the few infuriating aspects of Jackie Robinson Day is the blowback from the uninformed. I have read today of how integration in this country was inevitable, and Robinson’s success in 1947 was just a happy coincidence. I have read that the talent of the Negro Leagues was just too great and had Robinson failed, had he hit .197 instead of .297, it was still inevitable that those great athletes would have forced their way into the mainstream of American sports.

Utter nonsense.

Was it inevitable when Frank Grant led the International League in homers in 1887? Was it inevitable when John McGraw put the great second baseman Charlie Grant on his 1901 Baltimore Orioles squad under the pretense that he was a Native American named Tokohama? Was it inevitable when the Oakland Oaks of the PCL signed pitcher Jimmy Claxton in 1916 only to drop him days later? Was it inevitable when Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson both played in Pittsburgh in the early ’30s and the Pirates desperately needed a starting pitcher and a catcher? Was it inevitable when John Henry Lloyd and Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson and Jose Mendez and nearly three dozen more future Hall of Famers spent their entire lives playing for peanuts in separate and unequal conditions?

Baseball had fought integration ever since the 1884 major league team in Toledo signed Fleet and Welday Walker. It had slowly closed the door on African-American players in the minors, through boycotts and threats, and by 1900 they were all gone. And the spasmodic attempts to sneak in a Grant or a Claxton as a Native American had been met with crushing responses and threats of retribution. Even when Robinson seemed safely over the threshold, other teams integrated haltingly and – as in St. Louis with the Browns – sometimes disastrously. Many of the others hung back. The New York Yankees saw nothing “inevitable” about integration: they did not add a black player until Elston Howard in 1955.

While the Boston Braves were signing Hank Aaron and Billy Bruton and Wes Covington and then moving to Milwaukee to win pennants with them, the Boston Red Sox chose not to sign Robinson in 1945, and not to add any African-American player until 1959. The Sox, intentionally or otherwise, kept to a limit of no more than five African-American players on their roster well into the ’70s. It was maintained with extraordinary efficiency. On June 14, 1966, the Sox made a trade that added the former Negro Leagues pitcher John Wyatt to their bullpen. On June 15, 1966, they gave away pitcher Earl Wilson to the Detroit Tigers and their quota was back down to five.

And there was nothing inevitable about black athletes getting another chance in the major leagues had Jackie Robinson failed. He didn’t win the civil rights war by himself (indeed, it has hardly been won), but his role was pivotal and unique. Leaders from each decade and every perspective have said that Robinson provided the cultural groundwork that made integration not necessarily possible, but practical. Unlike Jack Johnson or the less threatening Joe Louis, he had succeeded in a previously all-white team sport. He had white teammates and white friends.

It is little credited today, but Jackie Robinson’s real contribution was not to convert the haters and the proactive racists towards an enlightened view of this country. In fact, what he did would’ve been impossible before the vastly increased interaction between whites and blacks in the military during World War II, and it might’ve been impossible if he had then failed on the ballfield or in his relationship with his white teammates: He erased benign prejudice.

My late father, nearly as liberal a man as I’ve ever known, used to look back at attending games of the New York Black Yankees as a teenager, with a sense of astonishment and shame. “It never occurred to us, never occurred to us, that the black players didn’t want to play only with other black players. We had no idea this was segregation. We thought it was choice.”

And for every open-minded individual like him whose consciousness was raised by Jackie Robinson, there was another who had no animus towards blacks but was convinced that there was either no way they had the athletic chops to succeed at the major league level, or no way they had the psychological stability to withstand the pressure of the game or of the process of integration.

Some large, but ultimately never-to-be-measured, group of Americans went from believing in 1946 that blacks had chosen their own world, or couldn’t physically or psychologically function next to whites, to realizing that these convictions were the most insidious forms of racism. These were the white men and women who supported Brown v. Board of Education, and the marches in the South, and the integration in Little Rock, and Martin Luther King, and the repeal of the laws forbidding blacks to marry whites that stayed on the books of some states as late as the mid-’60s. These were the men and women who began to attend pro football and basketball games in the large numbers they needed to succeed as stable national enterprises only after these leagues began to fully integrate – and, yes, the NBA didn’t integrate until Robinson had completed his fourth season with the Dodgers.

It is imperative to remember that none of the progress – in baseball or in America – that followed in Jackie Robinson’s wake was inevitable. There were millions of hateful Americans who would have exploited a Robinson failure to roll back the limited gains of the war years. There were millions more who would’ve thought that Robinson’s season, or half-season, or six weeks in the spotlight, had been a noble experiment, but that he and his race just weren’t up to it. And when their support was needed to beat back the Orval Faubuses and Bull Connors and Strom Thurmonds, they would not have been there. Even today there are those who would push us back towards our awful past. Who would have stood against their predecessors – who sought a virtual apartheid in this country – had Robinson failed in 1947?

Inevitable! In 1948, when Thurmond ran on an openly segregationist, racist platform as a third-party candidate for president, he received 1,175,930 votes. In 1968 – after Jackie Robinson and after Malcolm X and after the rise and death of Martin Luther King – George Wallace ran on virtually the same platform and still got 9,901,118 votes.

There was nothing inevitable about the healing of this nation at the center of which was Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

2012 Previews: N.L. Central

First of all, this photo of my six-year old niece helping me keep score at the Yankees’ opener doesn’t have a thing to do with the NL Central. It’s just that it represents her first tentative steps towards fandom, and is to my mind fully representative of the rituals of the sport. Just the other day she ceaselessly quizzed her ball-playing older brother about what all the players do. Now she’s trying to figure out what the hieroglyphics represent, and carefully entering abbreviations at my instruction, and asking with delighted amazement: “What does that mean?” (She also insisted we take a walk, I told her we’d go wherever she wanted in the park because she was in charge. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know”).

Anyway.

The history of winning the World Series and then altering your uniform the next year to advertise the fact is a star-crossed one. The 2009 Phillies, 2007 Cardinals, and 2005 Red Sox all dipped their toe into the pool and wore special gold trim on their unis for their first one or two home games. The 2011 Giants wore a particularly garish patch all season long. Not one of them repeated their previous year’s triumphs. Go back into history and there are greater calamities still: the 1920 Cleveland Indians overcame the mid-season death of their star infielder Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, then surged past the scandal-ravaged White Sox to grab their first pennant, then won the World Series in large part because of an unassisted triple play by Chapman’s double-play partner Bill Wambsganss.

Next year, Wamby and his teammates dressed in these uniforms:The “Worlds Champions” finished second in 1921, did not seriously contend for the pennant again until 1940 (when they were decimated by an internal player revolt against their manager, earning the players the nicknames “The Crybabies”), didn’t win another Series until 1948, and haven’t won one since.

The 1927 Cardinals did something similar, although a little less garish, were punished by being crushed in the ’28 Series by the Yankees and the ’30 A’s, but were winners again by 1931.

Frank Bowerman

The 1906 New York Giants wore these modest little outfits, at home and abroad, to celebrate their 1905 title. The Giants fell out of contention in ’06 and ’07, suffered the singular ignominy of the 1908 pennant race and the Merkle Game Controversy in ’08, watched the president of the National League kill himself over that controversy in ’09, didn’t compete in ’10, had their ballpark burn down in ’11, lost the epic series on the Fred Snodgrass “muff” and the Mathewson Wrong Call in ’12, lost another Series in ’13, watched one of their cast-off pitchers lead the last place team past them and to the Series title in ’14, saw the team break up amid gambling rumors in ’15, won 26 in a row and still finished only fourth in ’16, lost the ’17 Series when nobody covered the plate on a rundown from third base, and didn’t come out of it until they won the Series of 1921 and 1922.

I’m not suggesting wearing a uniform devoted more to bragging than team identification caused these calamities, but there is a remarkable amount of trouble associated with teams that merely tinkered with their jerseys after they prevailed. The Cubs went from wearing a simple “C” for their 1907 shirt to a “C” with the “Cubby Bear” nestled inside in 1908. They repeated the title that year, but changed the jerseys to an even more ornate version with “Chicago” spelled vertically down the buttons in ’09, and you might recall what ’09 was the start of for the Cubs.

Adam Wainwright in Cards' home opener. Photo by Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

This is a very very very long way of leading up to this question: This gold-lettered uniform the Cardinals wore Friday? Why did they wear it?

I mean, none of the teams in the National League Central are among baseball’s best this season. They just aren’t and more over, they know it. The division has been drained by the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and despite producing two playoff teams, a World Champion, and a (brief) Cinderella Team, it wasn’t a very good division last year, either.

I’m saying the title might come down to superstition. So why tempt it? I mean, the caps are a little kitschy but the unis are kinda nice. But did you notice that after wearing it for one day, David Freese is already hurt again?

ST. LOUIS has to be the default favorite, but Carpenter’s gone, Wainwright has looked like crap, Berkman’s already suffered two minor injuries that could linger and limit him, or explode and finish him. Among all humans who’ve never managed before, Mike Matheny is probably the 2nd best choice to try to start on the big league stage (Robin Ventura is the 1st), but on what experience will he call if the injuries continue, or the bullpen falters, or Carlos Beltran is sidelined by a scratched nostril,or the Cards all get blood poisoning from the jinxed gold-flecked unis?

Conversely, managerial experience is no automatic indicator of success – ask CINCINNATI. We all love Dusty Baker, one of the great human beings, but his reluctance to trust youngsters has imperiled the career of Aroldis Chapman and is now reflected in his insistence on catching Ryan Hanigan more than Devin Mesoraco. The Ryan Madson injury will only make Dusty even less willing to trust anybody under 35, and I just have to wonder if at some point ownership is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say “we have committed 297 and a half million dollars to the least important quadrant, the right side of the infield” and disappear into the Arctic or something. How on earth is a market like Cincinnati supposed to produce such revenues? Is the news about the Minnesota Twins censored on the internet in the southern half of Ohio? More immediately, there’s a serious question about every Red pitcher (except Chapman, and of course he is used only as the 6th or 7th most important man on the staff).

The Conventional Wisdom suggests Aramis Ramirez was brought to MILWAUKEE to partially offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Nuh-uh. He was brought in to offset the disappearance of Casey McGehee. The Brewers’ swaggering line-up of 2011 looks awfully human with Gamel and Gonzalez and Ramirez in it in 2012. Randy Wolf looks like he’s at the end of the line and the internal dissatisfaction with Zack Greinke is astounding. It’s a very good bullpen, but in any other division this would not be a serious contender.

If Jeff Samardzija and either Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are for real, CHICAGO may be better than expected, but not much. LaHair has hit well in the NL and Rizzo in the PCL and the obvious move would be to stick LaHair in the outfield, which is already a defensive wasteland, call up Rizzo, and let ‘er rip. Or better yet, off-load David DeJesus or Soriano or Byrd for whatever you could get for them, and give Brett Jackson a shot out there, too. But even if the Cubs hit, past Garza and maybe Samardzija the rest of the rotation is dubious and the bullpen (with the possible exception of rookie Rafael Dolis) will give away a lot of games.

There is a narrow pinhead through which PITTSBURGH might squeeze, and force their way into contention. Revivals from Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett would give a good bullpen something to save. Andrew McCutchen might blossom into an MVP candidate. Starling Marte might come up next month and hit .330. But masked by the completeness of the Buccos’ post-play-at-the-plate collapse last year was what happened to the fuel of their brief spring in the sun. Jose Tabata vanished. Garrett Jones vanished. Kevin Correia vanished. Jeff Karstens vanished. Inexplicably, Pedro Alvarez vanished and the Pirates insist on still playing him. Midnight struck and Clint Hurdle was suddenly managing a pumpkin farm. Everything that went right last year has to go right again this year – and then some.

There is one bright spot in HOUSTON. If the new owner and Poor Brad Mills (the manager’s new first name) had had to have taken this team into the American League this year, the Astros might’ve gone 30-132. There may be sparkles from Jason Castro behind the plate, Jose Altuve at second, and Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Schafer in the outfield, but it is plausible that beyond Carlos Lee there might be nobody on this team who hits 15 homers. There certainly aren’t going to be any starting pitchers who win 15 games. Good lord, as I read this to myself, it dawns on me: all the starting pitchers might not win 35 games among them.

2012 N.L. CENTRAL FORECAST:

Man, I have no idea. If these teams were scattered among the other divisions there wouldn’t be a lead-pipe-cinch pennant contender among the six of them. I guess St. Louis will win, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee behind them, and Chicago and Pittsburgh arguing over fourth, and the Astros disappearing from National League history like the Cheshire Cat. The pennant race might prove variable and exciting, but it will not be good, and it will make fans in places like Toronto and Seattle and Miami wish that realignment were a reality.

The 1st Amendment, The 2nd Praising Of Castro, and Five Games

This is revised and updated from the previous post:

Minutes into his five-game unpaid suspension for having praised Fidel Castro in a community filled with, and animated by, people who think Castro comparable to Hitler, Manager Ozzie Guillen of the Miami Marlins tried to explain that he had hoped to say he was surprised Castro had stayed in power so long, and that someone who had hurt so many over so many years was still alive.

The problem is, it turns out he had made similar remarks about Castro four years ago in which he renounced Castro’s politics and called him a dictator and still ended by saying “I admire him.”

Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen pauses as he speaks at a news conference at Marlins Stadium in Miami, Tuesday April 10, 2012. (AP / Lynne Sladky)

As Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times noted late last night, he interviewed Guillen, the managing the White Sox for a Men’s Journal Q-and-A:

And I asked him this: “Who’s the toughest man you know?’’

His response, which took me by surprise: “Fidel Castro.’’

Why?

“He’s a bull—- dictator and everybody’s against him, and he still survives, has power. Still has a country behind him,’’ Ozzie replied. “Everywhere he goes, they roll out the red carpet. I don’t admire his philosophy; I admire him.’’

That’s an added wrinkle, and it suggests the suspension may be insufficient, at least in terms of length. For some context: over a period of six or seven years, Cincinnati Reds’ owner Marge Schott had said something to offend virtually every group except The Visiting Nurse Association. She said Adolf Hitler “was good in the beginning, but went too far.” She had previously made antisemitic remarks, kept some Nazi trophies from her late husband’s service in World War II (not all that uncommon), bashed gays, blacks, Asians, and supposedly wanted to fire her manager Davey Johnson because he was living with his girlfriend. Major League Baseball – as opposed to just the team acting on Guillen – suspended her for two-and-a-half years and eventually applied enough pressure to get her to sell the franchise.

Flash forward to the remarks to Time Magazine for its newest issue:

“I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that (expletive) is still there.”

As the impeccable Amy K. Nelson live-tweeted from today’s apology news conference:

“Very embarrassed, very sad. I thought the next time I saw this room with this many people, there would be a World Series trophy next to me.”

A predominant response from fans who – correctly, I think – believe we have gotten to the point where we take everything either too seriously or not seriously enough, has been “What happened to Ozzie Guillen’s free speech? What about the 1st Amendment?”

Well – what about it?

Ever read it?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the whole thing. In case you think there’s a hidden meaning in there somewhere protecting Ozzie Guillen’s – or your -right to say whatever he wants without consequences from his employers or his community: No.

Translation of the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, the 1st Amendment to our Constitution to the current mess?

Congress shall make no law abridging Ozzie Guillen’s freedom of speech.

His bosses? They can abridge it all they want.

Ironically, the heavy-handedness of local politicians trying to capitalize on the situation may serve to protect Ozzie. The Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Miami-Dade wants Guillen to resign, or to be fired. “To say you respect Fidel Castro,” writes Joe A. Martinez, “suggests he also respects dictators such as Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, Adolf Hitler and Sadam Hussein.”

Not quite. Ozzie is guilty of praising (or admiring, or being astonished at, or being appalled by, depending on when you ask him) Castro’s longevity, in much the same kind of way he would’ve tried to praise Jamie Moyer if he threw a 4-hit shutout against the Marlins. But there are third rails, and in South Florida, Castro is viewed as the destroyer of lives, the ruination of the homeland, the man who separated families, tortured opponents, the man who sent would-be refugees to drown or be eaten by sharks, and sent a country back to 1947.

There are survivors, and the relatives of those who didn’t survive, and one of the things they don’t want to hear is that there’s anything good about Castro. And I can’t blame them. You can’t view this exclusively from your own perspective. You need to remember that much of the geographical area the Marlins represent view what has happened to Cuba since 1959 the way Israel views its more belligerent neighbors – or worse.

The usually hip Deadspin was particularly tone-deaf on this:

I’m not Cuban, nor have I ever been to Miami so I don’t know how this played out among that population, but I would just say this…

No, don’t. The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect you either, Bud.

The question remaining is: Is five games sufficient. A local anti-Castro group said yesterday it planned to picket and protest the team until Guillen is out, or Castro leaves office, or both – In which case Ozzie had better hope he has completely misjudged the dictator’s longevity. One assumes a serious suspension would tamp down the fire pretty quickly.

There are a lot of arguments here, but the one to leave out involves wrapping Guillen in the 1st Amendment. It might be nice (or it might be disastrous) if we all had some kind of private immunity from controversial statements, but we clearly don’t.

Why Ozzie Guillen Is NOT Protected By The 1st Amendment

You’ve read the remarks by now:

“I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that (expletive) is still there.”

That’s from a subscriber-only article in Time. Ken Rosenthal has written that in the context of how Fidel Castro is viewed in South Florida, the Marlins need to do more than have Ozzie Guillen apologize at his news conference tomorrow, that they need to suspend him for as much as a month.

A predominant response from fans who – correctly, I think – believe we have gotten to the point where we take everything either too seriously or not seriously enough, has been “What happened to Ozzie’s free speech? What about the 1st Amendment?”

Well – what about it?

Ever read it?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the whole thing. In case you think there’s a hidden meaning in there somewhere protecting Ozzie Guillen’s – oryour -right to say whatever he wants without consequences from his employers or his community: No.

Translation of the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, the 1st Amendment to our Constitution to the current mess?

Congress shall make no law abridging Ozzie Guillen’s freedom of speech.

His bosses? They can abridge it all they want.

Ironically, the heavy-handedness of local politicians trying to capitalize on the situation may serve to protect Ozzie. The Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Miami-Dade wants Guillen to resign, or to be fired. “To say you respect Fidel Castro,” writes Joe A. Martinez, “suggests he also respects dictators such as Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, Adolf Hitler and Sadam Hussein.”

The hell it does.

Ozzie is guilty of praising Castro’s longevity, in much the same kind of way he would praise Jamie Moyer if he threw a 4-hit shutout against the Marlins. But there are third rails, and in South Florida, Castro is viewed as the destroyer of lives, the ruination of the homeland, the man who separated families, tortured opponents, the man who sent would-be refugees to drown or be eaten by sharks, and sent a country back to 1947.

There are survivors, and the relatives of those who didn’t survive, and one of the things they don’t want to hear is that there’s anything good about Castro. And I can’t blame them. You can’t view this exclusively from your own perspective. You need to remember that much of the geographical area the Marlins represent view what has happened to Cuba since 1959 the way Israel views its more belligerent neighbors – or worse.

The usually hip Deadspin was particularly tone-deaf on this:

I’m not Cuban, nor have I ever been to Miami so I don’t know how this played out among that population, but I would just say this…

No, don’t. The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect you either, Bud.

If the Marlins don’t act decisively, one anti-Castro group plans to picket and protest the team until Guillen is out, or Castro leaves office, or both – In which case Ozzie had better hope he has completely misjudged the dictator’s longevity. One assumes a serious suspension would tamp down the fire pretty quickly.

There are a lot of arguments here, but the one to leave out involves wrapping Guillen in the 1st Amendment. It might be nice (or it might be disastrous) if we all had some kind of private immunity from controversial statements, but we clearly don’t.

2012 Previews: N.L. East

11 homers, 44 RBI, and a .769 OPS, in 103 games.

It’s kind of hard to believe that looking at those numbers, or more correctly looking at the loss of those numbers, would lead lots of folks to completely write off the 2012 chances of one particular club.

Those are, of course, the 2011 statistics of Chase Cameron Utley, who may or may not be the second baseman in PHILADELPHIA for part of 2012. Filling a similar role of not-quite-two-thirds-of-a-regular last year, Utley was part of a Phils squad that won its division by 13 games. In slightly fuller part-time duty the year before, Utley’s Phillies won the East by six games. In 2009, his last complete year, they also won by six games. In 2008, his last great year, they won by three.

It’s ludicrous to suggest that the Phillies have gotten better the less Utley has played. But it’s just as ludicrous to suggest that he is somehow irreplaceable. They replaced him fine the last two years, and even when he came back to hit .438 in the NLDS, they still managed to lose with him. But now Utley is a complete maybe, and the Phillies are supposedly dead.

Bolshoi.

The actual argument about the loss of Utley is that a healthy version would have compensated for the real damage done by the absence of Ryan Howard. Yes, he basically can’t hit lefties any more (in 2008 counting the post-season he drove in 52 runs against left-hand pitching; last year, 28, including 0-for-6 against Cardinal southpaws in the playoffs). But he’s still like the big fat kid on the playground: he tends to win nearly all the wrestling matches.

Utley’s presence was ultimately necessary because of Howard’s absence. Hell, they could’ve played him at first and saved a little wear and tear on him. But as immobile as Howard appears as the dawn of a new season breaks, his problem now is largely down to recovery from an infection that sounds suspiciously like a hospital bed sore. If and when it is fully knocked out, he will heal up quickly, and his stamina will recover adequately.

In short, the message to the assumed contending trio of the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals is: you’d better bury Philadelphia while Howard is still out. Because if you don’t, you won’t when he comes back. There’s just too much there there, especially in pitching, especially with the seeming Nostradamus act of Ruben Amaro almost re-signing the destined for injury Ryan Madson only to suddenly pull Jonathan Papelbon out of the hat. If the Phillies get any worthwhile production out of Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, they’ll be good if not great (and surely Galvis is a defensive upgrade at second base).

The three other contenders in this division are hard to sort out, and are probably all overrated. WASHINGTON has no pennant race experience, ATLANTA has too much, and MIAMI thinks it isn’t necessary.

The Braves are the likeliest to provide the challenge. Jair Jurrjens’ incremental velocity loss is a major concern, as are the horrific springs of Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. So is the prospect that last season they actually burned out – rather than just wearing down – Jonny Venters. There are, however, waves of pitching options, and a strong offense that cannot again crater the way it did last September. I don’t think much should be expected of Chipper Jones, but on the other side of that coin, the Braves may have stolen a Jose Bautista-like player from Cincinnati in last Sunday’s trade for third baseman Juan Francisco.

Francisco has always had a reputation for tremendous power and a throwing arm not exceeded anywhere in the minors. But the Reds had transformed him from prospect to suspect by bringing him up in each of the last three years – and not having him do anything. We all know Dusty Baker’s inexplicable twist of the ’60s catchphrase: Don’t Trust Anybody Under 30. But Francisco may be Baker’s most appalling victim, worse even than what he did to Todd Frazier. Until September 1st of last year, Juan Francisco had started consecutive major league games once in his life. With little to play for down the stretch, Baker gave him a few more shots – three streaks of three starts in a row and three more of back-to-backs. Francisco responded with what was basically a 19-games-as-a-starter sample slash line reading 3/15/.280/.314/.500/.814.

I know straight extrapolations are dangerous it stretches out, but in just 114 games in a theoretical platoon with Martin Prado, Francisco’s line stretches out to 18/90/.280/.314/.500/.814. The kid has a thick body and needs to work harder, but countless are the examples of the underachievers who blossom when somebody has no choice but to play them regularly.

I do not see the Nationals competing offensively unless Bryce Harper ascends early, and all the indications from spring training implied this would be a 2013 event. Desmond and Espinosa can be a valuable offensive tandem but strike out fearfully often, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche begin the year hurt, and there is still no indication that Jayson Werth’s 2008-10 run was not his peak. The bullpen is very nice and the rotation is probably second in the division, but who has felt the heat, close and late? LaRoche, Werth, Lidge, and the ever-relocating Edwin Jackson.

The problem with the Marlins is that all of their offensive stars – Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison – could live up to expectations and the team could still linger around .500. I do not like this rotation. Josh Johnson is overpowering, but though he has been with them off-and-on since 2005, he has only once thrown a full complement of starts. Mark Buehrle is an innings eater but no all-star, and if you’re depending on Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, or Carlos Zambrano, you haven’t been paying attention. It is intriguing that 74 percent of the homers hit by Morrison and Stanton last year came with nobody on board, but that rotation and most of that bullpen seems shaky.

As an aside, the Miami experience will be as important at the gate as on the field. If the Marlins underachieve – or achieve and the fans still under-attend – there could be a quick fire sale, or a desperate effort to move the mega-contracts. And this isn’t just about South Florida. It reflects no great insight to realize that the willingness of the state of Florida, and the cities of St. Petersburg and/or Tampa to contribute to a new ballpark for the Rays, is almost wholly dependent on what happens in Miami. If the Marlins don’t draw, there is no other conclusion to reach than that the Rays will almost certainly have to move before 2017. They have developed a winning machine in Tampa Bay, and a loyal fan base, but very few of those fans seem to want to express their loyalty by paying, and fewer still want to pay their way into that nicely redecorated aircraft hangar.

I don’t have the heart to be rude about well-meaning NEW YORK. It is infuriating, knowing how that organization is infused from almost the top, to the very bottom, with earnest, hard-working people, that a team in a smaller market and a younger mega-tv deal spent the winter vacuuming up Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, while this club with its own tv channel couldn’t even make a serious offer to Jose Reyes. Worse yet, despite a few bright spots on the horizon, there is no immediate hope of improvement. Barring somebody collapsing above them, the Mets are likely to finish last this year and for several to come.

2012 N.L. EAST FORECAST:

The Phillies hang tough long enough for Howard to return in time to beat back the Braves, Nationals, and calamity-stricken Marlins, in a tight but possibly anger-filled race. The last-place Mets will sparkle on some days and Johan Santana’s comeback will be heart-warming – and then they might still have to deal him off.

2012 Previews: A.L. Central

It will be one of those freaks of baseball nature, not unlike the year the St. Louis Browns won the pennant because all their players were just physically bad enough to not be drafted for World War 2, or the year the Reds won the most games in the National League yet did not make the playoffs. The Detroit Tigers, with probably the worst defensive starting line-up in the majors today – and one of the worst of all-time among serious contenders – will likely blow through the American League Central and could easily start the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win the ALCS and even The Series.

Consider them, and leave your images of them at bat, back in your mental dugout:

— Prince Fielder at first base: Decent forward motion for a man of his size, and unexpected ups, too. But going after a liner to either side should be accompanied by a public address system announcement of “timber.”

— Ryan Rayburn at second: You need to see the video again of him doing the Jai-Alai bit in left field to send Miguel Olivo’s fly ball over the fence? Here’s the link.

— Jhonny Peralta at short: This is an ex-shortstop turned third baseman and reconverted to short. And he’s the infield stalwart.

— Miguel Cabrera at third: No.

— Delmon Young in left: This will make you hanker for Raburn.

— Brennan Boesch in right: Immobile.

— Alex Avila catching: He’s a gifted receiver but, without Victor Martinez to help him out, the temptation for Jim Leyland to play him 133 more times behind the plate will be huge. His exhaustion down the stretch last year was ultimately disastrous.

You’ll notice I left out Austin Jackson. Obviously he is one of the best centerfielders in the game, not just fast but instinctive on balls off the bat, and in his throwing. But between Young and Boesch (or any of the alternatives) in that of all ballparks, they are asking him to cover a lot of ground.

But of course this is academic. When Salvador Perez and Joakim Soria went down, they postponed any chance of a KANSAS CITY uprising until next season. The Royals needed everything to break their way to offer a serious challenge, and we already know it won’t. They can live without Soria but pulling either Greg Holland or Jonathan Broxton out of their set-up pool will wind up overburdening the rotation. I still think the Royals could manage a second-place finish, but it’ll be distant behind a Tiger offense and pitching staff that are each 50% better than anything else in the division.

CLEVELAND is beginning to understand that if Ubaldo Jimenez did not hit his high water mark at the 2010 All-Star Game, he did so in the “Zander?” commercial with Jorge De La Ros about the bicycle license plates. How they could not see that he had lost command and speed suggests the Indians need to sign up for cable or a dish. That he cost them Drew Pomeranz and Alex White may come to haunt the Indians the way the Mike Napoli deal haunts the Angels. Manny Acta will get everything out of this team, but exactly who is going to make the decision to pull Jimenez out of the rotation?

Sometimes rebuilds can be fun. Consider the rookies and sophomores in CHICAGO: closer-in-waiting Addison Reed, relievers Hector Santiago and Nate Jones, third baseamn Brent Morel, rightfielder (well, hitter in right field) Dayan Viciedo, and, the most intriguing prospect of them all, Manager Robin Ventura. The White Sox will struggle to see .500 but Ventura’s extraordinary equanimity, devious humor, and quiet command will set a tone for quick recovery. Whether the White Sox have enough coming up through the pipeline to make them contenders in the near term is another thing all together.

Before you cast stones at MINNESOTA – be honest. Did you cry “no” when they gave then-recent-MVP Justin Morneau the big money? Did you say it was ludicrous when they gave Joe Mauer his $184,000,000 or did you extol the virtues of the small market team that could somehow afford to keep its hometown hero? You didn’t warn, I didn’t, the fans didn’t, and Twins ownership didn’t. And now we’re all on a possibly-irreversible trip to an AL Central version of the current events in Houston or Pittsburgh: exquisite new ballpark, faithful fans, and a team that can’t even afford to retain a Delmon Young during a season or a rehabbed Joe Nathan following it. It’s grim and it’s a reminder that Cincinnati is one blown-out kneecap away from having to give 51% of the franchise ownership to a suddenly-retired Joey Votto in lieu of paying a suddenly-retired Joey Votto.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL FORECAST:

Tigers, with or without a Statuary Defense, should win this division by double digits. The Royals and Indians will fight for second (and fight to stay over .500) and the White Sox will likely come in a few notches under. The Twins may be bad enough for the team to have to put up twelve-foot high fences to keep their most loyal fans from throwing themselves into the Fire Pits at Target Field.

2012 Previews: A.L. West

Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.

Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.

Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.

It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.

And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.

The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.

Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.

The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.

There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”

My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.

Sorry.

It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson,  Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:

TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.

UNRELATED NOTE:

Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.