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.
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.
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.
Presumably the realization is just beginning to sink in now in Boston – and with the rumors that he’ll be the next one out the door, it must be sinking in at levels higher than Theo Epstein – that the Red Sox are now faced with a task far more daunting, and far more likely to result in disaster, than even playing their games in September turned out to be: Finding somebody to manage the team in 2012 who can merely do as well as Terry Francona did last month.
The Yankees-Tigers meeting in soggy New York over the weekend was filled with baseball people trying just to come up with somebody – anybody – who could handle the pressures of ownership, an intense fan base now driven crazier by eight years of entitlement feelings their ancestors hadn’t known since 1918, and the media. Throw in the startling recent comments by some Boston players and you can add in to the mix the fact that Tito apparently kept the lid on a team full of Prima Donnas and protected them against reality at every turn. Remember, in New York, if you are raised on the Yankees and you feel they have done you wrong, you can switch to the Mets (or more likely, vice versa). I know from my time living in Boston that there are people who proclaim themselves Red Sox fans who maintain a seething hatred – often kept below the surface – towards the franchise. I know of one who believes the team shortened the lives of many of his male relatives. There are Red Sox fans who gain as much satisfaction from when there is turmoil as when there are titles. These folks can get bent out of shape very, very easily, and a surprisingly large number of them wind up with the area’s newspapers and radio stations.
After three days at Yankee Stadium, I didn’t hear one managerial suggestion that wasn’t fatally flawed. Worse yet, I didn’t hear one baseball person nominate somebody without saying that the nomination was fatally flawed. Some of the names have shown up at the bottom of a column by my old friend Gordon Edes. He writes mostly about Epstein’s future, but the last part focuses on five guys supposedly already kicked around inside the cramped offices of Yawkey Way:
Among the names that have surfaced in internal discussions are Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr., Rays coach Dave Martinez, Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, minor league manager Ryne Sandberg and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who has a mutual option to return to St. Louis.
There is also an assumption that DeMarlo Hale, the long-suffering bench coach for the Sox and the minor league manager of the year – in 1999 – will get an interview. The name “Joe Torre” has been thrown around, and despite the fact that he found his office job as dull as it sounded, I’m thinking this is highly unlikely. The name “Bobby Valentine” has been leaked, too – presumably by Bobby Valentine.
But let’s go with the bold print name there first. Tony LaRussa? Seriously? This man went ballistic at least twice this year facing the scrutiny of the St. Louis media. The St. Louis media is three writers and a guy from KMOX Radio. It’s hard to say for whom this would be a bigger disaster: the Red Sox, or LaRussa. As was agreed at Yankee Stadium when this name was floated (almost literally) there over the weekend: by June 1, a “Manager Tony LaRussa of the Boston Red Sox” would have fallen asleep at a traffic light in at least six different New England towns.
The next name would be Sandberg’s. Now let’s review what I wrote here last year at this time when Cubs fans were understandably clamoring for their old hero to assume the reins at Wrigley. The Cubs loved Ryno’s work ethic, his willingness to go back to Peoria and fight his way up the chain, but they saw nothing in his managerial skill set that even made him a rival to Mike Quade. When you are beloved in a town – irrationally, gigantically, statue-sized beloved – and you’re not a good enough candidate to edge out Mike Quade, you’re probably not a good big league skipper in the making. The Red Sox interviewed him a year ago for their AAA job at Pawtucket but before they made up their minds, he took the equivalent post with the Phillies. They seem to have a higher opinion of Sandberg, given his high-profile roles with the big club in Spring Training and again in September, but they’re not looking to retire Charlie Manuel any time soon, either. It could easily be that the Cub snub woke Sandberg up – and if that’s the case, the Sox would presumably be challenged for his services by several teams, and maybe even the Cubs again, now that new ownership is in full control.
Speaking of which, David Martinez and Sandy Alomar, Jr. are the front-runners for the White Sox job. Martinez, the Rays’ bench coach, was GM Kenny Williams’ teammate in Montreal 20 years ago and seems a cinch for the Chicago job unless something goes wrong. If it does, Alomar is a fine baseball man and as a player was a great calming influence on the high-strung Indians of the ’90s, and was just named bench coach for Cleveland. But each has a serious drawback: not only have they never managed in the majors, they’ve never even managed in the minors. How quickly would this start the Red Sox fans’ verbal riots in the event of a 4-10 start? What credibility would they carry among Prima Donna players? If Martinez has a particularly inspirational effect on the terrified Carl Crawford, that might be reason enough to overlook the inexperience, but I’m thinking the Red Sox are still stinging from the well-intentioned but disastrous decision to promote Joe Kerrigan to manager without any previous experience at any level.
So then there’s Mackanin. This is a solid baseball man who had two all-too brief stints as interim manager at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and never got the serious shot he deserved at either fulltime job. Mackanin knows his stuff, managed forever in the minors, and just turned 60 years old – which is a problem for the Boston position. Francona aged a century at the helm in Fenway, and he had already had an idea about the kind of media pressures he might face, from his unhappy years in Philadelphia.
So there are the problems. Terry Francona’s successor has to be a young, respected man, with a major league track record, an ability to hurdle the media, the fans, and the Prima Donnas. He has to have enough personality to get the benefit of the doubt from the fans, media, and players going in – but not so much that any of them feels he is overshadowing them. And he has to be an improvement on Francona.
Now who would that be? I kinda see a Bob Melvin type in here, but as the Mariners and Diamondbacks each discovered to their chagrin, there aren’t as many of him as they thought, either. The A’s smartly locked him in long-term after he very quietly did a superior job stopping the Oakland ship from sinking to the bottom of the sea this summer.
Wait – I got it. Give him a month to recuperate and then see if this Francona guy will take the job.
Update: As tweeter Mike Mendez reminded my rain-addled brain: On Halloween night, 2005, Epstein resigned from the Red Sox and sneaked out of Fenway Park in a holiday Gorilla costume. Less than three months later, on January 19th, Epstein’s successor was named – and he got the added title of Vice President. Epstein’s successor was…Theo Epstein.
How many teams can see their ace carry a no-hitter into the 8th and still create a handful of controversies out of it?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that annually, Terry Francona lets me sit with him, on the bench, during a spring training game. This is half out of friendship and half, I think, to remind me how little I actually understand about managing – or baseball itself – compared to the pros.