Ready To Go: It’s Spring, And Baseball Finally Returns To New York
The e-mail arrived in my inbox this week, from a ticket agent who puts food on his dinner table in part by reselling choice seats to both Mets and Yankees games.
"Maybe you can tell me why there is such demand for opening day, freezing your [butt] off to see baseball that is not crisp or polished?" he wrote. "I understand the excitement of a new season, blah, blah, blah... but people will pay twice face [value] for these seats and then two days later, the same two teams in a game that is just as significant to the team’s record, and I have to fight to find anyone to pay face!"
Ah, yes, the mystique of baseball’s Opening Day. In case you haven’t noticed, the snow has melted from our area, which means we can finally break out the pennants and foam fingers again. Rake those infields in the Bronx and out at Shea, because it’s time to play ball.
Opening Day is a rebirth of sorts, a shining beacon at the end of a long and winding winter tunnel – just around the turn are sun-bathed summer doubleheaders, fathers and sons, $3.75 hot dogs, booing the latest anti-hero flavor of the month (Guillermo Mota, we’re thinking of you) and of course watching your New York team engage in a heated pennant race.
For both the Mets and the Yankees, the new season presents an opportunity to wash the bitter taste of last season’s failures out of their collective mouths. The Mets have far more nastiness to jettison, coming off a last-place finish and several embarrassing tabloid scandals, but the Bombers have their own issues to topple, fighting off the memories of a first-round playoff exit to the eventual World Champion Anaheim Angels.
GM Steve Phillips was like an avid shopper at Home Depot this offseason, indulging in a couple of new and proven structures (Tom Glavine, Mike Stanton) to add a little more stability to his team’s starting rotation.
In that home improvement spirit, Phillips also took the opportunity to remove that squeaky, rotting floorboard in shortstop Rey Ordonez, dealing him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and replacing him with veteran Rey Sanchez – a placeholder for sure, at least until super-prospect Jose Reyes cuts his teeth at Triple-A.
However, even as the Mets claim they’ve gutted all of the unpleasantness and clubhouse sniping of Bobby Valentine’s leadership, new skipper Art Howe still must contend with the fact that his roster is a heavily veteran-based team, engineered again to win now. That’s the way it was last year, and nearly every star on the club – Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Mo Vaughn, even Mike Piazza – turned in numbers well below their career expectations.
Already the troubles have begun, with number three starter Pedro Astacio being forced to take a seat to start the year with a inflamed right bicep. That leaves Howe and his coaching staff to rest their hopes strongly – at least for the first few weeks of the season – upon 40-year-old David Cone and the unproven tandem of either Mike Bacsik or Jason Middlebrook, one of whom was expected to stand up and claim the No. 5 rotation spot but neither ever did.
A quick start is imperative for the Mets to prove to the fans and the media that last season, and really the year before that, were aberrations. If the Mets struggle out of the gate, it won’t be impossible to compete, but the pressures of New York’s 24-hour sports scene will certainly start to mount.
Our prediction: The Mets are a good team, but the NL East has plenty of competition with the Phillies (our pick) and the Braves both vying for the title. Howe will be able to improve upon Valentine’s 75-86 showing from last season, but there is just too many uncertainties on this roster. The Mets break .500 easily, but fall five games short of a playoff berth.
It’s been two years since the Yankees brought home the bacon, and if that doesn’t change this season, George Steinbrenner is going to become a very unpleasant person to be around. We’re not even talking about the souls who call Yankee Stadium an office; if the Yankees wrap it up in the first round again like they did against the Angels last season, even Bombers fans may have reason to fear King George’s
The flavor of the old Bronx Zoo days is coming back, with Steinbrenner taking potshots at Joe Torre and Derek Jeter this offseason and flexing his muscle again where it doesn’t belong, insisting for example that the Yankees go get Cuban righty Jose Contreras even though they had six starting pitchers at the time. All that’s missing is pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapping wives, and one might mistake this scene for the late 1970’s.
Contreras will start the year in the Yankees’ pen, having become an expensive luxury at $32 million when Jeff Weaver beat him out for the fifth rotation spot, but that’s the least of the Yankees’ concerns.
Author-wannabe David Wells has endangered his own treasured standing in the hearts of his teammate and The Boss with his autobiographical literary effort this spring, prompting Torre to intimate that Wells – who won 19 games last season and really has been just as valuable to the Yanks as Roger Clemens – might actually find himself traded or released.
The Wells fiasco has certainly been the highest-profile storm brewing out of Yankees’ camp, but of more concern should be the status of closer Mariano Rivera – on the shelf to start the year after re-aggravating his groin, the same injury which kept him out during last year’s pennant stretch drive.
Top that off with the fact that nobody’s quite sure what the Bombers will get out of leftfielder Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, a signing which appears to be more of a PR move to pitch the YES Network in Japan than anything else, and there’s most certainly a forecast of uncertainty clouding Yankee-land these days.
Our prediction: Wells’ book and Steinbrenner’s grapple for tabloid ink are unsettling distractions, but not so much so that they’ll dislodge the Bombers as favorites in the AL East. An offense keyed by Jason Giambi, Alfonso Soriano, Jeter, Bernie Williams and the resurgent Raul Mondesi figures to be more than enough to compensate even if Matsui flounders, which will be tough to do since all he’s got to do is replace Rondell White.
The pitching staff is getting older with every passing day, but we’ll always take Clemens, Wells, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina over whatever the Boston Red Sox can conjure up. The Yanks take the East by seven games, but the tough part is again the postseason. The World Series goes on without a pinstripe in sight, and Steinbrenner finally explodes into a roster-slashing rage.
Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at email@example.com.