This week, as winter still buries the Rockies and Midwest, and fresh snowstorms inundate the East Coast, baseball finds itself in the sun. “Pitchers and catchers report to spring training,” an annual seven-word incantation. Stick that in your ear, February. Exhibition games begin in 11 days. The results don’t count, but they sure do resonate. Yet the game’s promise of green underfoot and blue overhead goes beyond a mere escape from wintry white. An ideal offseason just fell in place.
Last week, the game’s one dark cloud, Alex Rodriguez, finally stopped fighting his suspension for serial PED cheating. What a break in the weather. No A-Fraud in ’14. Or maybe ever.
Now it is all systems go. Almost every big hot-stove trade or signing contributed to competitive balance or interest: Robinson Cano’s $240 million contract with woebegone Seattle; Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo arriving in Texas’s bandbox park; Japan’s 24-0 pitcher Masahiro Tanaka signing with the decrepit Yankees.
Cano grabbed the bling, not the ring. That became a theme: The best of 2013 rarely got better. Division champs lost key pieces, like Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, the Cards’ Carlos Beltran, Atlanta’s Brian McCann and Detroit’s Fielder. The wild-card Pirates, Reds and Indians regressed, too. All think they compensated for talent losses. Most didn’t.
The key to parity was the Dodgers’ inability to achieve escape velocity, leave earth’s orbit and head into space fueled by billions of cable TV bucks. The Dodgers, who might have been unbeatable with Tanaka, instead have Dan Haren. They look mortal — though barely. In the end, the pitching-desperate Yanks might have spent $155 million to save the season for every other NL contender, including the Nationals.
What is it with rich L.A. teams and radical underachievement? In 2012 and ’13, the Angels signed Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton only to lose the AL West twice to the A’s, who had the 29th- and 27th-ranked payrolls. That’s parity you can adore.
As a final twist, quality free agent starting pitchers are still on the market, including Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. After they sign, that may breed trades. So the fireworks aren’t over.
Finally, in a break from tradition, baseball will expand instant replay to include almost every play except calling balls and strikes. Sacrilege? So were the designated hitter rule, wild-card teams, additional wild-card teams and interleague play — until they worked.
None of those positive developments were likely to get proper attention unless A-Rod finally, grudgingly backed down. Perhaps those inside the game best understand how destructive Rodriguez’s public brawl with Commissioner Bud Selig and his union had become.
Just a month ago, Rodriguez named the late MLB Players Association director, Michael Weiner, in a lawsuit, claiming the union and Weiner had “abdicated its responsibility” to defend him.
Weiner was probably the most beloved person in the game at the time of his death at 51 in November. His unpretentious manner, high intellect and dedication to both the union and the sport had always earned him admiration. But faced with a fatal cancer diagnosis, he dedicated the end of his life to being the point of the spear in baseball’s groundbreaking drug-testing policies. He took the game from worst to first. His quiet moral authority reached a point where previously impossible compromises, and demonstrations of trust between players and management, became realities because of the faith in Weiner’s wisdom and candor. What other union head could toughen drug testing on his members, yet simultaneously defend the rights of the players who broke the rules? His last-act, clean-up-the-game effectiveness, credit for which he shared or shied from, was attributed to a core decency that made selfish opposition too ugly to countenance.
Except for Rodriguez.
A-Rod could have trashed anything or smeared anyone to try to squeeze more guaranteed money out of the Yankees or shorten his suspension — but not Weiner’s memory. Pro sport is not finishing school, but there has to be some line. Rodriguez crossed the last one. Desperation breeds self-delusion. Rodriguez now talks of returning in ’15, resuming his place in the game. I want to visit that planet.
Now, almost everything about this week’s start to spring training seems as sweet as warm air. In a perfect world, at least 20 teams could reasonably think they might make the 10-team playoffs, yet no club would look like a prohibitive favorite to win a pennant. This might be one of those seasons.
One preseason odds site has 11 teams at 18-to-1 or lower to win the Series and seven more at 28-to-1 or lower. At the track, those are long shots; in baseball, they are respectable. So far, the top five early favorites are usually the Dodgers or Tigers, followed closely by the Cards, Nats and Red Sox.
After two years with expanded wild cards, it’s now clear that 85 wins will almost always keep you in the playoff picture until September. That equals high attendance and TV ratings. It’s not accidental that the Pirates (no playoffs from 1992 to 2012), Indians, Orioles (14 straight losing seasons until 2012) and Royals either made the postseason last season or came close. “Let’s take the risks to make a run at October” now makes more sense.
Low-payroll teams like the amazing A’s and consistent Rays have amassed a body of evidence that building through the draft, trading some home-grown stars for prospects before they reach free agency, and using advanced metrics can take you a long way; maybe not to a world title — not yet anyway. But the argument that few franchises have much chance to win while the others are perennial cannon fodder has been turned on its head. Last year, the Red Sox became the second team ever to go from last place to Series champ. The only franchises that have never been to a Series are the Mariners, now spending wildly, and the Expos-Nats. So, ’bout time.
One final piece of our ideal universe would be a fascinating Yankee team that’s good enough to contend — and talk about it — but not actually win. That’s where the Bombers seem to be. This week, Tanaka arrived in New York by private Boeing 787 Japan Airways. Alleged cost to him: $195,000. (For another $10, he could have pre-boarded.)
“What more could you ask for?” said co-owner Hal Steinbrenner. How about some experience with big league hitters, a five-day rotation, a smaller strike zone than Japan and a slightly larger MLB baseball?
How about the prospect, with the pending retirement of Derek Jeter after this season, that the Yankees’ starting infield could eventually include Brian Roberts, Brendan Ryan and Kelly Johnson while Hiroki Kuroda looks 40 years old? Don’t ask.
Or, actually, do ask. Because that is what makes the fresh start of this baseball year so compelling — the range and quality of the questions it evokes. But at least one question has been answered: Where’s A-Rod? Going, going…
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.