When does the baseball season begin? Ask the casual fan, and the answer will be April. But, ask the die-hard baseball fan, and the answer will be February. The words on the lips of the devoted lovers of leather and lumber are "pitchers and catchers." There's an instant bond formed between two people who recognize the meaning of those two words in the context of the of spring training.
With that said, this writer will share some gratuitous predictions and selfish hopes for the Yankees who will win "27 in '07". By the way, that was prediction number one. Predictions in baseball, in this writer's humble opinion mean nothing. Who could have predicted the Boston Red Sox finishing in third place last season after being unable to recuperate from the loss of several key players? Also, who could have predicted the Yankees stunning ejection from the ALDS at the hands of the Tigers? This writer did, but that's beside the point. The purpose here is to throw out some ideas on the upcoming season, stir the pot a bit, and engage in some frivolous speculation. If I'm wrong? There's always next year.
The second prediction for the 2007 season is that Carl Pavano will pitch and have a good season. This column sees Pavano winning fifteen games with an ERA hovering around 4.0. After a year and a half off with numerous maladies and some broken ribs plaguing him, Pavano won't exactly be in Cy Young form, but with the tremendous amount of run support provided by the Yankee's offense, he should do fine. That is if he is also in top emotional form and his teammates haven't stuffed him down a laundry chute by the end of spring training.
Alex Rodriguez will continue to be the fan favorite...punching bag. The media will continue to focus on his relationship with Jeter, the fans, Joe Torre, etc. But, he will be different. There has to be a saturation point where a man as bright and talented as he has to say to himself that he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't, and just go out and play ball. Fans being as fickle as they are will cheer him when he homers, and boo him when he strikes out; yet the added pressure will always remain. By September, he will have amassed another impressive set of numbers to add to his sterling, "Hall of Fame" career; but, and this is a big "BUT", his legacy rests solely on what he can do for the Yankees in the post season. This writer has deflected blame off of Alex this past October because most of the players on the team flopped in the 2006 post season. If A-Rod had produced runs in at least two critical situations while facing the Tiger's in the '06 ALDS, things could have been very different. However, the same could be said of three or four other Yankees who fizzled in clutch situations at the plate. Besides, no one ever suggested that A-Rod must carry the team. He's in there like the rest of them, and the Yankees in general were flat and uninspired. A-Rod's 2007 will be superb by anyone's standards except spoiled Yankee fans who want a home run at every at bat. His post season will be graded separately, but will count for 100% of his legacy.
Randy Johnson...oops, sorry. Whew!
Derek Jeter may or may not chase any batting titles this season; but that never matters to Captain Clutch anyway. Without Bernie Williams, Yankee hero, and co-champion of all those wonderful World Series wins from '96-2000, The glimmer of hope which all Yankee fans have for their beloved team this year will focus more keenly on the “man who dives into the stands” himself. Jeter exudes confidence. His team now consists of the patient, high on-base percentage, move the runner over, and steal-a-base kind of players which characterized the 1996-2000 teams which he cut his teeth playing on. For the most part, that was the Yankees of 2006 in the absence of Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. But, I don't blame Hideki Matsui or Sheffield for that matter for returning from the DL and erasing the Yankees style of play which allowed them to climb to an eleven game lead over the third place Red Sox by the end of the regular season. This writer blames Joe Torre for not noticing that his team played better when they moved runners over, played hit-and-run, stole bases, and manufactured runs. Once Matsui and Sheffield came back and Melky Cabrera was once again relegated to the fourth outfielder role, things changed. The Yankees became a station to station team with so-so pitching waiting for the three-run home run to tie the game against excellent post season pitching. Jeter won't have to endure that again in 2007. His team will reflect the Jeter teams of the no-so distant past now that they have a team with some character, and Sheffield’s noisy bat and mouth have gone. Things should go smoothly for the Captain, except he’ll have to frisk Doug Mientkiewicz for baseballs before he leaves the stadium.
There’s nothing like job paranoia to make someone produce and Joe Torre has plenty of that. In past seasons, when he absolutely couldn’t take “The Boss” anymore, it appeared as if Joe didn’t care if he either ended back in the broadcaster’s booth or perhaps managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. However, after last year’s debacle, the stunning and unexplainable ejection the Yankees endured against the Tigers in the post season, the calls for his head on a pike came not only from media-types, but from fans. For a dignified and respected man such as Joe Torre, losing his fans would probably be devastating. Joe Torre is a celebrity in New York, and around the country. Leaving on such a sour note would mean getting hissed at for the rest of his life as he walked the streets of his city. Sure, many fans would forgive and forget; but the memories of his tenure as Yankee’s manager would stop short at the embarrassing loss to the Tigers and his head floating in a jar of formaldehyde on the Bosses’ desk. Also, Torre knows that not many broadcasters get to be in Subway commercials with Willie Randolph, hang around with mayors, and hob-knob with celebrities. Managing the team like the Devil Rays might get him in tight with the company which makes Rolaids…as a customer. The closest the Devil Rays will get to a parade is if they hop a bus to Disney World between home games. Watch Joe Torre become more animated this season in the dugout. He might just get thrown out of a few more games, and he most likely will start use that bat he totes around the dugout to threaten players to perform instead of bouncing it off the floor between his legs. There are no Lou Piniella types lurking around to step in his shoes if he gets fired for going 6-12 in the first few weeks of the season; still, we all know that Torre is on “double-secret probation”. Lou Piniella isn’t available, but Joe Girardi will do.
That’s it for Part I. Tune into this column later in the week for more predictions and analysis of games which haven’t been played yet. Rest in peace, Corey Lidle.