Sunday, April 03, 2005

Play ball!

After five weeks of meaningless spring training games played in the surreal surroundings of palm trees and endless sunshine, the 2005 Major League Baseball season got under way in New York. The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox (doesn't that have a special ring?) opened the season in New York, against their longtime rivals, the hated New York Yankees (aka, The Evil Empire). With the big league braintrust displaying their vaunted intelligence and usual concern for the well-being of the national pastime, baseball opened its season at 8pm in a northern city, with game time temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. Ever-ready to put television ratings above the quality of the game, the lords of the corporate suites decided baseball is best played in frigid temperatures that challenged the endurance of even the heartiest of fans. Ah, but the Sunday night primetime television spot was a TV ratings bonanza, so that takes precedent over anything else.

With two ancient mariners trotting out to toe the rubber for their respective clubs, the overweight and pathetic-looking David Wells for the Sox and the ageless Randy Johnson for the Yankees, the 2005 season opener seemed a contrast in strengths between the two clubs. Gone from the Sox' mound corps are the guaranteed 35-40 wins provided by Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, replaced by question marks such as the retread Wells and Wade Miller (of the persistent arm problems) and Matt Clement (with his lifetime record of 69-75, 4.34 ERA ). The Yankees, able to spend owner George Steinbrenner's money at will, added future hall-of-famer Johnson, as well as hard-throwers Carl Pavano (former Red Sox farmhand, traded to the Expos in the original deal to acquire Martinez) and Jaret Wright to proven vets Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown. Everyone knows what Johnson is capable of, but its Pavano who could be the real X-factor in their rotation. Last season with Florida, Pavano had the breakout year many have been waiting for, winning 18 games and making the NL all-star team. More importantly, he's only 28 years old and showed the poise and ability that made him the kind of prospect that the Montreal Expos would take in a deal for Martinez in November of 1997. The Red Sox and Theo Epstein actively sought Pavano during the off-season, but as often happens, Steinbrenner's money lured Pavano to the Big Apple.

With Wells looking out of shape and ready for the scrap heap, the Red Sox were trailing in the sixth, 5-1. It's early and no need to panic yet (we'll give it a couple more weeks). But with a starting rotation held together with bailing wire and bubblegum, there are some storm clouds on the horizon. Take for instance that ace Curt Schilling is coming off surgery and will be turning 39, Wells at 41 looks close to being done and then, you add the mercurial knuckleball of Tim Wakefield to the mix and well, Red Sox nation has some real concerns heading into the first month of the 2005 campaign.

Speaking of Major League Baseball; the new steroids policy is proving to be the tough deterrant promised with the first culprit being the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Alex Sanchez. Alex who? Sanchez, who has hit a combined 128 home runs over his ten-year career, an average of about 12 per season, tested positive under the new Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program of Major League Baseball and will be suspended for 10 days.

The Sox are now trailing 6-1 in the bottom of the seventh and barring some late inning heroics (which you can never rule out with the Red Sox), they'll start the year 0-1. If you remember, the 2004 season also began with an opening day loss, this one coming at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, 7-2.

Well, one down and 161 games left to go. If there's one thing about baseball that's different than most other sports, the season is a marathon rather than a sprint.

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