Monthly Archive for April, 2011

Pitchers and Poets Podcast 26: Pitchers and Jackets

In this podcast we visit the supermarket in order to make sense of it all, discuss baseball writing in the context of Eastern spirituality, talk pitcher jackets on the basepaths, and question the wisdom of generalists.

We’re still hammering out some details, like getting the podcast back in the iTunes store, but for now you can subscribe in iTunes yourself, or via any RSS reader. Just use this feed url:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePitchersAndPoetsPodcast

In iTunes, just click Advanced > Subscribe to Podcast, then enter that url, and you’re in business.

 

To download the file directly, right click and Save As:

http://pitchersandpoets.com/podcast/PnP_026.mp3

Miguel Cabrera: The Man With No Nickname

There is no nickname listed on Miguel Cabrera’s Baseball-Reference page. I consider Baseball-Reference to be the baseball site of record in this day and age, and it has evolved into one of the last word’s on semi-formal cultural markers like nicknames. Cabrera is certainly prominent enough to have a nickname, and that such a good ballplayer wouldn’t acquire even one of note was surprising. Baseball-Reference isn’t even stingy with nicknames. For example, Carl Crawford, who I have never heard referred to by any nickname whatsoever, has been attributed the moniker “The Perfect Storm.” It’s a great nickname, but not hard-earned, and Cabrera deserves at least a similar treatment.

How does one of the game’s greatest hitters lack even a tenuous moniker on the Baseball Encyclopedia of today? Has one of the best hitters in baseball not sparked the meager imagination required for even a pop culture nod? There are three nicknames on the Baseball-Reference page for Albert Pujols: The Machine, Prince Albert, and Phat Albert.

Even before this offseason’s debacle of a DUI arrest, the unstoppable locomotive that was Miguel Cabrera’s career shimmied on the track. It was late in the season, 2009, the Tigers were in a heated playoff race, and Cabrera’s wife called the cops at 6 a.m. to report an incident. Cabrera wasn’t arrested, but the criticism came fast and furious, including questions about his motivation and game preparation. The Tigers would lose their first place position on the last day of the season, to the Twins, primarily because of the team’s inability to hit (though in his defense, Cabrera hit well in the 163rd and final game of the 2009 year for the Tigers). A fulcrum-type player, Cabrera, the superstar, could either stand up or fold the season after such a tumult.

Cabrera stood. After the season, he addressed a pattern of alcohol abuse, and started to see a therapist. As I noted in my earlier post on Cabrera, before the 2010 season, he said he’d be better, all-around. Indications seemed to be that he had kept to his word, and it showed in his 2010 numbers.

How does one of the game’s greatest hitters lack even a tenuous moniker on the Baseball Encyclopedia of today?

He had improved, and if there was a list of players for whom improvement would seem impossible, Cabrera would be on it. In 2010, the 27-year-old had, according to Fangraphs, his best season as a hitter, with his average up from 2009, his power up, his on-base average up.

MLB.com writer Roger Schlueter wrote, “In 2010, Miguel Cabrera hit .328, got on base at a .420 clip (the best in the league), slugged over .600 (.622), had 38 home runs (and a total of 84 extra-base hits), compiled a league-leading 179 OPS+ (the best of his career) and also led the league with 126 RBIs. Cabrera’s 126 RBIs left him tied for seventh-most for any player with at least 30 intentional walks. For most players, a season like this would stand out like a sequoia in the middle of a pygmy forest. But for Cabrera, his 2010 was simply another data point on an extraordinary career arc.”

Cabrera was, and is, the kind of hitter whose offensive influence seems to expand beyond his single spot in the lineup, sailing ahead of his teammates like the flagship of an armada.

The term “nickname” comes from the 15th century, derived from the Old English word eaca, meaning “an increase,” and related to the word eacian, meaning “to increase.” A nickname increases, obviously, the number of names that apply to an individual. But it also adds to the persona, the sort of ether that hangs around a cultural figure.

A nickname is a way for a large group of people to codify their affection for a baseball player. The nickname embodies a player’s character and style, and it becomes a shorthand for the initiated, bringing the fan closer to the player, and fans closer to one another. When Cardinals fans praise The Machine, they honor not only the mechanical precision of the team’s best hitter, but they also honor their commitment to his success, and they use the nickname to signal to others the sort of fan that they are. They enrich themselves and contribute to the collective usage of the baseball player’s persona.

When Miguel Cabrera asked, “Do you know who I am?” he could as easily have asked, “What’s my nickname?”

Outside observers who are not as affected by his daily excellence have often wondered if Cabrera would get too fat, if his defense would hold up, whether he cared enough. He has been so consistently great from so early on that his greatness has become commonplace, allowing room for these minor slights. For an example, see prominent Tigers blogger billfer, who included this footnote on a year end wrap-up of the 2010 Tigers season: “*Note Cabrera would have fit my proprietary [monthly] ‘top performers’ criteria for every month but September, when he was still OPS+ 130, so let’s just save everyone the time on him.”

There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod.

There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod, and that was Prince Albert. And for a while, Miguel Cabrera’s booze-related faults illustrated just how stoic and productive Pujols really was, reinforcing the trope that greatness is an endurance sport. Of his faults in the wake of the 2009 scandal, Cabrera said, “Sometimes you feel like your body is kind of lazy.” Lazy! If Prince Albert has ever let the l-word escape his lips, it’d be news.

But the Pujols contract situation has lately tarnished the once-spotless Machine’s chrome fittings. Pujols himself now seems capable of the sort of slick self-evaluation that Cabrera let slip during his arrest, the Cardinal’s contract deadline being a muted version of the Tiger’s impaired braggadocio. A machine is not supposed to question its place in the hierarchy; it is supposed to hit without question. This is the first season that we’re watching Pujols hit as a human being with a few flaws and foibles. It may even be just enough humanizing to jar him from his perch as the unflappable superstar. However far apart they remain, he and Cabrera are closer now than they ever have been.

(Just to be clear, I don’t think that the Pujols contract conversations are particularly compelling or anywhere near the scale of the Cabrera saga, just that the negotiations showed a different catch of light in the Pujols diamond.)

The window for Cabrera to occupy some kind of baseball equality with Pujols may be small, but it’s there right now. Albert is slumping to start off the season (.222/.225/.447 thank you very much), while Miguel Cabrera has of late knocked walk-off hits and been walked in the late innings to avoid giving up a late run, putting up .382/.488/.794 numbers. Early in his first season as a mortal, Pujols is playing poorly. Early in his first season as a question mark, Cabrera has answered with a firm-handed statement: learn who I am.

He may not glow with perfection or righteousness, but he gives us the chance to watch a human story, and he plays out the story that most of us aspire to. It’s a story about exceeding some expectations, even as we fail to meet others, hoping that on any given day the former outweighs the latter.

In The Neverending Story, my second favorite movie as a kid, at the pivotal moment the child empress asks the main character, a bookworm named Bastian, to save her magical world by saying her name out loud. Bastian throws open the windows, face in a lightning storm, and screams her name, which happens to be his late mother’s name, and in so doing he recreates a universe.

In his work on myth, Roland Barthes says that “myth is a type of speech,” defined not by its content–in this case the particulars of the empress/mother’s name–“but by the way in which it is conveyed by a discourse.” The saying.

With every hit, each of which affirms his excellence, Miguel Cabrera says something.

#EARPLUGS

In honor of Milton Bradley and his earplugs, Ted and I have decided to begin a campaign. In the tradition of the Rangers’ #claw and #antlers gestures, we want to get the Mariners — not just Milton to begin using #earplugs. Kind of like this:

Seeing Ichiro (or even Ryan Langerhans, or especially Bradley) do the earplugs after an RBI double would be all the vindication Ted and I could ever want as bloggers. We urge you to get in on #earplugs now. Spread the word. This isn’t a revolution, but it may be something close.

Milton Bradley Revisited


I’m getting to be like a concerned parent with all this Milton Bradley stuff. My friend Brett (who blogs about the Mariners’ AAA affiliate Rainiers for alt-weekly Tacoma Volcano), said he can barely stand to watch Milton Bradley play. Brett sees the intense grimacing and the agony in Bradley’s eyes and the tightness with which he grips the bat and can’t help but feel the ominous presence of some future Bradley explosion creeping beneath the surface.

I realized, of course, that Brett is right.* It can be hard to watch Milton Bradley . And for different reasons, I’m probably worse than Brett is. I don’t worry that he will explode – there’s a weirdly maternal sense of denial telling me everything will be okay. Instead, I worry that the world will be cruel to Milton, that it will judge him unfairly, that it will seek out the worst angels of his nature.

*Brett was less right when he told me “To be a Milton Bradley apologist is human, to be a Matt Tuiasasasopo apologist is divine.”

Maybe I need to just accept the facts. I need to realize that the world will never accept Milton Bradley. Unless he hits for the cycle and fixes social security and starts dating Natalie Portman in the next few months, this will be another lost season in the public eye. Milton Bradley himself seems to have come to terms with this reality. To silence – or at least quiet – the boos, he has begun wearing earplugs on the field.

In theory this is not such a bad idea. The earplugs bring their own round of ridicule, but this time the ridicule comes with the knowledge that Bradley actually gives a shit, that he wants to make right, that he hears the world and that the listening is now too painful. But Bradley’s earplugs are more than just a mirror held up to ruthless fans; they are a declaration of independence from them. He’s given up trying to win the public over. He’s isolating himself on the field. If anything, this puts more pressure than before on Bradley to perform.

The earplugs also make me nervous. They make me cringe. Don’t you realize, I want to tell him, that this just makes you even weirder? Don’t you realize that this is not a solution – that you’re addressing only the symptoms? The earplugs can’t drown out everything, they can’t make the media disappear and they can’t silence every heckler. Plus, if something does go wrong, then they are an even bigger joke – and Bradley too is an even bigger joke.

I hope I can soon leave this topic behind. I hope Bradley stays healthy and plays good baseball this year. I know the cringe-factor is part of what draws me to Bradley – the potential for something volatile. But I hope that it fades away and that the emotions we do see – like during that sacred season in Arlington – spill forth joyously.

***

Worth noting that this all comes couched in my ever-increasing confidence that Milton Bradley is a good person; that his problems are significant, but they can’t define his nature. Mariners broadcaster Ken Levine said Bradley was a tremendously nice guy. He apparently has a sense of humor about himself as well. A fan essay on Lookout Landing last week (thanks Kenneth), described Bradley giving his bat and batting gloves to a pair of kids at Spring Training, garnering a round of applause for the deed, then stiffening up. He scowled and put his finger to his lips and told them “Hey now folks, keep it down!  I have a reputation to keep up here.”

Hank Waddles, who writes for the Bronx Banter and runs Go Mighty Card (a Stanford blog), shared an epic Bradley story in the comments to the Encino Man post from a while back. What it comes down to is that Bradley is an extremely gracious guy when it comes to his community, especially young people in his community. You should read it.

We Cannot Know His Legendary Head

I have written a poem about Manny Ramirez. It is a villanelle in honor of National Poetry Month and in response to Patrick DuBuque’s challenge to write a baseball villanelle. You may recognize the form from better poets like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.

We cannot know his legendary head,
We cannot know his riddle-speak, his swing,
His heart that greets no consequence, no dread.

 

Oblivious (or publicly misread),
He went forth like a jester, like a king.
We cannot know his legendary head.

 

Ramirez never anguished, never bled.
Perfection seemed a right and simple thing.
His heart? It greets no consequence, no dread.

 

A paradox: collective joy and dread
Awash in pride and drunk on estrogen–
We cannot know his legendary head.

 

A selfish man and insecure, they said.
But maybe public shame can even sting
A heart that greets no consequence, no dread.

 

And maybe all the jokes had turned to lead,
The time had come to leave the center ring.
We’ll never know his legendary head,
His heart that greets no consequence, no dread.

The Texas Rangers are Fearless and Friendly

At least some part of the public persona of the Texas Rangers as a baseball club is rooted in the assumption that barrel-chested El Presidente Nolan Ryan is watching. The camera frequently finds him in his seat at games, beside his perfectly touched up Texas beauty queen of a wife, watching his team play like a ranch foreman overseeing his hands bring in a herd of cattle. The Ryan Express is, in my imagination at least, noting every lack of hustle and sign of weakness that he sees from his players, and recording it in a dusty card catalogue in his brain for later dressings down. No other MLB team executive commands such an authoritative presence, especially with Mr. Steinbrenner passed on.

The Rangers did right by Ryan last year, with their run to the World Series, and with an undefeated start to the 2011 season through April 6, they seem poised to take the AL West division again.

But there’s a paradox in play. Where their most visible executive is an old school cowboy of a player who despises pitch counts, the Rangers themselves are a charismatic, crowd-friendly team with a cast of characters you’d more likely find at a bar at midnight than at the ballpark on a Sunday afternoon. The Rangers’ best hitter, Josh Hamilton, is a recovering addict with flame tattoos up and down his forearms, Manager Ron Washington has tested positive for some pretty hard drugs, and lefty starter C.J. Wilson is an adrenaline junky who’s hooked on Twitter. (Nolan Ryan’s thinks twittering is what the ladies do when they get together after church. Hey-o!) The team developed a couple of hand signals just for fun, the claw and the antlers, to celebrate good plays on their run to the World Series. This would’ve gotten you shanked if you’d tried those kind of shenanigans in the Bob Gibson era. Just ask Robin Ventura about respecting the game. (Sidenote: Dave Sims let me know on the Mariners broadcast that the Rangers still play footage of Nolan Ryan mashing Robin Ventura’s face before games.)

Madness without discipline is just madness.

This odd couple leadership structure, with austerity and tradition up top and playfulness further down the line, creates a nice push and pull between the traditional and the contemporary for the Rangers, of the sort that breeds success not only in baseball, but at companies like Google and even in artists. Creativity thrives in circumstances when creative energy is constrained by outward pressures. Madness without discipline is just madness.

The word I would use to describe the Rangers as a team is balance. The lineup has a fine ratio of speed and power, including a lot of power. Ron Washington’s honest and likable approach balances out the big personalities on the team and in the front office. He doesn’t go too far in one direction or the other even as the media tries to stir up stories. The hitters in this lineup are cool, comfortable, and unflappable, from Hamilton–who one imagines has seen corners of the country so dark that a major league strikeout is a chocolate milkshake in comparison–to fearless and friendly Adrian Beltre. Even the pitching on this team has outgrown the old big hit, no-pitch Rangers stereotype.

texas rangers ron washingtonThere are whole libraries devoted to the chemistry of great baseball teams, insisting that planets of personality align perfectly to activate some kind of mystically ordained success. But this Rangers group–which I’ll stop short of calling great and call very good–may prove the anti-theory, played out in Little League and the major leagues, that winning teams have good chemistry because they are good, and that bad teams have bad chemistry because losing sucks. The Michael Young mini-saga, for example, evaporated in the Arlington heat as soon as Nelson Cruz hit a home run in each of the first four games of the season, the minute Ian Kinsler popped a few out himself and stole a base or two, and just as quickly as Neftali Feliz ambled out to the mound and closed out a ballgame as calmly as your average cubicle jockey finishing off a Friday afternoon.

Two of the iconic teams in baseball, the Yankees and the Red Sox, play in a crucible of scrutiny and fanaticism, from the front office to the highest seat in the nosebleeds. In those climes, jocularity is a kind of blemish, a sign of weakness in the face of the game’s most unrelenting pressures.

In Arlington, jocularity is a badge. The smiles rise as the baseball flies. The only one who isn’t smiling is Nolan Ryan. He doesn’t pay himself to smile.

Situational Essay: Jason Heyward Jars These Mountains

Bryan Harvey, contributor of the thought-provoking Situational Essay below, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press is releasing his eBook this Friday, Everything That Dunks Must Converge.

My Southern blood told me it was too cold for baseball. The gray clouds and crisp air set a mood more in tune with the gridiron than the baseball diamond. Then the gray clouds turned to black and rocks started to fall from the sky: it was hailing.

The game was in the bottom of the fourth and the Braves were down four to one. Winter was not yet over in the nation’s capitol. The players still stood on the field like statues; they didn’t take one step toward either dugout. They stared intently at the pitcher’s mound, the batter’s box, and the umpire, stubbornly insisting on playing this game of summer through the forty degree weather that now sent fans running for cover, in hoods and coats and scarves, begging concession workers for coffee, hot chocolate, and chili.

My fiancee, bundled up in her hood like a Gloworm, tugged at my hand, but I didn’t want to leave our seats just yet. I wanted to watch Jason Heyward blow pink bubbles of gum in a dark hail storm, his brim pulled down low, his legs crouched for the next play. He looked like he had a balloon in his mouth. The sight was mesmerizing. It made you wish that he was at bat, mocking the pitcher with an act of pure youthfulness.

…the ferocity of his swing, cutting through the humidity, will have already remodeled the plains of our imaginations into deep valleys and sharp mountains

But he wasn’t. He was in right field, far from the batter’s box, far from the action, far from one of his iconic Opening Day home runs. But still he was the most intriguing individual on the field. It was like seeing folk hero John Henry channeling his mythic determination and perseverance into brushing his teeth or clipping his toenails, rather than hammering down railroad spikes: the ordinary appeared extraordinary. Standing in a green field became inspirational. I realized that legends commit to every moment, even the moments that don’t matter in any measurable way, when nobody (besides an obsessed fan) is watching.

A few years ago during a weather delay, my eyes would have studied my boyhood baseball hero, Chipper Jones, but my interest in him has been eclipsed by the possibilities that rest in a twenty-one year old. What’s so exciting about Jason Heyward is that no one knows what is to become of him: no one knows whether the steam engine will kill him or if he will tame the great American wilderness.

Chipper Jones, on the other hand, is a finished book, or an epic movie that has been syndicated on cable television. Number ten is Red from Shawshank Redemption, biding his time, protecting and hoping, while number twenty-two is Andy Dufresne, illuminating a drab world so that he can find a way out of it. Cold beers on a hot rooftop, we want him to stay in prison so that he can continue to inspire us with his physical presence. But it’s just as possible that Heyward will disappear from the game tomorrow through any of baseball’s proverbial sewer pipes, without saying a word, leaving us to question the spiritual significance of athletic talent not fully realized, leaving us to wonder what worlds exist beyond an outfield wall, or a prisonyard.

So often the legends of tall tales lose out to the machines of the world. John Henry suffers a heart attack. Pecos Bill watches his true love grow as distant as the moon. Mighty Casey strikes out. Bobby Cox doesn’t bring home the World Series. Jason Heyward loses the division to the Phillies, or in the Playoffs to the Giants.

On a day when it was too cold for baseball, he lost to the lowly Nationals, too. But it was not in vain. No matter what happens in his career, from here on out, Jason Heyward’s presence did change us. His Braves may never win a World Series, much less the NL East, but the ferocity of his swing, cutting through the humidity, will have already remodeled the plains of our imaginations into deep valleys and sharp mountains. I say this because I’ve already seen it happen. I’ve seen him blow a pink bubble in the middle of a hail storm, while the crowd ran, ducking, up the aisles towards cover, and the ground’s crew unrolled the tarp.

And afterwards, the hood was pulled back, and the yellow bubble of the sun shined over everything, even Atlanta’s six to three loss against the Nationals.

P&P Pointless Predictions 2011: AL East

Today on SportsCenter Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry (?) hosted a mocking segment about whether the Red Sox had reason to panic after starting the season zero and three. It was right at the top of the show. It lasted just a couple of minutes. I had just eaten a great deal of ice cream and peach cobbler. I wanted to un-eat it.

If any team besides the Yankees and Red Sox starts zero and three, that segment does not happen. Welcome to the AL East, where baseball just matters more. The microscope, the East Coast bias, the New York Media. All that stuff. On its surface, West Coast baseball fans hate it. We are diminished by it. But at the same time, we need it. It defines our “otherness” and makes Barry Zito Barry Zito and gives us the chip we so cheerfully lug on our collective shoulder.

Another thing: AL East baseball is really exciting. This may seem like a trite and obvious statement, because everybody’s always writing about how the AL East is the best division in baseball, but best does not always mean most entertaining. The Yankees have a lineup that crushes the souls of NL West fans. So do the Sox. So do the Rays. So do the Blue Jays. Hell, so do even the Orioles.

Bright lights. Big bats. Let’s get into it.

I think the teams will finish in this order:

1. New York Yankees
2. Boston Red Sox
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

I realize everybody has the Sox winning the World Series and that they have Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez but I have a hard time picking against the Yankees. For one, the Yankees continue to be the Yankees. For all the shiny pieces playing in Boston now, there are comfortable and less shiny ones in New York. As long as the Rivera/Posada/Jeter trifecta exists I don’t think I can expect the Yankees to be anything but great. And they haven’t been. Even at their Giambi-bloated worst.

The Red Sox are loaded and not at all in panic mode. The Rays are a perpetual motion machine – fascinating and far too mystifying to write about with any brevity. These are not surprises. The top of this division is like a rock paper scissors game. Only geniuses and idiots think they have it figured out.

But the bottom is nothing like that. The Blue Jays are a home run-bashing sabermetric dream. The Orioles are a ragged band of leftovers and craftsmen and yesterday’s hottest prospects today. The division may not be competitive all the way through, but the balance of entertainment value is evenly divided. I care as much about whether Jose Bautista repeats himself and whether Buck Showalter continues to do be far more awesome than he ever was on ESPN as I do about who wins the games. It may be that the Jays and Orioles benefit from the exposure and challenge that comes with playing 50 games a year against the big three (and it is a big three now, at least qualitatively). But I appreciate them for making the most of that opportunity.

I eager await the travails of Brandon Morrow, the frightening xenophobia of Luke Scott, and yes, greatness, no shame in saying it, of the Yanks, Sox, and Rays this year. If there wasn’t an AL East, baseball wouldn’t be what it is today. In other words, let’s appreciate it.

P&P Pointless Predictions 2011: NL Central

Predicting things is hard, and it’s wearing on me, even as I work on just my second set. Writing a sports prediction is like putting a helmet on a school of fish. You have to ignore the intuitive voice whispering that a prediction is a false, futile handhold in a slippery world.

Just as quickly, though, I’ll hedge my argument and support the pointless prediction, because predictions get you to exercise your intuition muscle. Analyzing a team and a division is a way to make public one’s intuition about the way a team is built, its players, coaches, and competition, like a Rorschach test for the baseball brain.

When I predict that the Chicago Cubs will win the division, for example, which I have just done, I’m announcing my tendency to value players that others have scratched as unreliable, like Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, and Kosuke Fokudome. I’m also announcing that I’m something of a contrarian, unwilling to go along with the more trendy picks in the young Reds and bolstered Brewers. And finally, I’m revealing myself to be something of a sentimentalist. Sure, I’d like to see the Cubs win the division and the World Series as the current holder of the Crown of Haplessness, and that’s reflected in my irrational prediction that they will win the division.

Specifically, they have have stable rotation if Zambrano returns to form–which I believe that he will to a degree–supporting Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Randy Wells. If Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena thump in the middle of the lineup, and Geovany Soto, Soriano, Marlon Byrd, and Starlin Castro perform adequately, I really think there’s a shot here. The bullpen is solid, with Carlos Marmol slinging lightning, and Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall holding together the mid-late innings. I’m convincing myself! Is that derangement? Cubs win!

Cubs sleeper: Kosuke Fokudome, who had an .809 OPS last year.

This division race could, of course, go any direction.

The Milwaukee Brewers have a thrilling lineup of hitters, and Rickie Weeks is a favorite pick of mine to perform well again this year after one of the fellows on the CBS Sports Fantasy Baseball podcast pointed out what a good fastball hitter he is, then I saw a Spring Training game in which he hit such a fastball really far. Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, these are great hitters. But after that, the lineup falls off quickly, to players like Carlos Gomez, Yuni Betancourt, and (shudder) Mark Kotsay.

Further, I think the Brewers’ rotation is overrated, with the slightly goofy Zack Greinke, a somewhat overrated (in my opinion) Shawn Marcum, and a pretty good Yovani Gallardo. A wild card bullpen may not be enough to bolster those starters, and we’ve already seen some cracks early in the year.

Brewers sleeper: Takashi Saito, whose experience and cunning could be a bright spot in the bullpen.

The Cincinnati Reds are the team with the gleam. An MVP in Joey Votto anchors their lineup, alongside the rising Jay Bruce, the powerful Jonny Gomes, the speedy Drew Stubbs, and the kinetic Brandon Phillips. Again, though, this starting rotation has some worrisome holes. Edinson Volquez and Jonny Cueto have yet to string together good seasons simultaneously or consecutively. Mike Leake and Travis Wood are young and unpredictable. Bronson Arroyo is solid, and will likely deliver the same eating of innings he does every year. I think the Reds come up short.

Reds sleeper (not actually a sleeper): Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban Missile!

The St. Louis Cardinals can always play well, and I’ve learned not to count them out under very many circumstances. The loss of an ace may be one of those circumstances, to go along with a questionable closer and some week infield hitting. Colby Rasmus could take his game to a higher level this year, though it’ll be a stretch for him to join the stratosphere of the studs on this team in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. If Lance Berkman can return to form, this could be a pretty potent lefty-righty-lefty-right lineup, which will be important given the punchless infield with Ryan Theriot, David Frees, and Skip Schumaker.

Cards sleeper: /sound of grasshopers.

Enough has been written elsewhere about the Houston Astros, I don’t need to pile on. I’m more optimistic than most, but that’s because I’m a homer. This should be a tough division, and someone has to pay the price.

Astros Sleeper: Brett Wallace. See #BrettWallaceHaterWatch2011 on Twitter.

Pittsurgh Pirates: see Astros, Houston. (Yes, I forgot they existed and I had to add this later. Let’s just say I don’t blame myself for it. Sorry, Pirates fans, but as an Astros fans I don’t have much pity left for you.)

Reference:

Everyday Ichiro #002: Opening Day

Felix Hernandez recovered from an early homer ceded to Josh Willingham by shutting the A’s down for the rest of the Seattle Mariners’ first game, using his Cy Young curveball and the fastball that seems imbued with a little additional gravity when it leaves the King’s hand.

Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, Justin Smoak, and, yes, Ichiro, did their part by peppering Oakland with well-struck balls. “Put the ball in play and see what happens.” Well, the A’s made five errors is what happened. Beleaguered M’s fans will take it.

Here’s the day in Ichiro:

1. Ichiro took two Trevor Cahill strikes to start his 2011 season, then glanced several good pitches pitches foul and took a few more, enough to draw a walk. Then he stole second base. A patient if defensive debut.

2. A few low sinkers pushed the count to two balls and none, then Ichiro hit a slapshot at third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who would have done well to wear a goalie mask and leg pads for the series of shots Ichiro would send his way today. This one bounced once and glanced off his glove, and Ichiro notched his first hit of the season. Figgins singled to send him to second, and the trip to third and home was made easy by Cahill’s control problems.

With each high five that he hosted in the dugout after scoring, Ichiro said, “thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

In the bottom of the third, Dave Sims said, in honor of the late Dave Niehaus, “now we’re gonna lay off this half-inning and let you enjoy the natural sounds of baseball.” Felix pitched against the background murmur of the crowd. I wasn’t in Seattle long enough to feel Dave’s loss as deeply as many, but I was misty.

3. With a long-time star like Ichiro, Opening Day is for remembering everything you love about a player. “He’s so lean,” was my wife’s reaction to seeing Ichiro in high def again. Then, in the top of the 4th, he hit another ball at poor Kevin Kouzmanoff, who took it off of the chest. This one was called an error but Ichiro reached base, where Figgins stranded him.

4. With a man on second with an out, Ichiro saved Kouz another bruise by hitting a grounder past him. Ichiro’s first RBI of the season was followed closely by a joyous home run from Chone Figgins.

5. Ichiro grounded into a double play in his final at bat, but he’d already spoken the first few lines of dialogue in the first act of his season. They were pointed, promising lines, pulsing with promise, foreshadowing a characteristically rich narrative.

References: