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The line, which has become fairly immortal, comes from that deep thinker, Mr. Eliot. That would be the poet, Thomas Stearns, better known merely as “T.S.,” not the old Braves third baseman, Bob, who was rather more fancifully called “Mr. Team” and actually spelled his name -- not as they do at Oxford -- but the downtown way, with two t’s and two l’s.
Anyway, good olde T.S. once observed in ‘‘The Waste Land:’’ “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” That would seem to suggest that Tommy could not have been a baseball fan. Although on the other hand, he also noted in that very same epic poem, “I read much of the night and go south in the winter.” Sounds to me like a perfect description of baseball’s truest fanatics. Moreover, there’s never been a better reason to go south than to feast on the Grapefruit League.
Now it’s again come and gone; that glorious and nearly two month farce known as “spring training,” which is played among the grapefruits in Florida and the cactus in Arizona and which lasts probably a month longer than it needs to but who would have it otherwise. It’s another April and another Show. Neither cruel nor cuddly, April is rather the grand illusion of the months. For it begins with every baseball team in first place.
But who will be in first place come November? Ah, now that is the Question, as another notable poet was fond of asking.
Long ago this space waived any claims to prophecy and it’s the one and only vow that’s been consistently kept. I have no bloody idea who’ll have survived the gauntlet come November, which is the month Herman Melville nominated as the cruelest. Much clearer is how many teams will not be still upright. Half of them start the season with no chance and a quarter should be effectively eliminated by Mothers’ Day. Only this much is for sure. Come November, there will be 29 teams that totally agree with Herman Melville.
Disdaining the predictions, which are invariably dumb, there’s lots to wonder about and hope for or eagerly anticipate as well as fear and maybe even loathe. Once classically termed, by Jim Brosnan, “The Long Season,” it is now more of an interminable odyssey over parched badlands pocked with quicksand and alligators. The possibilities are endless. So, inevitably, will be the surprises.
Among this looming baseball season’s better sub-plots are, it seems to me:
The Mets’ mess. The most widely scorned of the under-achievers, they may totally implode this season making the decline and fall of the once so promising Omar Minaya complete. Wall Street scoundrel Bernie Madoff, who numbers the Mets’ owners among his more illustrious pigeons, may have buried this franchise. It’s more proof Baseball no longer exists in a bubble.
The Dodgers’ mess. Those wild and crazy McCourt kids, Frank and Jamie, continue to wage a divorce battle that would make the Hatfields and McCoys blush. Meanwhile, their most prized toy -- the Dodgers -- made one off-season acquisition. A utility infielder. Does Joe Torre have a breaking point? We’ll find out when Manny Ramirez mails it in again this season.
The sequel to the “Joe Mauer is too good to be true” story. When the Yankees give Mark Teixeira $180 million it’s a gruesome case of a runaway capitalist pig capitulating to a greedy mercenary. When the Twins give Joe Mauer $180 million it’s the tender tale of a beloved small market franchise showering Johnny Appleseed with rose petals. If you totally buy this reasoning you must still be grooving on Shirley Temple movies. You’ll pardon me, if I don’t get it.
The curse of the pre-season favorite. It’s an enduring bromide sub-titled, ‘‘Pennants are not won in January.’’ This year’s ripest contender is the Seattle Mariners, everybody’s super-trendy pick until Cliff Lee began the season on the disabled list just as the realization was dawning that most of their power will have to come from 41 year old DH Junior Griffey. Here’s some advice you can take to the bank. In the AL West, don’t bet against Mike Scioscia’s Angels.
Then again if Baseball also has a waste land, it must be Chicago. Not since Prohibition’s high times has there been greater promise of pyrotechnics. The legendarily short-fused Lou Piniella may be a short losing streak shy of wits’ end as he faces the fact that the Cubs under his watch will not win their first championship since Teddy Roosevelt’s second administration. Another season’s daily dose of Alfonso Soriano could even cost Lou his sanity. Meanwhile across town, the even more volatile Ozzie Guillen sent a message to his White Sox by firing his own son. How would you like to be a baseball writer in that toddling town?
Will the Washington Nationals ever get serious? Not as long as they can convince themselves Stephen Strasburg isn’t ready to be a starter on that dreadful team. They farmed the phenom out merely to defer for a year his date with arbitration. It’s nonsense like this that makes you a fan of agents.
Can the Orioles and Blue Jays return to eminence in the AL East? This is a guess, not a prediction. “No!”
Are the Phillies the next baseball dynasty? “Ditto!”
Will the Tigers’ Dontrelle Willis be the best of the comeback stories? You should root for that. Willis is a great lad. Is the Braves’ Jason Heyward the second coming of Ozark Ike? If not, there are no baseball experts left.
Will Brian Cashman prove to have outwitted himself? Here’s a scenario you might dream for. It’s mid-August and the Tigers are in first place thanks mainly to an aroused offense that features Johnny Damon as the lineup’s lynchpin. Damon is hitting .300 and aiming for a season with more than 20 homers, 20 stolen bases, 30 doubles and 100 runs. Whereas in the Bronx, the Yankees’ struggle to stay out of third place bears on thanks mainly to an under-achieving offense that finds Randy Winn hitting .230, Nick Swisher leading the league in whiffs, Nick Johnson leading in D.P.’s, and Curtis Granderson still unable to hit lefties. It’s hardly out of the question.
Mr. Cashman’s nightmare continues: Damon was not the only choice role-player the Yanks’ G.M. purged in pursuit of his amazing, technicolored, balanced budget. Also run off were Jerry Hairston, Jose Molina, Xavier Nady and the most estimable Hideki Matsui. If Southern California’s warm, soft breezes are kinder to Hideki- San’s arthritic knees might he hit near as many homers as Mr. Teixeira? Maybe it’s less likely but it’s still worth yearning for.
None of which means the Red Sox will romp. What if David Ortiz is finished? What if J.D. Drew again has only 68 ribbies? What if Adrian Beltre again hits only eight homers? What if a disenchanted Mike Lowell anchors (literally) the bench all season? What if Mike Cameron begins to look 37? What if the catching begins to diminish the value of the pitching? What if pitching for a contract doesn’t agree with Josh Beckett? What if Jonathan Papelbon’s eccentricities deepen? What if Tim Wakefield begins to look 44? Granted these are the doubts of a noted skeptic. But you have to admit there are more ‘‘what if’s’’ than usual.
Might we again have a season free of drug scandal? In St. Louis, Mark McGwire is a daily presence testifying to the sorrow of the matter. In New York, A-Rod is hob-nobbing with the FBI. In Texas, Manager Ron Washington must prove he’s not a coke-head. And somewhere out there an investigative reporter is just aching to reveal a list with almost a hundred names of alleged drug-cheats on it. All things considered, the odds are not promising.
Nonetheless, let the lilacs breed out of the dead land and “Play Ball!”