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Vast fields of giant redwoods have been sacrificed to the cause of properly genuflecting to the glories of baseball on the occasion of that annual rite of spring, Opening Day.
ESPN guru Peter Gammons -- surely no stranger to over-statement -- calls it “heaven.” The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, Gammons’ archrival in the thin ranks of baseball’s alleged intelligentsia, once wrote a book which he titled, ‘‘Why Time Begins on Opening Day.’’ Sensing the explanation would be neither useful nor plausible, I never did manage to get beyond the title page.
But then hyperbole goes with the territory. All the self-appointed high priests of baseball punditry drift into the exalting of the banal, now and again; a fondness for exaggeration being the ticket of admission to their little chowder society. There’s no harm in hyperbole except when the user forgets his flights of fancy were supposed be in jest.
All of this ragtime comes to mind as the beginning of a new season brings with it an utter torrent of analysis, calculation, and prophecy. All of which also goes with the territory nowadays; ‘‘experts’’ being a dime a dozen.
But name a one of them who predicted last year that the Cardinals would win it all, or that the Tigers would be runners up, or that neither the Red Sox nor the White Sox would even make the playoffs, or that the batting champs would be kids named Freddie Sanchez and Joe Mauer, or that a gawky fellow from Taiwan would win 19 games for the Yankees, or that Hanley Ramirez would be the NL Rookie of the Year while Josh Beckett was finishing with an ERA of over five.
The true joy of baseball is that it’s the least predictable of all our games, making the term “baseball expert” something of a de facto oxymoron. On the other hand that’s what gives credence to the illusions so many share on Opening Day. Often the illusion persists at least until Mother’s Day.
Clearly, we have no predictions to offer other than the reasonably safe assumption that the agitation between the Red Sox and the Yankees will keep the get-a-lifers of Red Sox Nation safely off the street-corners until October. There may be little that is truly ‘‘heavenly’’ about baseball but its mindless little distractions do render a service to the common weal.
Look elsewhere for prophecy. But we can offer some questions. The season opens rife with doubt on many fronts. Here are a few things that have me wondering.
The Barry Bonds dilemma
He’s not going to go away. He’s shameless and driven. And preseason appearances suggest he may even be healthy again. It’s not nice to wish injury on a man but MLB moguls -- up to and including the commissioner -- can hardly be blamed if they are tempted. He needs 22 more dingers to surpass Hank Aaron and he’s going to do it, possibly by late June.
With Bonds, denying him his greatness has become as pointless as trying to fathom what makes him tick. His historical moment will be one giant paradoxical headache for the game he transcends. Who would trade places with Bud Selig on that occasion?
The Steroid inquiry
Like the Parisian detective who hounded Jean Valjean, Judge Mitchell vows to track down every vestige of drug abuse in the game. He promises a full report by the end of the season. If he succeeds in piercing the cover-up, he could ruin a lot of lives and still not begin to bag all the offenders. Should justice be so arbitrary and selective? Nonetheless, his buddies in Congress are urging him on.
The question persists, “Why?” Has Congress nothing better to do? Has not the point been made? Isn’t it more important to make sure that a new order of strict and airtight substance control guarantees that it can never happen again? Most important, when will they recognize the terribly unfair double standard that holds baseball’s feet to the fire while allowing football to take a casual and guiltless walk? I know a lot of Congresspersons get freebies from the Redskins but is there no limit to hypocrisy?
The steroid inquiry could turn the ‘‘heavenly’’ prospects of another baseball season into a hellish nightmare at any moment.
The Clemens Sweepstakes
His game within the game has become preposterous. Last season he played three and a half months and earned $2.3 million per win. He’ll be 45 in August. Yet such is the deterioration of pitching and the desperation of the contenders that they will gleefully make fools of themselves when -- like some breathless ingénue -- he coyly hints that his ample charms may, once again, be up for sale. And to think so many smart Bostonians once devoutly believed this guy was a dumb Texan.
One of these years Athens or Sparta is going to give him $16 million to play for 14 weeks and he’s going to finish 0-7 with an ERA over 10. Could this be the year? We live in hope.
The Japanese Invasion
Their manner and style and all-round class make them a breath of fresh air in a game that needed one. In New York, Hideki Matsui has become the modern definition of the perfect player in terms of attitude, commitment and deportment. In their early behavior, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa strongly suggest they may be kindred spirits.
Is there remotely the chance that the Yank’s Igawa will prove to be as good an investment as Matsuzaka, at least proportionally in terms of bucks? Now wouldn’t that be amusing. The further good news is that the ‘‘invasion’’ has only just begun.
Most of the little tempests that spice up Yankee baseball are foolishness; the agonies of A-Rod as they are being feverishly stirred by the banshees of tabloid journalism amount to Exhibit A. But the late-blooming crisis in the House of Steinbrenner is another matter.
Divorce, a touch of scandal, and rampant uncertainty have shaken the pin-stripped hierarchy. Time is not on George’s side and we have lately seen ample evidence that the clock is moving fast and he recognizes that harsh fact. This is the industry’s ultimate blue chip franchise. When the Yankees sneeze, the kingdom of baseball gets the shakes.
How this evolves is about to become a huge story, one senses. And if it de-stabilizes the monolith in the Bronx -- as increasingly becomes a possibility -- it may have more of a bearing on Red Sox fortunes than a half dozen Matsuzaka signings. Stay tuned.
The Jonathan Papelbon mystery
The knights of the keyboard, who are mainly in the tank, are taking a pass on this issue. After all, we don’t want to offend management by jamming their own words down their throat. But in my book it’s the most intriguing question about this Red Sox season. Will this remarkably talented and interesting young fellow hold up physically with his return to the bullpen? And if he doesn’t, how will the pious autocrats in the front office spin it?
In October we are emphatically told the health and longterm prospects of the player DEMAND that he give up relief pitching, with its daily stresses, and become a starting pitcher, with its more programmed regimen. Medical opinion is offered supporting the claim that if Papelbon continues to pitch in relief he could gravely jeopardize his future. In March, before he’s thrown another pitch in anger, he returns to the closer’s role, although nothing about his medical profile has changed. It resolves an acute team crisis yet we’re asked to believe the decision is entirely the kid’s. Even those who are not yet hardened cynics recognize this is poppycock.
The boys in the front office better hope Papelbon lasts as long as Mariano Rivera. But if he breaks down again in August they better be ready for some hard ball. Not even the knights in the tank will be able to take a pass on that one.
Questions! That is what Opening Day is about. Many, many questions. Heaven can wait.