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Halfway through the season

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With 2008’s alternately weepy, bloated, and grueling All-Star game out of the way, baseball at last gets down to business. Tis ever thus. In MLB’s modern incarnation, with its extensive dilution and expanded post-season field, the long, long season more and more divides into three distinct and unequal parts.

There’s the month of April when little of it makes sense and too many fragile players forced to perform in sloppy and frigid conditions go down with injuries. Followed by the shakedown cruise, running from May Day to the All-Star festival, wherein the contenders and pretenders are roughly identified. Come the break, you may not be sure who will win but you darn well know who won’t. Finally, as we grind past the Ides of July, the fun arrives beginning with the increasingly wild shenanigans at the July 31 trade deadline. Stand by for a week of posturing, spin, illusion and related folderol.

There’s the chance this time, however, that we’ll be denied the rash of salary-dumps and contract-capers that have recently made this spectacle fairly obscene. It’s getting harder for the fat cats to buy pennants with vulgar displays of the old-fashioned money-ball as was invented by the likes of Tom Yawkey and perfected over the ages by the Yankees.

Moreover, the big salvos have probably already been fired. It isn’t likely there will be heftier prizes than C.C. Sabathia, Rich Harden, or even Joe Blanton changing hands; not with the usual big spenders from New York, Boston and L.A indicating that all things being equal they would rather pass. If the Yankees and Angels do nothing, isn’t it likely the Red Sox will too? That is unless the recent unpleasantness in Anaheim has scared the living bejabbers out of them.

Elsewhere, the Tigers--having been badly burned over the winter--don’t seem in the mood. The White Sox are nibblers and the Twins are too tight. If the Mets conclude they can make it with what they have, the Phils will stand pat too. The Cardinals are saying they’ll do nothing to counter the moves of the Brewers and Cubs in landing Sabathia and Harden, respectively and we probably should believe them. In the NL West, where the winner will probably have a losing record, whatever is done might be irrelevant. Do you think Joe Torre is still pleased he told Hank Steinbrenner to go jump in the East River?

The team that most needs to make a deal is Tampa’s uppity Rays, those former patsies everyone was falling for between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Much about them reminds you of the 1967 Red Sox who also burst upon the scene like a flaming meteor capturing the heart of baseball nation overnight. But the Impossible Dreamers would have finished about fifth that year had not Dick O’Connell, their wonderfully cagey GM, worked magical mid-season deals obtaining successively Gary Bell, Jerry Adair, Ellie Howard, Norm Siebern and Hawk Harrelson.

By brilliantly patching and filling around his splendid core-essence of exciting young talent, O’Connell pulled off what remains the most extraordinary, rags to riches story the entire Kingdom of Sport has seen in the last half century. It was bigger than what the Mets did in ’69 or the Patriots in ’01 or the Celtics last spring. It was matchless.

For the Rays to dare something comparable--soar from last to first in a single season--comparable masterstrokes by their front office will be required. They need better relief pitching, another outfielder, more depth, and a right handed power-bat at a minimum. They need to act. But they’ve never done it because they’ve never had to; hence, there’s no evidence they know how.

It would not be surprising if what’s left of the annual swap-fest proves to be a dud. Attitudes are changing. No team is in a hurry to ravage its farm system in exchange for a roll of the dice on expensive, alleged stars seeking ever lustier contracts like the Rockies’ Matt Holliday. On the other hand, contenders will always covet highly defined role-players. Thus, polished lefty relievers like the Pirates’ Damaso Marte, the Rockies’ Brian Fuentes and even the Royals’ much-traveled Ron Mahay could stir considerable interest. But only if the price drops significantly.

It is getting much harder for third-world franchises like Pittsburgh and Kansas City to hold-up the big spenders. Even the Yankees now appreciate the value of a farm system that gets high grades from “Baseball America.” Such thinking, while not entirely rational, is very fashionable these days in the parlor games they play in the front offices of baseball.

It only takes one team to get the feeding frenzy rolling, a role the Yankees long dutifully played until Brian Cashman developed guilt pangs about the vulgarity of their spending habits to go with reservations about the value of pricey and shopworn has-beens. One suspects, however, that it would take no more than a mild tweak in the rich imaginings of Clan Steinbrenner to return the Yankees to the maelstrom of ferocious over-spending more voracious than ever, even as their increasingly haunted general manager continues to play the role of Hamlet in their eternally rich melodrama.

They would have no trouble justifying all that. Having remained bloodied but unbowed while enduring a near Biblical run of near ruinous injuries -- with Hughes, Wang, Matsui, Posada, Damon, Rodriguez, Kennedy, and Bruney being only the major blows -- the Pinstripes might just convince themselves the worm has turned and have logic on their side for a change. Should the urge overwhelm them, money as ever would be no issue. But they could be thwarted by a decline in the value of their principle bargaining chips. Does Phil Hughes excite folks as he did only a year ago? That’s not likely.

But the further fact that the Yankees are far from dead-- all the obits that were being intoned so gleefully over them as recently as the All-Star break not withstanding--is equally clear. In the weekend that followed the break, they halved the Red Sox lead over them down to three games--a mere two in the loss column--while also shaving the increasingly vulnerable Ray’s lead by another game. In a span of 48 hours, the Yankees went from being toast to being two games out of a playoff post.

It may be unwise to make too much of it. They have displayed pluck of late and valor in hanging tough but the Yankees are still a deeply flawed team. Yet it seems amazing that after having played exactly 100 games with everyone telling them how wonderful they are compared with those aging and battered bums in the Bronx, your Boston Red Sox were only two games ahead.

Maybe the better question is, “Are the Red Sox over-rated?” It is indeed a long, long season. But take heart, dear Nation. There will be many more such violent heaves and lurches before this race is over. The AL East race promises to be crazy. You should be happy about that. It guarantees us much entertainment over the next 10 weeks. Even the Blue Jays believe they’ve still got a shot nor is Baltimore any longer a pushover. All of this is most pleasing. Only fools and hopelessly addled fans enjoy runaways.

While still very much the odds-on favorite these Red Sox won’t breeze unless a healthy David Ortiz comes all the way back to the peaks of his past and Manny has an epiphany. All of which is possible but unlikely. One senses that the Manny foibles--those little moments that the Nation deems so cute and amusing when their eccentric pet in the dreadlocks is clubbing the ball senseless--are about to increase in number while being increasingly taken seriously.

The Nation has good reason to be anxious. It is indeed a long, long season.

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