Winter is now officially over.
That snow expected for tomorrow? Pay it no mind. Major League baseball teams have broken camp and moved north signaling the official start of spring.
Opening day was welcomed with the usual excitement and high hopes – even by luckless teams like the Chicago Cubbies who went out and spent a gazillion dollars to improve their fortunes. To be fair, Cubs fans always have high hopes. It’s part of the little kit kids get when they become Cubs fans. And along with those high hopes comes paper towels to wipe the spittle off the TV screen when your heroes blow another game as well as a suicide instruction manual for those who just can’t bear to watch the destruction of another promising season. “Wait until next year” has become a running joke in Chicago – sort of like the dead rising from the grave to vote in every election except there’s a better chance of that really happening than the Cubs winning the world championship.
And to make this time even more glorious and significant, Tiger, Phil, and the best golfers in the world will vie for the most glamorous championship in the world in what may be the most beautiful sports setting in the world; Augusta National Golf Club.
That last is not hyperbole. Golfing great Bobby Jones who designed Augusta, took what nature had to offer and added wide, sloping fairways, enough trees to populate a small forest, breathtaking hillsides filled with blooming dogwoods and azalea bushes, and topped it off with the most treacherously designed greens in Christendom. The effect is a feast for the eyes and torture for the soul. How many golfing greats have found their dreams shattered going around “Amen Corner” (#10, 11, 12)? How many eagles have turned to double bogey thanks to the innocuous looking but devilishly placed tributary to Rae’s Creek on #13? And how many big putts by big golfers have rolled in for victory on #18?
For sports drama there are few events that can match it. Perhaps the “old” Indy 500 came close. And today, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 is usually one of the most competitive events of the year. But for sheer artistry, performance under pressure, and nail biting suspense, the Masters Golf Tournament usually doesn’t disappoint.
Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen contemplates the upcoming season.
Meanwhile, the Babes of Spring have begun their long quest for glory as Major League baseball opened its season this last weekend. Frankly, I don’t pay much attention until the Babes turn into the Boys of Summer who, in turn, morph into the playoff warriors of fall – fighting for the opportunity to join their names and the name of their team to the long and storied history of what we used to call “The National Pastime.”
No more, of course. For a variety of reasons I flesh out here, baseball no longer dominates the national conversation as it once did. But for those of us of a certain age, we can recall when baseball was king and other sports were created as filler, simply taking up the time before spring training started again.
No matter. I will be a baseball fan until the day I leave the earth and may the devil take anyone who criticizes me for it. I love the ins and outs of the game, the strategy, the grace of the players, and most especially, the one on one confrontation between the hitter and the pitcher – the most lovely of athletic competitions.
And even though players have turned into hobos and some have become Frankenstein monsters hyped up on steroids, the sound of the ball hitting the bat with that satisfying thwack still gets my blood racing and juices flowing.
This year’s edition of my White Sox will contend for the American League Central title. The only problem is, so will Detroit, Minnesota, and Cleveland. This, the most competitive division in baseball will probably feature some of the best games in all of baseball this year. Stellar pitching, excellent defense, and power offenses will make AL Central games a joy to watch.
Mercurial manager Ozzie Guillen will put pretty much the same lineup on the field this year as he did during last year’s 90 win season. The Sox have shored up some holes, notably in centerfield where last year’s weak sister Brian Anderson will start the season on the bench, giving way to veteran Darin Erstad. And two players who were pivotal during the Sox World Series championship year of 2005 – Juan Uribe and Scott Posednik – should regain at least some of the form that made them such a large part of that magical season.
Unfortunately, the pitching staff is something of a question mark. Trading away Freddie Garcia to Philly for two relatively unknown arms and the shocking deal that sent potential future star Brandon McCarthy to Texas for another set of young pitchers raised eyebrows around the league and set the fans to grumbling. But there is little doubt the Sox addressed their major problem from last year; an inconsistent bullpen. Now featuring three kids who can chuck the ball close to 100 MPH, the Sox should dominate in the late innings. And closer Bobby Jenks – whose fastball seems to have lost some velocity – still has that devastating hook as an “out” pitch.
For offense, murderers row is still in place with Thome, Konerko, and Dye, the triple threat power trio ready to play long ball. All three hit for average, drive in runs, and can go long at any time. Simply put, there is no more devastating middle of the lineup anywhere in baseball.
For intangibles, how about Ozzie being on the hot seat this year? Guillen’s shtick is beginning to wear thin with the club’s upper management, the press, and even some fans. If the Sox fall below expectations this year – and nothing less than another trip to the World Series is expected – Ozzie may find himself looking for another job. He has yet to learn to curtail his more outrageous comments and it may yet prove to be a distraction to the team if he gets embroiled in more controversies. But there is no doubt Guillen is a warrior for his players. And the players in turn feel a loyalty for their skipper that goes beyond the organization. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf has proven in the past that he can take only so much controversy before he takes care of the problem permanently. But if Guillen is winning, Jerry probably won’t care if Ozzie goes skinny dipping in the Grant Park fountain.
As I did last year, I will write from time to time about the Sox, especially the “Crosstown Showdown” series with the Cubs. And I expect I’ll have something to say when Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s career home run record, although if there has ever been a less attractive hero breaking an iconic major record than Bonds, I cannot for the life of me think of one.
So get set and strap it down. Baseball is here and summer isn’t very far behind.