11th and Washington

11th and Washington: April 2004

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Revisionist history, revisited

As I said yesterday, I figured there'd be more ...

Three additional points:

You say that my final point (that the Braves are the ones manipulating history) is off-target because the media and MLB, and not the Braves, are the ones who say the streak for the Braves is at 12. But the Braves web site itself says the streak dates back to 1991: For exampe, in the 2002 season write-up, the Braves say that "[Bobby] Cox, who also posted his 1800th career win during the season, guided his team to its 11th consecutive division title." So the Braves ARE engaging in the data manipulation.

Second, in one section, Chass quotes the Yankees media guide as saying the Yankees "reached postseason play for the ninth consecutive year in 2003, extending the major league record which they share with the Atlanta Braves." Note the use of the word "year." Under any definition of "year" it cannot be said that the Braves have been to the post season for 12 straight years, or that they have won the division title for 12 straight years. That's simply impossible.

Finally, even though you still disagree with me, I think we must both agree that there's a reasonable -- if not persuasive -- argument on the Yankees' side of this debate. With that said, what team is being more dishonest here? The Braves are taking advantage of the 1994 strike to make their history sound greater than it is. To use the strike to their advantage just makes me sick. If you were the author of the Braves' media guide (or the Braves web site), would you be willing to say the streak is 12, knowing full well that the Expos had the Braves beat in 1994, or at the very least the Braves did not win the title in 1994? Why say "12" when you can legitimately say "9"? Saying "12" just opens the Braves up to criticism for taking advantage of the strike. The bottom line is that the statement in the Yankees media guide is less intellectually dishonest than the Braves' statement on its web site. Besides, you should hate the Braves more than the Yankees anyway -- the Yankees have never cost the Mets a playoff berth, but the Braves have.

I will now let this issue die.

I would've liked to let it die, too, but two things came to me:
Sorry to continue this, but I too will try to let it die. I just wanted to clarify something that came across wrong. I said it wasn't the Braves who are manipulating history, and that's untrue, because they are. My point was that they aren't doing it on their own. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- believes their streak began in 1990. They don't need to use the streak to bolster their argument in the eyes of the media or MLB.

I can't argue with your point about the definition of "year," and clearly the Yankees made sure they used that word in their notes instead of "season." But you could just as easily add "year in which playoffs were held." No one does, but maybe they should. Perhaps that's the solution to this, something all the asterisk hounds should push for in order to clarify things.

It shouldn't be surprising that a team would use the strike to its advantage -- it was the players who walked out, who ended the season. The owners feel like they were the victims in the situation. So Braves ownership (as does the Yankees) would want to use the strike to their advantage. The Yankees clearly are, otherwise there'd be no need to even mention the Braves in their accomplishments. While I concede that the Braves are using 1994 to their advantage, I'd suggest you must admit that the Yankees are, in a way, looking at that year as I am. Otherwise, why wouldn't they say that their streak was at 10? They were in first place when the 1994 season ended, 6.5 games ahead of the Orioles. But they can't say they made 10 straight postseasons because there wasn't one that year, same as the Braves don't say they DIDN'T make the '94 postseason, because there wasn't one to make. The Yankees don't say they have one more division title than they do because there was no division title in 1994, so the Braves have won 12 straight division titles. And you can't speculate like this (what kills me about the strike more than anything is Matt Williams' pace to break Roger Maris' 61 home runs), but who's to say the Braves couldn't make up 6 games (that's how far behind Montreal they were in mid-August) in the final 6 weeks of the season. I'm not using that for my argument, just throwing it out there.

Finally (and this is the main reason I had to respond), I don't see the Braves as having kept the Mets out of the postseason. Technically, yes, they did, by winning eight division titles over the Mets. But the Mets wouldn't have won those titles against anybody. They weren't competitive enough. In 1995, the Mets were 21 games back, tied with the Phillies, and wouldn't have made the postseason under any circumstances. In 1996, they were 25 back in fourth. In '97 they were 13 back in third, but it was the Marlins who won the wild card and kept the Mets out. I don't like that Marlins team for winning the Series in just its fourth year, breaking the '69 Mets record of winning it in their eighth (but which was done before free agency and the farm system as we know it). In 1998, the Mets were in second, 18 games out, losing the wild card to the Cubs. In '99 and 2000, the Mets won the wild card (and the Yankees kept the Mets from their third world championship) and in 2001, the Mets were 6 games out in third, 4 behind the Phillies, but 9 games out of the wild card. It was more than the Braves that kept them out that year.

Anyway, this has been fun, and I won't blame you if you want to get one last word in.

While dwelling on it more later, I thought, What is the answer to the question "In the division in which the Braves have played, who has won the last 12 division titles?" The answer is Atlanta. In the last 12 postseasons, who has made the most appearances. Again, Atlanta, with 12.

So while he is right that when you bring the word "year" into it, the Yankees have a point, but that is how they are manipulating it. The way I see it, other than the individual accomplishments that have gone on record, it's as if 1994 never happened, at least when it comes to baseball.

But I think this discussion is over for now.

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Monday, April 26, 2004

The Yankees' revisionist history

This is why people hate the Yankees. It's not just that they appear smug and elitist, they are in the ways they skew and manipulate data to make themselves look better. Kind of like the Bush Administration. The following appeared in The New York Times yesterday:
Two Sides to Every Streak

It's not enough that the Yankees dominate baseball history; they have a different way of looking at it.

Everyone else who talks about Atlanta's perennial trip to the playoffs as division champion says the Braves have won 12 consecutive division championships and have appeared in the postseason 12 consecutive times. The Yankees' math is different.

In their game notes for the news media this year, the Yankees have reduced the Braves' achievement by a quarter, putting the number at 9, not 12.

The Yankees, the notes say, "are only the second team in major league history to win as many as six consecutive league or division titles behind the Braves' current streak of nine straight."

In addition, the Yankees "reached postseason play for the ninth consecutive year in 2003, extending the major league record which they share with the Atlanta Braves."

The Yankees' calculator obviously counts from post-1994, the strike year, refusing to recognize the Braves' three consecutive division titles and postseason appearances leading up to 1994. But there were no division champions or playoffs in 1994, so no other team interrupted the Braves' streaks.

Now if the Yankees wanted to say the Braves have finished in first place only nine years in a row, they could be technically right. When the players went on strike in 1994, the Montreal Expos, not the Braves, were in first place. But the Expos were not awarded the division championship.

In the mind of everyone in and around baseball outside of the Bronx, the 1994 season ended in August, with no division champion or postseason, as the article says. Baseball's postseason history jumps from 1993 to 1995. Does anyone doubt that had the Yankees reached the postseason or won the division in 1993 that the notes would put the streak at seven seasons?

When I sent my thoughts out to a friend, he replied thusly:
A rebuttal:

Question: How many years in a row have the Braves finished in first place?

Answer: Nine, from 1995 to 2003.

Q: Did they finish in first place in 1994?

A: No.

Q: Who did instead?

A: The Montreal Expos. (Note: Murray Chass concedes this point in his column below.)

Q: Isn’t finishing first a prerequisite to winning the division title?

A: Yes.

Q: So the Braves did not win the division title in 1994?

A: Yes.


That’s enough to illustrate the absurdity of Chass’ point. But let’s continue:

Q: But people say the Braves have won 12 straight division titles?

A: Yes.

Q: So are they ignoring the 1994 season?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: Because there was a strike before the season ended.

Q: But the season came to an end at some point right?

A: Yes.

Q: Who had the best record in the Braves’ division at the time the season ended?

A: The Expos.

Q: Not the Braves?

A: Correct.

Q: So the Expos won the division title?

A: Some say “No” because there was not a postseason.

Q: But there was a season, right?

A: Right.

Q: Even though the season was cut short in August, were any awards given out to the players?

A: Yes. Frank Thomas won the MVP award in the AL, Jeff Bagwell won it in the NL. David Cone won the Cy Young in the AL, and Greg Maddux won it in the NL. Buck Showalter and Felipe Alou were the Managers of the Year. Lee Smith and Rod Beck were the Relief Men of the Year. The Roberto Clemente Award went to Dave Winfield. Bob Hamelin and Raul Mondesi won the Rookie of the Year awards. And Gold Glove winners and Silver Slugger recipients were also named. In fact, Maddux had won it the previous two years, in 1992 and 1993 (but not in 1991), and he also won it again in 1995. In fact, the biography profile of Maddux on mlb.com says that in 1995 he “Dominated the National League once again, winning the Cy Young for an unprecedented fourth straight season.”

Q: So, in calculating streaks, Major League Baseball counts the 1994 season?

A: Yes. If MLB did not count the 1994 season, Thomas, Bagwell, Cone, Maddux, Showalter, Alou, Smith, Beck, Winfield, Hamelin and Mondesi would be very surprised. By the way, Mondesi was one of five Dodgers to win the Rookie of the Year award during the five-year span from 1992 to 1996. On the official Dodgers web site, it states, “During the 1990s, the Dodgers set a record with five consecutive National League Rookies of the Year: Eric Karros (1992), Mike Piazza (1993), Raul Mondesi (1994), Hideo Nomo (1995) and Todd Hollandsworth (1996).” So the Dodgers count the 1994 season in their streaks.

Q: Back to the Braves. Did they finish in first place in 1994?

A: No.

Q: They did not win the division title in 1994, right?

A: Correct.

Q: And baseball was played in 1994, right?

A: Right. The award winners are evidence to that.

Q: So if the Braves were to say that they have a current streak of 12 consecutive division titles, they would be taking advantage of the fact that there was a strike, right?

A: Right.

Q: That seems quite self-serving, don’t you think?

A: Yes. And it’s even far more self-serving than the fact that the Yankees say their nine straight playoff appearances matches the Braves’ streak. Let's be honest about who’s really manipulating history here.

So I came back with the following:

That final point misses one important fact: It is not the Braves' notes that are touting 12 consecutive division titles and postseason appearances, it is MLB and every single media outlet in print, broadcast and on the web. Whereas the Yankees once again have to single themselves out from the other 29 teams.

On top of that, yes, the Braves did not finish in first place in 1994, but that's not what those media outlets say. They say the Braves have won 12 division titles and made 12 straight postseason appearances. Both are true. In 1994, technically no team finished in first place because the season itself was not finished. It came to an end, but it wasn't completed. There is no division championship banner in Olympic Stadium in Montreal (or in San Juan). There were no team records or awards given out. Even the Yankees, who were in first place when the season came to an end, do not acknowledge it.

Those postseason awards given to individual players were doled out on the insistance of the players association, which wanted to make sure all its members with clauses for winning Cy Youngs and MVPs and finishing in the top five in the voting got their contractual bonuses from the teams. At the time, there was a big debate about whether or not the awards should be given, but it was the players association that pushed for it.

But the fact that the Braves did not win a division title in 1994, while true, doesn't interrupt their streak. In years in which division titles have been won, the Braves have won the last 12. In years in which postseason games have been played, the Braves have played in at least one series in each.

Obviously, the points about Maddux and the Dodgers hurt my arguments. But had those awards not been given out in 1994, Maddux would still be considered to have won three straight Cy Youngs, and the Dodgers would've had four straight Rookies of the Year. But they're also different lists. If you go to a list of Cy Young winners, you can count Maddux four consecutive years. On a list of Rookies of the Year, you can count five straight Dodgers. But on a list of division champions, you can count 12 straight Atlanta teams; and on a list of postseason teams from 1990 to 2003, there's only one team that appears in every year that had playoffs.

I can't believe I'm defending the Braves so strongly here, but there's only one team I loathe more than Ted's (former) boys.

I have a feeling this isn't over yet, either.

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Thursday, April 22, 2004

29 and 1

I'm going to lay my allegiances out here now.

Well, at least a partial view.

For some reasons that are widely repeated, and not for others that are often discussed, the way I see major league baseball right now is not as 30 teams divided into two leagues. It's more 29 and 1.

And no, the one is not the Expos, owned by major league baseball and the other 29 team owners.

It's the Yankees. They're clearly playing under a different set of rules -- some of which is to their credit, some of which is further proof that Bud Selig is a spineless moron easily influenced not by the masses or his favorite fallback, "the best interests of baseball," but instead by something as small and simple as a dollar sign (and the number of decimal places that follow it).

What else would you expect from a car salesman?

It's been 29 and 1 for a while now. During the discussions that averted a strike in 2002, George Steinbrenner took exception to some of the proposals that seemed directed at restricting his ability to run his team the way he wanted. Big George seemed to cut back last season, and it resulted in another World Series loss. He clearly doesn't want that to happen again, even if his luxury tax figure next offseason will be as big as the Milwaukee payroll. (Which brings up the point that "29 and 1" can refer to at least different teams as the 1 -- Yankees, Expos, Brewers -- but for now, I'm just focusing on the Yankees.)

This doesn't just stem from the Alex Rodriguez trade. That does play a part, but not for the reasons you might think. The truth is, several teams could have had A-Rod, but they didn't want to be as foolish as the Rangers and invest so much money in one guy. The Red Sox could have -- should have -- had him in December, but in the end they couldn't pick up something like an extra $14 million. The union wouldn't agree to devaluing his contract any further, and the deal died -- though everyone from Peter Gammons on down insisted that the trade would happen and, indeed, had to happen for the Rangers, for the Red Sox, for A-Rod, for baseball.

But what really steams me about the trade that did happen -- Soriano for A-Rod -- is what Texas threw in: $67 million. Why the hell did the Rangers have to pay the Yankees to take the game's greatest all-around player (better fielder than Pujols, better -- and younger -- posterboy than Bonds) off their hands?? If the Yankees want to put together MLB's version of a real-life fantasy team, they should have to pay for it. If they want an all-star at every single position (including pitchers three or four times a week), they should have to pay for that and not get any help. The Yankees are easily the most valuable and lucrative franchise in professional sports -- with marketing and development agreements with two of the most popular franchises around the world, the Yomiuri Giants and Manchester United. No one can match the Yankees' revenue from the highest ticket in the game for a stadium with more than 40,000 seats, the unending string of merchandise (Pink caps with the "NY" logo? C'mon. The only thing more insulting than manufacturing them is that they actuall sell.) and the ownership of a network that not only shows 140 of their 162 games each season, but also those of the New Jersey Nets and Devils. Certainly, A-Rod's contract is unique and will likely never be seen in the game again. Even Pujols only got seven years at just over $100 million. (And a side note on that -- man, there are a lot of parenthetical asides today, aren't there? -- is that, should he leave the Cardinals as a free agent after the deal, he'll still only be 31! Just barely past his peak and still in his prime. You know, it pains me to think what records Barry Bonds might hold when he's all done, and I particularly don't want him to get Hank Aaron's 755 home runs. But Pujols just might hit 800, he's done so much so young.) But enough digression. I could have handled it if the Rangers picked up A-Rod's contract for this year and, maybe, part of next season. Let the Yankees have the last five years to themselves. But $67 million covers nearly three years of the average salary.

But the rules aren't different just for the Yankees in North America. Though this was only the second time major league baseball took two regular season games away from the fans in America and sent them to a country that doesn't need games that count to spark interest in the game, they did it differently for the Yankees than for the Mets, the Cubs and the Devil Rays. When the Mets and Cubs went over in 2000, each team lost a home game. The Mets were the home team for one of the games in Tokyo, the Cubs for the other. Each played only 80 home games that season. Furthermore, they came back from Japan with only three days off before resuming the regular season in New York and Chicago. But the Yankees didn't have to give up any home games -- both Tokyo games this week featured the Devil Rays as the home team. In their road spring training uniforms. The Yankees wore pinstripes, because that's what the Japanese fans would want to see, and the Devil Rays got last licks.

Take the Yankees out of the equation for a second. The Devil Rays deserved those two home games, because against any other major league team, they would've drawn about 13,000 fans (last year's average) in Tropicana Field. For a Yankees game at The Trop, they might get 27,000, so they even nearly doubled that the 55,000 per game they drew in Tokyo.

But I don't believe for a second that the Devil Rays got the home team share of the receipts and the Yankees merely got a visitors' share. First, the Tokyo Dome and other Japanese outlets must've gotten a piece. And the Yankees were clearly the draw, moreso than major league baseball itself coming to Japan, and were just as inconvenienced than Tampa Bay. I just have a hunch that major league baseball planned on the "home-and-home" split of the two games between the teams, until George came along and said, "I'm not letting the Yankees go over there if I'm going to lose a home game in the Bronx." Sure, it's a shrewd business move -- the Yankees, who averaged 42,000 fans last season, only drew more than 40,000 hosting the Devil Rays three times, once at 47,000 for the first home weekend game of the season and two more at 40,800 for two weekend games in July. But it's flat-out unfair if it came about like that.

There doesn't seem to be a foreseeable end to this business as we know it. Things will change if the Red Sox manage to beat the Yankees this year -- or if they manage to keep their free agents and build something of a minor dynasty to annually compete with the Yankees through the decade. But players get older and Steinbrenner can't run the team forever. By the time A-Rod's contract expires, Derek Jeter may very well be the only one still playing with him. In terms of prospects, the Yankees have absolutely no minor-league system to speak of and that's going to catch up with them eventually. Sure, they've developed Jeter, Posada, Bernie and Rivera, but now they don't have the Brandon Claussens and Eric Miltons to go out and make the trades they used to make. Everything is cyclical, and someday the Yankees will see this run end.

Unfortunately, they'll probably find some way to build themselves right back up.

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Friday, April 16, 2004

An uphill bat-tle

As I sit here watching the Mets and Pirates (and the Yankees and Red Sox ... OK, and the Rockies and Cardinals and the Brewers and Astros), I look at the batter's boxes and remember how bad public fields are.

If I ever have a son, I'm going to do what a family friend did with his: Teach him to hit left-handed. Growing up, the lefties have the advantage. There's often maybe three out of 15 guys on a team who hit from the left side, so there's a good chance he'll be in the lineup, so long as he can get the bat on the ball. Also, there aren't too many left-handed pitchers at the lower levels.

But perhaps the best argument for left-handed hitters at the high school level and lower is the batter's box. With so many right-handed hitters, that batter's box becomes three dimensional. I remember digging in to many an at bat and having my right foot settled deep in the back of the box, sometimes up past my ankle. It took me from 5' 6" to 5'4".

The varsity fields were generally better, but in some cases the smooth, flat dirt would be kicked away by the end of the first to reveal the harder, packed dirt underneath. On some fields, there was no chance to get a foothold in the box. It was like coming to bat beneath the Windows at Arches National Park: You might as well be kicking at the slickrock. At more than one school, I remember having to adjust to the point that my back foot was at an angle not normally considered comfortable for batting.

On the rare instances I came to the plate and found a flat, well-groomed hitting area, I almost felt out of place. It was almost uncomfortable. How could I be expected to hit when I didn't have to step up with my front foot or climb out of a trench to run to first in an attempt to beat out an infield hit? God, sometimes, I felt as if I was running in place when trying to make my first step out of the box.

But not at Shea. Not at Fenway. A major league field is as well-kept as a museum's grounds or a landscaper's biggest client. Patches of dead grass are resodded, infields smoothed over and replenished with dirt when needed. Pitching mounds are resculpted every now and then. I've walked on professional fields -- Tiger Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., where the head groundskeeper, Bill Butler, left after the team's first three years to take over the duties at Shea this season. The grass is soft like a deep-pile carpet, the warning track a gravelly, crunchy border like the walkway in Field of Dreams with the closeup of Doc Graham's feet when he steps out of the past and into old age to save Gaby Hoffman from choking.

In high school, you had uneven, clumpy outfields, bare patches in the infield (if there was infield grass at all) and tufts of grass growing in the baselines. The colors melded. But in a perfect place such as Fenway, the lines are sharp, the brown meeting the green but going no further, the white lines stretching off into the distance.

And the batters are all on even ground.

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

Five in a row, 36 to go

For five years now, I've been giddy with anticipation for the first or second week of April. For me, the start of the baseball season does not just mean the return of my favorite sport. It also signifies warmer weather, outdoor activities, weekends at the beach, barbeques in the backyard. There are four seasons on the calendar, but New Jersey is one of the lucky states that gets four changes in the weather to correspond with those solstices and equinoxes. In some ways, the baseball season is the national OK that tells us we're allowed to go outside and play again.

What's really excited me about the start of the season is the now five-year tradition I have with two friends from high school, Dave and Gayle, who have joined me at the last five Mets home openers. It began in 2000, when the Mets opened with two games in Japan against the Cubs. The three of us and a former co-worker of mine had seats down the right-field line, where we watched a 1-1 duel between Al Leiter and Sterling Hitchcock carry on into the eighth. Moments after a fan behind me speculated what a great start to his Mets career it would be for Derek Bell to hit a home run leading off the eighth, he lined a pitch into the bleachers in left field, and we roared when Armando Benitez came in to shut the door.

The next year, it became an annual affair when we couldn't pass up the chance to watch the Mets raise the NL Championship banner while hosting the Braves, who had failed again to turn a division championship into a World Series title. They won that one 9-4 with the help of the first home run by a Japanese position player when Tsuyoshi Shinjo launched one to center. By the end of the game, the sun had warmed us up and we relaxed as the crowds filed out, enjoying the spring air.

In 2002 it was the true Opening Day, the first game of the season between the Mets and Pirates. Another win, 6-2, and another great dinner at the ESPN Zone watching the other ongoing games on the dozens of TVs.

Last year we froze our asses off despite box seats in the left-field mezzanine that had us in the sun all day. It didn't help that the Cubs whipped the Mets 15-2 and my gut feeling of a lousy season was dead-on.

Monday, my mom made her first Opening Day trip and when we finally reached the upper level and passed our section to get food, she looked up at the sign above the tunnel. "Rows A-V ... Are we at the top???" Indeed, we were. Up there, the wind whipped us from front and back, but by the sixth inning, we weren't complaining. A 10-0 Mets lead made it more bearable and the falling rain didn't touch us under the overhang. As some folks began to leave to get out of the packed parking lot or into somewhere -- anywhere -- warm, we moved down two or three rows and already felt much better.

As expected, the bullpen turned a 10-1 game into a 10-6 game with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, but it merely meant an earlier Shea appearance for new closer Braden Looper than we'd expected back when it was a 10-run lead.

Two pitches, double play, Mets win.

I'll never get tired of Opening Day. Mike Hampton started for the Braves and could only get eight outs, allowing seven runs in the process. Because he was once a Mets hero -- the last time I saw him pitch live, he chucked a complete-game shutout to put the Mets into the 2000 World Series -- we took delight in hailing him with the slow chant of "HAM-pton ... HAM-pton ... HAM-pton." Some tried to mock the tomahawk chop, but that's been done. I prefered the personal touch, despite the hit my fantasy team ERA took when I didn't follow my gut feeling and kept Hampton in the lineup (I erred the wrong way last night, benching John Thomson and missing out on eight innings of one-run ball in a win).

On Opening Day, you get the best pitchers -- Kerry Wood last year -- and catch new Mets and visiting players in their team, major-league or home debuts. Other than the aforementioned Bell and Shinjo, it's meant Tom Glavine and Kaz Matsui, who, along with Mike Cameron, gave us plenty of reasons to cheer on Monday.

It was my 85th game overall since I first saw an Angels-Yankees game in the Bronx in August 1983 and the 42nd that has involved the Mets. The win put the Amazin's at an even .500, 21-21, in such contests. At Shea, they're 20-15.

Despite the prices, despite the attitudes and abilities of the players, I doubt I'll ever tire of taking an April Monday off to spend the afternoon at the ballpark in Queens. I've got a long way to go to match the one person who was congratulated for his 41st consecutive Opening Day at Shea -- each one the stadium has had -- but I'm only 27. There's still time.

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Thursday, April 08, 2004

The predictions (though a few days late)

Yeah, we're a few days into the season and just about everyone's already made their predictions. Sue me. I assure you the order of the standings were all made a few weeks ago when I e-mailed them for a contest I entered. The comments are fresh today.


1. Phillies. Yes, I think this is the year the Braves don't do it. Philadelphia and GM Ed Wade have built up to this year: Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, Eric Milton, Brett Myers, Marlon Byrd and a new ballpark. They're developing some good talent and have signed and traded for some top players looking at this year. They could've taken the division last year and should've taken the wild card but lost something like five of six games against the Marlins during the final few weeks. It helps that they've made steps forward while Florida and Atlanta have gone the other way. It would be one thing to try to knock off the mighty Braves of the 90s, but it's another to have to chase a watered-down version.

2. Marlins. That's right: Not only am I saying the Braves won't win the division, I'm saying they won't make the playoffs. Besides, I don't think the wild card will come out of the east this year, so no defending champs playing in October either. Yes, everyone's saying they haven't lost as much as they did after the 1997 title, and that's good. It just means that they've got a good chance of having their first winning season in which they don't win the World Series. Listen, they won it all last year by getting hot at the right time. Yeah, they had the best record in baseball after May (one game better than the Yankees), but can they do it like that without Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Lee and Juan Encarnacion? There's a full season out of both Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, and while I think Cabrera will become a superstar, Willis may soon be known for a funky delivery and nothing more.

3. Braves. This team was once known for having three starting pitchers who could be an ace on any other team in the majors, but now they don't even have one. I once had an editor that said starting-stocked teams like the Braves and the Yankees couldn't have more than one ace because, by definition, a team could only have one ace. Which is true: If a pitcher is the ace of the staff on his team, he's the best, the leader, the No. 1. Teams can have No. 1-quality pitchers, which the Astros, Cubs and Red Sox do and the Tigers, Royals and Rockies do not. Last night was Russ Ortiz's first Opening Day start, and were he on most other teams, he wouldn't have drawn that assignment. Besides, their lineup is decidedly weaker, though while I'd like nothing more than to see J.D. Drew continue his mediocre career, something tells me that there's going to be a little bit of that inexplicable Braves magic that keeps him healthy for 145 games this year. Of course, that same Braves magic has meant 12 division titles but only one world championship.

4. Mets. Seventy wins this season would be a small improvement and probably not enough to bring Art Howe back. Seventy-five wins would be enough of an improvement that could mean GM Jim Duquette wasn't involved in a fire sale come July. A .500 record -- 82 wins -- is probably what this group of players should accomplish, but as we've seen with Mets teams in the past (recently too), just having the players doesn't mean they're a part of the playoff race. Here's what I'm hoping for as a Mets fan: Kaz Matsui lives up to the hype and wins the Rookie of the Year (though I don't think players from other professional leagues should be eligible, but I'll get into that another time). Jose Reyes gets over these hamstring problems (he was hurt last April too) and teams with Matsui to be the league's best double-play combination and the best 1-2 hitters north of Miami. Mike Piazza stays healthy and hits 40 home runs, getting his catcher HR record and playing more and more first base as the months go by. Tom Glavine bounces back to be a 15-game winner, teaming with Al Leiter to win 30. Mike Cameron has another 20-20 season. They're all relatively modest wishes, with what would likely be Piazza's final monster season the biggest stretch. I'm just going to have to take it day by day with them.

5. Expos. Like so many other things in the game Bud Selig has helped ruin -- perhaps irreparably -- a franchise that wasn't that strong to begin with. The Expos have always developed superstar players (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Vlad Guererro) and been unable to keep them. But now with this farsical setup with the team "owned" by the other 29 owners and run by MLB, GM Omar Minaya's hands are tied. They may have their streaks, they may challenge for five months as they did last year, but they simply don't have the pitching or the depth or the ability to get players they need to make a serious run. While not as strong as the AL East and not as top-heavy as the NL Central, the NL East could prove to be baseball's most competitive -- or at least compact -- division from top to bottom.


1. Cubs. I'm sticking with this prediction despite the loss of Mark Prior for the first month -- at least. Those three or four starts he'll miss could mean the difference between first and second place in this division. It did last year, when the Cubs beat the Astros by one game. If Prior is able to return the first week of May as the Cubs are saying, and they don't lose Sammy Sosa for a month with injuries and suspensions, they should be able to keep pace with Houston. In this division, second place should still mean new life in the postseason.

2. Astros. Wild card. It's not the most outrageous pick. In fact, it's essentially the safe pick. Cubs, one; Astros, two. That's the consensus. Houston's rotation is superb down to the No. 4 starter -- in this case, Wade Miller -- as are those in Oakland and the north side of Chicago. They'll fill it out with Tim Redding, who's still early in his career and could develop into more than just the guy who followed Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Miller. For the Astros, it's now or never. Clemens has a one-year contract and may actually retire after this one. The lineup's heart of Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell is aging. If they don't finally win that first postseason series this fall, it may be a few years before they put the pieces together to try again.

3. Cardinals. Outstanding lineup. In Albert Pujols, they have the best hitter in the division, perhaps in the league depending on where you fall on the Barry Bonds debate. In 15 years, we'll be talking about which records he's going to break, and when. But in a game where pitching wins championships, as they say, the Cardinals are stuck in a division with perhaps the two best staffs in the game. Like the third-place teams in the AL East and West, they may be good enough to win in another division, but not in their own.

4. Reds. You can open up your newspaper in a month or so and draw a line -- in marker -- beneath the third-place team in the NL Central and the fourth place team. Above the line will be the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals; below it the Reds, Pirates and Brewers. That's how they'll stay. Teams will move around among the top three or the bottom three, but that's essentially how it will end up. So it will come down to whether the Reds can stay healthy enough and find enough pitching to live up to the potential for their 100-homer outfield of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey and Austin Kearns.

5. Pirates. This battle will be more than the Pierogies vs. the Sausages in the middle of the fifth. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee could be battling it out for the top pick in the 2005 amateur draft. Both of these teams could lose 100 games. I'll go so far as to say that one of them definitely will, and looking at where I've placed the two in relation to one another, you can see which one I think it will be. Both have some hope for the future, however. Pittsburgh started Kip Wells on Opening Day and he beat the Phillies. Once it's clear that Kris Benson is back from his injuries, he'll be traded for prospects, as will Jason Kendall. They brought in a few decent players in deals last year -- particularly outfielder Jason Bay and starter Oliver Perez -- and have a trio of strong young arms (John VanBenschoten, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington) who should make it to PNC Park in another year or two. Tike Redman and Craig Wilson will provide some speed and power and hope for the future this year. But hope may be the best thing they have going for them for a while.

6. Brewers. The only team run more poorly may be Montreal, and is it a coincidence that those are the two teams in which Bud Selig has some control? Doubtful. But like the Pirates, Milwaukee has some great prospects on the cusp of the big leagues. By September 2005, you'll have an infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Wes Helms from first around to third. Once they sprinkle in some pitching to help Ben Sheets and get some outfielders to mash with Geoff Jenkins, they'll be able to cross over that line we've drawn in the division.


1. Diamondbacks. This is the toughest division to forecast. I've gone and changed what I originally had, though I really think any of these five could finish anywhere in the division, with the exception of the Rockies in first and the Giants in last. So I'm going with Arizona here, on the strength of a healthy Randy Johnson, an experienced Brandon Webb and an capable lineup infused with the youth of Richie Sexson and Alex Cintron to compliment the experience (and age) of Steve Finley, Roberto Alomar and Luis Gonzalez. But perhaps more than any other team in contention, the Diamondbacks need to avoid DL time by its stars. They can't afford to go two weeks without a start from the Big Unit, or to lose Luis Gonzalez and his injured elbow to season-ending surgery. If either of those happen, they're done, making this a very risky pick.

2. Padres. San Diego is the sexy pick this year. A new ballpark, a full season of Brian Giles and Phil Nevin. A healthy Ryan Klesko and Trevor Hoffman. A new centerfielder (Jay Payton), a new catcher (Ramon Hernandez) and a new shortstop (Khalil Greene). But everyone's looking to David Wells to bring his experience and ability to his hometown and the front of the rotation. It may all be too much to ask of a group that has a wide range of youth and veterans who will be learning to play together. What could really hurt them is if Petco Park and its 411-foot alley in right-centerfield saps them of two of their biggest power sources -- the lefthanded-hitting Klesko and Giles. The early signs (from layout and makeup) point to a pitchers' park for a learning staff that could use it and a few key lefty hitters who can't let it get to their heads.

3. Giants. Barry Bonds certainly doesn't need much of a supporting cast to make a huge impact on a game, but a thin starting rotation and a bullpen that -- again -- has to deal with the question of whether or not Robb Nen will ever pitch again could prove to be their downfall. I wish Bonds could be a bit more fan-friendly so that I could enjoy the history he's making, but all it does when I hear him speak or I read his comments is send a snarl across my face. I can believe that he's never touched steroids, but I can't convince myself that he's completely clean.

4. Dodgers. Jeff Weaver's back home and he'll eventually become the pitcher everyone expected him to be in Detroit. Dodger Stadium certainly won't hurt, either. They've also got Milton Bradley in centerfield and in the lineup, though there are more offensive needs to fill in Chavez Ravine. Odalis Perez and Eric Gagne can't do it all, and whether Hideo Nomo can do any of it will be a lingering question.

5. Rockies. As always, they'll win at home and they'll win the 12-9 games. But those 3-1 games on the road will be infrequent. The only thing you need to know about this team is Shawn Estes was the Opening Day starter. All the Todd Helton, Preston Wilson and Jeromy Burnitz homers from now to September will not be enough to help a rotation that starts with Estes and goes downhill from there.


1. Red Sox. I just had to do it. I would've done so without hesitation before the Alex Rodriguez trade, but I still feel like taking that chance. The starting pitching looks better than the Yankees' and the back of the bullpen looks just as good. The lineup featured several career years in 2003, but Manny Ramirez is the second-best hitter in the division behind A-Rod and with the exception of the Yankees clear advantages at third base, right field and first base, Boston's starters can match New York's. Missing Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon for the first month will probably hurt this team more than anyone in New England wants to acknowledge right now, but if they can reach Memorial Day within two games of the Yankees, it's going to be one hell of a summer.

2. Yankees. Wild card. Some of the really bold picks are leaving the Yankees out of it entirely, giving the wild card to whichever AL West team among Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland doesn't win the division. A few are even saying Toronto can sneak in here. It won't happen. The Yankees will probably win the division with the Red Sox taking the wild card. I'll admit that one of those other teams could beat out the Red Sox, but I'm tossing all those hunches aside. My official call is as you see it here. I also suspect you'll see Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams on the DL at some point, along with one of their other major offensive cogs: Jorge Posada, Gary Sheffield and Derek Jeter. Hideki Matsui will improve upon last year's numbers and Enrique Wilson will not play second base all season. Kevin Brown will likely break down again and Javier Vazquez will be one of two things: a 20-game winner who sails through the season, or a 17-game winner who struggles at times with the New York expectations and spotlight. Of course, right now, five games in, it's Mike Mussina who's got the question marks surrounding him.

3. Orioles. They've got a great lineup for a hitters' park and probably not enough pitching to warrant any talk of a postseason run. But they should improve upon last year's record and they very well could flirt with .500. But is Sidney Ponson really a No. 1 pitcher? Will any of the other four starters make a name for himself by the time the season's finished? Will Jorge Julio close out the games they should win? Third may be too high.

4. Blue Jays. Actually, I think the Blue Jays and Orioles could tie for third in the division. Another good, young lineup here, but they've got the returning Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay and the division's only lefty starter north of Eutaw Street (that's in Baltimore) in Ted Lilly (that will count for something ... until the Yankees trade for Randy Johnson). What they don't have is any semblance of a decent bullpen. They're not even sure who the closer is because their first choice, Aquilino Lopez, couldn't keep his ERA under 10.00 this spring.

5. Devil Rays. They've got some of the best exciting young hitters in Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, but their No. 2 starter is Jeremi Gonzalez. Even if Tampa Bay manages to win 70 games for the first time in franchise history, they still won't get a bigger crowd than they had this week with the Yankees in town, and they still won't find themselves anywhere but the only position they've known since their inception: The basement of the AL East.


1. Royals. Here's my reasoning, despite the questions about their rotation, their bullpen and whether they can improve upon last year's unbelievable run: They had Garth Brooks in spring training. Look at Garth's previous stops: 1998 with the Padres, 1999 with the Padres, 2000 with the Mets. Those '98 Padres and 2000 Mets went to the World Series (and lost. To the Yankees). While that can't happen here -- either K.C. will make it to the Series and lose to someone else, or they'll lose in the playoffs to New York -- 88 games may be enough to win baseball's weakest division. While four out of the five teams in the NL West have a shot at the division title, it's a race among three here. By September, it will be down to two.

2. Twins. Losing Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins from the back of the bullpen will hurt them. But they're a young team that can hit and they've got what is probably the division's best rotation. Any bullpen shortcomings will be exposed in the postseason (if they're not addressed before then), but they've got enough to challenge Kansas City and Chicago for that chance.

3. White Sox. It would be worth rooting for the White Sox just to see how Chicago reacts with both teams in the postseason. Then imagine if three of the final four teams left in the playoffs are the White Sox, Red Sox and Cubs. The prospect of an All-El World Series or a Break the Curse World Series would have the Second City in a frenzy. The White Sox, too, can hit. And they've got some horses to get them through the first seven innings every couple of days, beginning with Esteban Loiaza and Mark Buerhle. But Billy Koch and Damaso Marte need to get the outs in the eighth and ninth or they've got no chance.

4. Indians. Still rebuilding, with some great hitters in Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Jody Gerut and Victor Martinez. Someday, someone else will play shortstop in Cleveland. C.C. Sabathia will win a lot of games, but for this season, he might be the only starter with a winning record.

5. Tigers. Three days in and they're 3-0. It took them 25 games to pick up their third win last year. Yes, Detroit is clearly improved, and who knows -- they may have a chance to fight Cleveland for fourth place. But they've got too far to go and too thin a farm system to expect anything close to contention for a once-proud franchise. Sparky Anderson will be turning in his grave. You know, when he dies a few years down the line.


1. Angels. I'm not sure who to pick here, either. It's going to be a great race, that's clear. Anaheim made the biggest strides, adding to a team that didn't lose much from its World Champion squad of 2002. With new pieces like Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar to go with what is likely the best bullpen in the game, they've got to be considered a postseason threat -- not just to get there, but to win there too. And this time, they could do it as a division champion.

2. Athletics. As long as they have Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, they have a chance. Mark Redman and Rich Harden aren't bad for the fourth and fifth spots, either. Their bullpen is solid, but many question whether Arthur Rhodes can truly be a closer. Over the years they've seen the likes of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Miguel Tejada walk away. They're counting on their discount shopping and their astute scouting and drafting (hello Bobby Crosby) to keep them in it. Don't count them out.

3. Mariners. Seattle's biggest detriment is its age. John Olerud, Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer aren't getting -- or playing -- any younger. Bret Boone will be a free agent, Ichiro's leaving 30 behind and they'll get nothing offensively from their catcher. But they've been in the hunt for several years now, and until those old parts decide to retire, they'll have the components to make the AL West a wild -- and enjoyable -- spectacle.

4. Rangers. What's there to say? This team could be battling Pittsburgh and Milwaukee for that No. 1 pick and the race to avoid 100 losses. Alfonso Soriano isn't A-Rod, and A-Rod couldn't help this team. Soriano might not even be around by the time the season ends, because Texas can fill more holes with the prospects he could bring back in a trade than they can with what they've got. Until that happens, though, it'll be a superb infield with Mark Teixeira, Soriano, Michael Young and Hank Blalock. If they were playing Wiffle Ball, they might have a chance with four fielders and the fences just beyond the end of the infield dirt. But they've got no pitching to speak of and no outfielders that stand out. It will be another long, hot summer in Texas.