After a winter short on baseball and long on thundersnow, it’s uplifting to know that warm sunshine, chirping birds, tax refunds and the greatest sport of all are just around the bend.
So in celebration of the season to come and in anticipation of the boundless glories it will provide, here are five reasons the 2011 campaign could be a classic …
1. Pennant races. Lots of them.
Peruse baseball’s six divisions and what certainties do you find? The Rangers will almost certainly win the AL West, and the Red Sox, despite the strength of the AL East, must be considered strong favorites. Elsewhere, it’s all a pleasing jumble.
The NL West? The Giants, proud holders of belt and title, figure to receive a stiff challenge from the Rockies, who are larded with top-end talent like Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez. In the NL Central, the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and even the Cubs have legitimate designs on the flag. In the NL East, there’s the perception that Philly will shove everyone else’s face in the mud, but the Braves are not to be dismissed so readily. The Phillies will have issues on offense, and that’s especially the case given the injury concerns of Chase Utley (their best position player) and gifted pup Domonic Brown. The Braves, meanwhile, will score more runs than the Phillies, and the Atlanta rotation, while obviously not as good as Philly’s, is still a strength. Seriously: It’s quite possible Atlanta is the best team in the NL.
Over in the junior circuit, the Central figures to provide its own game of Twister. Call the White Sox the "on paper" favorites, but the reigning-champ Twins will certainly be heard from. And the Tigers, so long as Miguel Cabrera reins in his basest urges, are also good enough to win the division. The Central has a nifty habit of providing photo finishes in recent years, and 2011 figures to be no exception. All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the wild-card races, which have a history of riveting final acts.
If white-hot stretch drives are your thing, then the upcoming season might just meet and surpass those standards.
2. The Phour Aces (The PhAces?)
Not sure if news of this still-developing story has reached you, but the Phillies figure to have a good rotation in 2011. Roy Halladay may be the best righthander in the game today, and Cliff Lee may be the top lefthander. Roy Oswalt is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.76 ERA and will end his career as one of the 100 greatest pitchers of all-time. Fourth-man Cole Hamels? He was the ace of the 2008 Phillies squad that won the World Series. As you may have surmised, the ’11 Phils figure to have one of the best rotations in the history of ever.
Can they make history? Wins are not a useful way to evaluate pitchers, but baseball is humming about the possibility that the Phils will yield four 20-game winners this season. Likely? Of course not. In fact, just two teams — the 1920 White Sox and the 1971 Orioles — have pulled off this feat. Wins have as much to do with run support and bullpen caretaking as they do excellence on the part of the starting pitcher, so the PhAces (and every other pitcher on the planet) necessarily have limited control over such matters. As mentioned above, the Phils could struggle offensively, so the run support simply may not be there for everyone not named Roy Halladay. Still, given the quality of the Philly rotation and the dubious nature of the lineup, baseball fans could be treated to a lot of final scores in the 2-1 range. That’s connoisseur’s baseball, and that’s a good thing. Even if you’re not a Phillies fan, this rotation will be something to behold, savor, appreciate and all that.
3. A bevy of milestones.
Each season brings with it a new round of records that totter and fall and exclusive clubs that administer final rites of initiation and distribute jacket patches. The 2011 hootenanny figures to be no exception. Safe bets on this front? Derek Jeter and 3,000 hits (needs 74 more); Jim Thome and 600 home runs (needs 11 more); and Alex Rodriguez and fifth place on the all-time bombs ledger (needs 18 more).
Not quite as likely is Mariano Rivera and 600 saves (needs 41 more), and even more difficult will be Jim Leyland and 1,500 wins (needs 94 more). Elsewhere, the luminous Ichiro might break the record he shares with Ty Cobb and Pete Rose for most times leading the majors in hits. As for Matt Stairs’ ballyhooed assault on history, we await the jury’s decision with bated breath …
Possible bonus: An Albert Pujols Triple Crown?
4. A seven-game World Series?
It’s bound to happen at some point, right? Since 2002 baseball fans have been deprived of their birthright, for which multitudes have died — a World Series that goes the full, fat, pulsating seven games. By force of simple mathematics, you’d expect a Game 7 an average of every four years or so, but the current drought has been twice that span. Not fair! In fact, not since 1923 have baseball fans been criminally deprived of such drama for this many consecutive seasons (a long-ago span that included a few of those weirdo best-of-9 affairs). We’ll have another Game 7 at some point, but, oh, late October of this year would be most preferable …
5. Baseball’s new "it" rivalry.
Those august feuds like Yanks-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants are thankfully still with us, but baseball also has a proud tradition of ad-hoc rivalries that temporarily raise our hackles for one reason or another.
In the 1970s, it was Reds-Dodgers. In the 1980s, it was Cardinals-Mets. In the 90s, it was Braves-Mets, and in the aughts, it was Phillies-Mets. (As you can see, most often this sort of thing entails some sort of affront suffered or perpetrated by the Mets.)
These days, however, the Rays-Red Sox is the upward-trending slap-fight of note. It helps that these are two very good teams in the same division. In 2011, it helps that the rivalry has become decidedly incestuous. Critical to Boston’s success in ’11 will be Carl Crawford, former Rays franchise icon and perhaps the haul of the offseason. Helping TB’s cause will be Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, two baseball-ists central to the Sox’s stirring journey from "blighted vice of frowning New England Calvinists" to "your frat bro’s favorite sports corporation."
Without question, the Sox are hefty favorites to win the AL East, but the Rays — despite a garbage barge of offseason losses (non-exhaustive list: Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, almost the entire bullpen) — can and will challenge. Over the last three seasons (and counting the 2008 ALCS), the Rays are seven games over .500 against the Sox, so there’s that. There are also, of course, David vs. Goliath elements to the story, divisional hostilities and the unbalanced schedule. Not particularly invested in either team? There should still be enough narrative elements to keep you involved. Viva la irrational sports hatred!