Sunday, April 03, 2005

Let's play ball!

I had no idea when I started this blog just a few days ago that my first few posts would be so serious. But the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II were simply too enormous to ignore, and those two stories have very much captured the attention of anyone who pays attention to what's going on in the world. In the next few days, I intend to turn to other serious topics, including the continuing cosmic disturbance that is the presidency of George W. Bush, but, for now, let's leave aside the gravitas of life and death and the meaning of the human condition for a most happy occasion: the start of the baseball season.

Which is tonight, in fact, with a truly inspired Sunday-night opener: Yankees-Red Sox. The blood-feud resumes.

It's funny, though. There are so many reasons to dislike baseball (MLB, that is), especially for this (former) Expos fan:
  • Payroll inequality: The Yankees start the year at over US$200 million, while the Blue Jays, now the sole recipient of my unconditional loyalty, have virtually no chance of competing with them (or the Red Sox) in the AL East, even with ownership's -- i.e., Ted Rogers's -- commitment of significantly more money over the next three years. The NHL has faced the same problem, with high-priced free agents more or less limited to a few major-market teams (Rangers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, etc.), but at least hockey is one of those sports where small-market, low-payroll teams with good chemistry and balanced line-ups can prevail (Flames, Lightning, etc.). This is what truly recommends the NFL (and, to a lesser extent, the NBA). It's not the case that each NFL team enters the season with an equal shot at a Super Bowl, but, owing to a rigid salary cap, the NFL is a league of real competitive balance, which means that teams can re-tool quickly and small-market teams (Packers, Panthers, etc.) are at no significant disadvantage.
  • Franchise relocations: Yes, my beloved Expos are now -- gasp! -- the Washington Nationals. I remember the hey-days of Montreal baseball, when Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach, Warren Cromartie, and so many other great players excited huge Big O crowds and made the Expos a perennial contender in the NL East. I remember what it was like to sit in those crowded stands as a boy and root for my home-town team with the unbridled optimism of youth. I remember going to one of the Expos-Phillies playoff games in strike-shortened 1981. I remember the disaster of that same year: Rick Monday's home run off Steve Rogers to send the Dodgers to the World Series against the Yankees. I remember the incredible Expos team of strike-shortened 1994 -- the Expos led the formidable Braves by six games (with less than half the payroll) in the NL East and had the best record in all of baseball before the most pointless strike in the history of strikes ended the season and forever destroyed baseball in Montreal. And now? Now the stands in D.C. will be filled by inside-the-Beltway politicos and wannabes, many with little or no real interest in baseball or its history. It'll be the trendy thing to do in a city that rides the waves of trendiness down the river of popularity. So I bid farewell to my beloved Expos and turn my full attention to the Blue Jays -- even without Carlos Delgado, they'll be an exciting team with a lot of promise this year, and they deserve greater support in this city (alas, also prone to self-important trend-surfing).
  • The steroid scandal: So much for the integrity of baseball. I have little to add on this topic, but it's obvious that baseball needs to clean up its act. And soon. But here's a question: Who the hell is Alex Sanchez -- and why is he taking steroids?

Despite all this, we could be in for a great season, much like last year, with at least most divisions competitive and good wild-card races in both leagues. It's tough to pick against the Yankees in the AL, and I'll go with the Cardinals again in the NL (but challenged by the Braves, who may have their best team in years). As for the Jays, a .500 season would be nice, and I, at least, am looking forward to many warm summer evenings down at Skydome (I just can't bring myself to call it the Rogers Centre yet).

This is a great time of year. Coming out of a long winter filled with the usual discontent, there's nothing in sports that beats the start of the baseball season. (Watch Bull Durham if you want to see why.) As I've said before, it's the truly beautiful game.

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