Note: Mark Starr is on leave. His column will return in January, 2009
I'm not comfortable with the modern grading system—I don't like to dispatch 'A's too readily. But this baseball season, with four down-to-the-wire division races and one tight wild-card fray, has, at the very least, been a solid A-. Major League Baseball has once again proved as adept as the NFL in creating new winners and losers every season. And if in the rise-and-fall category, there were more examples of the latter—New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres—but the most dramatic and surprising entry is certainly one of the former: the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays, whose rise is more akin to a resurrection.
Moreover, at the risk of playing the naïf (hardly the first time), it seems we have moved into the post-steroids or at least post-something era. Whatever players may be on today doesn't appear to have warped the game in the same fashion that steroids and other performance-enhancers of recent vintage did. I haven't missed the prodigious feats and age-defying performances of Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens one iota and have found comfort in a game that bears some resemblance to that of my youth.
Here's my take on the highlights, lowlights and interesting trends of the 2008 season (along with my fervent hope that the best still awaits us).
What the Devil: Unless the Cubbies break their century-long championship drought—rather than, once again, their fans' hearts—the Rays are the story of this season. The ascension of Tampa Bay— a franchise that has never even had a winning season—to the top of baseball's toughest division, is beyond something of a miracle, a reminder that this game is always about pitching. A lot of folks doubted the Rays, when they traded Delmon Young, regarded as an elite, young, offensive talent, to the Minnesota Twins, for a promising but unproven starting pitcher, Matt Garza. But Garza and the rest of the Tampa rotation all came of age this season and a laughingstock bullpen was suddenly lights out. On a personal note, I recently sat through 14 innings at Fenway Park in what likely was the pivotal game of the division race. Despite my hard-wired Red Sox loyalties, I walked away at 1 a.m. following the loss saying, "This isn't like the Yankees. I didn't mind losing to Tampa."
Dynasty ' s End: Lucky for the Yankees that the long goodbye to the stadium ultimately overshadowed the team because Yankee fans also said goodbye to the longest current post-season streak—13 seasons, since 1995 when the playoffs expanded to eight teams. The biggest payroll in baseball was a bust. There was an obvious problem with putting too much faith in young pitchers—Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy were overmatched and Joba Chamberlain didn't appear in shape for his new load as a starter—and an old catcher, Jorge Posada, who broke down as old catchers are wont to do. In fact, the Yankees showed their age all over the field, notably at shortstop. But nothing can take away from Derek Jeter's storied career in pinstripes, which is more than can be said for A-Rod's. Alex Rodriguez once again established himself as the best rotisserie player in the game, but absolutely the last Yankee player New York fans want coming to the plate in a critical situation. By now, most Yankee fans wish he had left the team when he said he would, instead of just leaving his wife. Still, the failures can't all be blamed on the curse of A-Rod. This Yankee team simply didn't resemble the classy, savvy, hustling baseball aggregate that its predecessors have been. And it may take more than a few big-buck, free-agent signings to right the franchise.
The Magic Number is 40: You have to go back to the 1992 season to find a player winning a league home-run crown with fewer than 40 round-trippers. In fact, in the previous 13 seasons, there were only two years in which no player hit at least 50 home runs. But the Phillies' Ryan Howard may be the only slugger to reach 40 and the American League leader will wind up hitting 30-something (though the young White Sox star Carlos Quentin likely would have topped 40 had he not punched a wall). You can provide whatever explanation pleases you for the dip, but suffice it to say it seems a healthy trend. There are other historic implications if it continues: With A-Rod's home-run total in the mid-30s this season rather than last year's mid-50s, his pursuit of Barry Bonds career home-run mark seems far less of a sure thing. He would have to continue his 2008 output for six more seasons, or until he was 39, to catch the non-retired, unemployed Bonds.
The Magic Number is 20: For the first time since 2005, both leagues can boast 20-game winners. Success on the mound can be fleeting. Back in 2005, the two pitchers who topped the league were Dontrelle Willis and Bartolo Colon. This year Colon won just four games and was suspended when he quit the Red Sox in the final weeks. Willis' ERA was above 10 and he didn't win a single game with Detroit, landing the big lefty, at age 26, back in single A ball. All sports can be cruel, but baseball leads the way when it comes to rendering such indignities. As for this year's winners, Arizona's Brandon Webb was a predictable standout. But how about Cleveland's Cliff Lee at 22-3, a lefty with a reverse Dontrelle story? He showed flashes a few seasons back. But in 2007, with a playoff-bound Indians team, Lee won just five games and spent much of the season in the minors; last year's sigh is this year's Cy Young winner.
Rivalry: The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has been the best and most intense in all American sports. But much of the passion was sustained by Red Sox envy and the smug superiority of Yankee fans. With the Red Sox having broken through in 2004—and in such historic fashion at New York's expense—and with the roles, at least for now, seemingly reversed, the rivalry has lost some luster and edge. Even the "Yankees Suck!" chants that still filter down Fenway stands seem more reflexive than heartfelt. The best New York baseball rivalry is now Mets-Phillies.
Chokes: I'm rooting for the Cubs to join the Red Sox in shedding that loser mantle. Despite almost a decade living in Chicago back in the '70s, I never really got on the Cubbies' bandwagon. There was too much frivolity at Wrigley Field for an East Coast guy. The Cubs fans rooted, but didn't seem to care enough. Any day at Wrigley—especially back when it was only days at Wrigley—was a good day win or lose. Only with the tragic events that are now known collectively as "Bartman!" did the raw anger beneath the surface finally show its ugly face. And I was aboard. Besides, there are other teams that have shown enough of the wrong stuff to take on a modern-day curse. If another Mets' late-season stumble—is there anything worse for fans to endure than a lousy bullpen?—lands the team short of the playoffs, the psychic toll will be mammoth. Even if New York does make it to the post-season, it will likely be thanks to an even bigger collapse by Milwaukee. (The curse of Bud Selig?) Meanwhile, how do you say goodbye to a stadium like Shea? Perhaps with a brief prayer: "Thank God."
Manny being Manny: Manny Ramirez may achieve a singular distinction this season, delivering division titles for two different teams. For the L.A. Dodgers, the presence of his big bat carried the team from sub .500 to the top of the N.L. West. For the Red Sox, it was his absence—the end to all those silly distractions—that settled down a team on the verge of self-destruction. Red Sox fans, who had watched Manny being Manny for eight seasons with both bemusement and dismay, saw Ramirez's L.A. revival as confirmation that he was dogging it in Boston. It will be interesting to see what team will ante up big bucks for Manny next year, risking the good, bad and the ugly that comes with Ramirez over the long term. Manny's biggest gift to L.A. may ultimately be to the Angels. Absent Manny (even with Jason Bay doing a fair impersonation in Boston) and with injuries to J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell, the Red Sox lineup may be too enfeebled to challenge the Angels for A.L. supremacy. And these days A.L. supremacy almost always means a world championship.
Dodgers Free-Agent Signings: The Manny deal worked out wonderfully and cost L.A. nada. Still the Dodgers' front office hasn't exactly distinguished itself. Last year L.A. signed Jason Schmidt away from its rival Giants at the steep price of $47 million dollars over three years, a coup that so far has netted the Dodgers four wins. Hard to believe they could top that (or bottom that) with a worse signing. But this year it was Andruw Jones for two years at $36.2 million. In more than 200 at bats, Jones hit a mind-boggling.158 with three home runs and 14 RBIs. They will have to invent something far beneath the Mendoza line for numbers like that.
DH dip: One reason always given for the superiority of the junior circuit is the DH—and all those big, often aging, sluggers A.L. teams can stash in their lineups. But once again without speculating as to why, big and aging sluggers at the DH position haven't fared as well as they did in the past. Hitters like Gary Sheffield, David Ortiz, and Travis Hafner were all sidelined with injuries and had sub-par seasons (though Sheffield is as feisty and mouthy as ever). Jim Thome, now 38, is one of few old sluggers who stayed reasonably healthy and productive, though his numbers are down too. (Among aging hitters, nobody fared better than Atlanta's Chipper Jones who hit a career-high .364; still, this is the fourth season in a row in which Jones has missed a substantial number of games due to injuries.)
Some Random Kudos (not including folks previously mentioned): Ichiro Suzuki for another 200-hit season; K-Rod for his saves record; Mike Mussina for a last shot at 20 after everyone said he was finished; Dustin Pedroia for playing the game with MVP pluck; Josh Hamilton for coming back from the very bottom; Kevin Youkilis for adding a big bat to his golden glove; Joe Mauer for another batting crown; Justin Morneau for what could be another MVP season; Daisuke Matsuzaka for "just wining baby"; Roy Halladay for all his complete games; Grady Sizemore for his 30-30 season; Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler for stellar setup in Tampa; Evan Longoria for his incredible promise; Joakim Soria for a standout season lost in K.C.; Ryan Dempster for proving he could be a front-line starter; Kerry Wood for surviving a season intact and in a new role; Tim Lincecum for dominating with such a sorry Giants team; Carlos Delgado for carrying the Mets down the stretch; Lance Berkman for keeping Houston alive long enough for the team to wake up; Rick Ankiel for continuing his unlikely revival; Albert Pujols for being a 100-RBI machine and a hitter of historic proportions; and Mariano Rivera for being the best ever at his role.
Replay: About time MLB got on board! Seems ridiculous, with all the technological advances, that the umpires (and by extension the fans in the ballpark) were the only ones who didn't know whether a critical home-run call was correct. I got tired of watching fans in the seats pull out cell phones to call others watching at home in an effort to find out what actually happened right in front of them. Kind of defeats the purpose of being in the ballpark. Getting home runs straight—12 years after Jeffrey Maier's famous fan turn in Yankee Stadium—is, as the umpires obviously fear, just a good start.