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The Madness Of King George

Without looking at the calendar, it must be January, and that’s not because the thermometer outside my kitchen window reads less than zero and has more than a few icicles dangling from the dial. I just have to glance in the direction of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who, as he has about this time every off-season, has extracted his big, fat, obnoxious wallet from the back of his trousers to dole out another $32 million for a player who, when his new extension kicks in, will be 42 years old. After all, it’s been over four years since he’s had a chance to parade a World Series championship trophy through the Canyon of Heroes and he’s getting restless. Never mind that, after last season, he was slapped with a $25 million competitive-balance tax (whom are we kidding?) from Major League Baseball after paying out $183 million to watch his team execute, arguably, the biggest choke ever in sports history.

Yet, even with the signing of Randy Johnson, no one seems to have broken into a sweat; it’s as if a tree fell in the woods and no one was around to hear the branches snap as it smacked the ground. The situation is almost in stark contract to last year when, after Boston failed in its efforts, New York snatched Alex Rodriguez and his big, fat, obnoxious contract from Texas and declared themselves the only ticket in town. How about in 2003, when they again out-muscled the Red Sox for the rights to Jose Contreras? Let’s not forget what happened following the last championship season in 2000, when the Yankees pulled out all the stops to land Mike Mussina, staying one step ahead of Boston’s attempt to sign the free-agent pitcher.

Even a diehard Red Sox fan like me, who loathes the success of the Yankees over the years while my team wallowed in despair, readily admits that the pinstriped clubs that won four out of five World Series titles in the latter part of the preceding decade were unbelievably dominant. 1998 was probably the height of success for that dynasty, as New York won 114 games and finished 22 games ahead of second-place Boston before blowing through Texas, Cleveland, and finally San Diego for title number twenty-four.

So why hasn’t that dominance continued? The biggest reason is that the teams from 1996 through 2001 were legitimate baseball teams, not fantasy-league wet dreams. Sure, they had All-Stars on every one of those teams – in fact, what Yankees team has not sent multiple players to the mid-summer classic? – but they were fluid on the field, as if every piece fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Now the philosophy is to go out and buy up all the All-Stars, but the chemistry just isn’t there. Yes, they are still winning in the regular season, with seven straight first-place finishes over Boston, but what have all these million-dollar babies done? How many championships have Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Rodriguez brought to New York? The answer: one less than the Red Sox won in that same time.

Still, Steinbrenner has learned nothing from this and continues to wear the cast from the Visa commercial to write check after check (that’s Johnson with no R’s). He’s banking on Curt Schilling’s teammate from the 2001 team that beat his Yankees in a seven-game classic to be the answer. He’s banking on Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to add to the answer. He’s banking on the idea that all those overpriced, lengthy contracts that he gave to three of the four infielders that will start on Opening Day will provide answers.

It’s not to say that the $200-million-plus that Steinbrenner will owe this season to his players will not reward him with a the title at the end of the season; the Yankees are still a force with whom to be reckoned and you can almost never, ever count them out of the equation. The parade route between the Battery and City Hall in New York may once again be filled with throngs of Yankee fans and ticker tape when all is said and done this season. At the moment, however, no one in the baseball world, least of all from the Red Sox organization, seems to be complaining too loudly that he is trying to buy a championship once again; instead, everyone just sits back and watches in amusement as his impatient and frustration swells, much like his payroll.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.