The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Playoffs! Who cares about the AL Playoffs? My Team is Out of It

The baseball playoffs are coming, and if you are like me and the team(s) you follow the most closely aren’t going to be playing, it might not seem as interesting to you as it probably is in other years. Well, it should be just as interesting, if not more so, and for lots of reasons. I’ll go team-by-team to give you some reasons – ones that you likely won’t find in your local paper – about why this year’s post-season could be the best ever. Granted, I’m writing this a week before anything starts, so I’m going to talk about some teams that aren’t going to make it, but you’ll get the idea anyway.

Today we’ll start with the Junior Circuit…

Minnesota Twins
If you haven’t been watching all year, unfortunately you won’t get to see the “Circle Me Bert” signs in the outfield, as the Twins local announcers lose out to the national broadcasts in the playoffs. You will though, at least you’re likely to, see all of the Nathan-Santana for president gear and signage in the stands at the Metrodome this October. This politicing at the ballpark was inspired by fellow blogger Batgirl. If you haven’t checked out Batgirl yet, you should. She is to blogging what Twins’ ace Johan Santana is to pitching – quite possibly the best thing out there, but something the bulk of the world simply doesn’t know about yet (check out Legovision).

If you live on the East Coast you may not have heard of Johan Santana yet, but you will soon. He’ll be starting a game or two in the first round against either the Yankees or the Red Sox and you’ll be made aware of his presence. Don’t sit too close to your television when he’s pitching, or you’re likely to find yourself ducking away from his nasty curve ball. Santana has essentially been dominant all year, and he’s been very nearly unhittable since the All-Star break. Northeasterns will likely want to give this year’s Cy Young Award to Curt Schilling, but if they do it’s only because they haven’t seen enough of Santana. There has not been a better pitcher in the game this year than Santana.

Oakland Athletics
You are probably well aware of this team by now. If you’re not, you still have some time to go out and read Moneyball. It was last year’s book of the year and a great insight into the inner workings of a major league baseball front office.

The A’s are a team to cheer for if only because they’re doing it all on a shoestring budget. The A’s have reached the post-season in each of the past four seasons (and amazingly, they have been eliminated in the first round each time). Somehow the A’s have been able to do this even though their total payroll for the past four years (adding each year – 2000 through 2003 together) totals to about as much as the Yankees payroll for 2004 alone.

For each of their post-season runs the A’s have been built around starting pitching. This year is no different as the A’s are again led by their big three of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. This year they’ve added youngster Rich Harden into the mix, and Harden has actually had the lowest ERA on the staff since the All-Star break. Throw Mark Redman, from last year’s World Champion Florida Marlins, into the mix, and you have what is far and away the best starting rotation in the American League.

Anaheim Angels
While they’re only tied for the last playoff spot right now, the Angels are hot and have been gaining ground on the A’s. One of these two teams will make the playoffs (unless the Rangers really put it together here at the end), and the other will be left to watch from home.

There are a lot of reasons to cheer for the Angels, even though they won the World Series as recently as 2002 and weren’t the subject of a best-selling book like the Athletics. First and foremost is their right-fielder. He’s likely one of the three or five best players in the game today, and he’s also likely someone that you haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen much of. There’s also probably no better place to become acquainted with this all-star than baseball’s post-season. Vladimir Guerrero toiled in cavernous Olympic Stadium with the Montreal Expos for the first part of his major league career. This obscured him from the spotlight, if for no other reason than that the majority of Expos games are not televised, even on satellite and cable pay-for packages. Now, in his first year with the Angels, Guerrero is not as well known as some other superstars because he plays on the West Coast and most of his team’s games take place after folks in the East have gone to bed (yes, I know most of our readers here are East Coasters, but I stay up late just to catch Guerrero – and that other guy who plays for the Northern-most National League team.

Guerrero is an un-assuming super-star. If you dig around and find some reading material about Vlad, you’ll surely come across the story about how he wore a pair of unmatched and different sized shoes in his work out for the Expos when he was a teenager. Despite this obstacle, Guerrero’s abilities shown through and he was quickly put on a path to major league stardom. You’ll also likely come across stories of how Guerrero makes room for his mother in his house so that he’ll have company and someone to cook for him. Stories also abound about how Guerrero is hesitant to learn English (or possibly to own up to how much he knows) so that the media will leave him alone. My favorite Vladimir Guerrero story though is about how he rarely, if ever, scouts opposing pitchers. People have said that at times Vlad doesn’t know who he’ll be facing that night until he steps into the on deck circle before his first at bat. Others claim that the only knowledge he has of pitchers throughout the league has been gleaned from clubhouse Playstation video-game sessions.

If Guerrero alone isn’t enough to get you to cheer for the Angels, then new owner Arte Moreno should be. Moreno is a self-made multi-millionaire, and the first minority owner in baseball. He built his fortune by selling billboards throughout the Southwest. This is no small feat when you consider how much of that business is controlled by major media conglomerates and not regular people. Still, that’s hard to relate to. What is much easier to relate to is that Moreno’s first actions as owner of the Angels last year were to lower the price of beer in the stadium, and to make team merchandise more affordable. These are two fan friendly actions that, as far as I know, are unprecedented in sports.

New York Yankees
No discussion about the American League playoffs can take place without discussing the Pinstripers. As universally loved as they are hated, the Yankees are both America’s team and America’s anti-team. They spend and spend and spend, which is either an indictment or praise. They win – or at least they always seem to. Crushing World Series defeats at the hands of the (expansion newcomer) Diamondbacks (2001) and Marlins (2003) resonate strongly (at opposite ends of the spectrum) with the club’s fans and haters.

If you’re already a Yankees fan, you probably don’t need much talking to. The same is true if you’re not a Yankees fan. Most baseball fans will find reason enough to watch Yankees playoff games in that they are either strongly rooting for against Steinbrenner’s men.

In case you haven’t been following closely, this year’s club is somewhat different from those of recent memory. The starting pitching is not great. Actually, that’s about the only change. The bullpen is strong as is the lineup. Some of the names are different, but the results aren’t. Come playoff time though, George Steinbrenner hopes (expects) the results to improve. Losing the World Series does not appear to be an option for this year’s Bronx Bombers.

Boston Red Sox
This year’s Wild Card “champions” are as much the same as you remember them from before, but very much different at the same time. Yes, they are running a close second to the Yankees, as is seemingly always the case. But this year they’ve upgraded their starting pitching and now have a solid number two (and possibly even a new ace) to go along-side Pedro Martinez in offseason acquisition Curt Schilling.

Another major storyline (other than the curse) which will follow the Red Sox throughout the post-season is how much of their team is due for free agency at the season’s end. Pedro Martinez and All-Star catcher Jason Varitek headline the list of potential free agents this offseason. While the Red Sox ownership has proven that they are willing to spend the money to field a championship level ballclub, the bulk of their ballclub could go and play elsewhere after the playoffs. Translation: this could be the last serious run for the Red Sox for a few years.

Tomorrow I’ll run down the National League contenders. Once the teams and the matchups are set, I’ll get into some predictions for those of you who are heading to Vegas and are mistakenly looking for input from me.


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