The best thing about the upcoming baseball season is that, if you’ve been listening closely, the worst news to rock baseball since the start of spring training has been ... nothing. Baseball has no labor storm clouds like the NFL, few disagreements about how to police the game like the NHL, and no scandals dominating the headlines like golf's Tiger Woods saga.
Baseball is actually enjoying good news for a change. The buzz this spring is about rising stars, not disgraced stars limping into camp for mea culpa press conferences about steroids. The big discussions are about on-field issues, like whether anyone can finally knock off the Phillies and Yankees, or when is the last time so many ace pitchers changed addresses in the same year?
At last, baseball has gotten back to the point where the game is the thing.
The most exciting talk this spring training has been about newcomers. Does Braves rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward really deserve to be called the second coming of Albert Pujols or Hank Aaron, just two of the comparisons that have been tossed around about the 20-year-old slugger who split time between Double and Triple A last year?
How long before Nationals flamethrower Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick who has been regularly clocked at 101 mph in spring training, is called up from the minors?
How about the Reds, a normally conservative team, dropping $30 million for 22-year-old Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, another rookie who also throws 100 mph?
Though last year’s pennant winners, the Phillies and Yankees, are loaded again, some small-to-mid-market teams are conceding nothing. The Twins coughed up an eight-year, $184 million contract and no-trade clause to keep homegrown catcher Joe Mauer in the new ballpark they'll open this spring. Seattle aggressively brought in Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins to compete against the Angels and promising Rangers in the AL West.
There’s been a lot of debate, too, about who has the deepest pitching rotation in baseball. The Red Sox? Angels? Yankees? Who is the best one-two punch: Seattle's Felix Rodriguez and Cliff Lee? How about the Phillies’ Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels? The Red Sox have Jon Lester, John Lackey and Josh Beckett. (Wait. That’s three stars. Told you Boston is good.) What about Adam Wainwright and Cris Carpenter in St. Louis?
And speaking of St. Louis, can anybody beat them in the NL Central now that they’ve spent some big money, too, and brought back Matt Holiday to hit behind Albert Pujols?
The Phillies, clearly not satisfied with two World Series runner-up finishes, added Halladay and Placido Polanco this offseason and now look like the most balanced team in all of baseball, not just the NL East.
Colorado is a popular pick to knock off L.A. in the NL West, and Atlanta could make a run at the NL wild card if the lefthanded-hitting Heyward is great in what’s supposed to be manager Bobby Cox’s last season. But let’s check back after the 68-year-old Cox — one of baseball’s great lifers — gets a 162-game look at 6-foot-4, 245-pound Heyward. Heyward’s car-denting 500-foot home run blasts early in spring training sparked a lot of excitement, which still hasn't gone away.
Heyward’s selectivity at the plate has left people comparing him to Pujols. He hits the ball so hard the sound of the ball screaming off his bat has been compared by Cox to Aaron. “It just sounds different,” pitcher Tim Hudson agreed. After Heyward failed to reach base Saturday for the first time in spring training — a stretch of 13 games in which he hit .387 – Cox shrugged about Heyward’s 0-for-4 day and said, “Well, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron did it [too].”
Mantle? Mays? So much for bringing the kid along slowly.
Even Heyward’s nickname — J-Hey — bears a resemblance to Mays’ old handle, the Say Hey kid.
The American League races should be riveting as well. Will the world champion Yankees miss Johnny Damon’s craftiness and Hideki Matsui’s clutch hitting even though they added Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson? Can Tampa Bay rise again?
Will Boston’s emphasis on great pitching and defense ensure they finish behind the Yankees in the regular season, but actually make the Red Sox more dangerous if they can just get to the short-series format of the playoffs?
There have been some blips of downbeat news this spring, to be sure. Manny Ramirez spoke about how this will be his curtain call season with the Dodgers, and he’s probably right.
The Twins have to overcome the loss of closer Joe Nathan to elbow trouble.
In San Francisco, nobody quite knows why undersized Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum has suddenly lost a few miles per hour off his pitches, but it’s hauntingly familiar to the whispers that followed Johan Santana from the Twins to the Mets. Sure enough, Santana finally needed arm surgery this winter.
The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez will talk to federal investigators about visits he made to Toronto doctor Anthony Galea, who is being investigated for allegedly selling HGH. And yet, it doesn’t at all compare to last spring’s bombshells that A-Rod, then Manny Ramirez, then David Ortiz had all tested positive in previous seasons for performance enhancing drugs. The same goes for new St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire’s long-expected admission of steroid use. We get it by now: Mistakes were made. Enormous lies were told. We’re sick of it and finally ready to move on to something else.
Luckily enough, there are enough fascinating storylines in baseball this season to make you want to tune in for a change, instead of tuning out.