As the summer winds down, I’d like to take stock of the season so far, with a look at some of the biggest surprises and expectations. Let’s start with this year’s big surprise
• Without question, the biggest shocker is that the Texas Rangers are still in contention for the American League West crown, as well as for the wild card. As they play to a level unseen during the Alex Rodriguez era, the Rangers are proving that baseball teams reflect the sum of their parts, not a simple tally of individual ability.
Interestingly, Rodriguez’s stats (.289, 141 hits, 17 doubles, 32 home runs, 78 RBIs, 91 runs) are almost identical to those of the man for whom he was traded to New York, Alfonso Soriano (.282, 151 hits, 28 doubles, 24 homers, 79 RBIs, 67 runs). The Rangers’ team batting average is fractionally higher than that of the Yankees (.269 to .268), and their ERA is lower (4.48 to 4.59). Nobody in their right mind ever thought they’d be comparing Texas with New York as the season headed toward its final mont
• That the St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in the majors, five games better than next-best New York, is less surprising than the fact that nobody foresaw it. Pre-season observers were too distracted by St. Louis’ rivals in the National League Central Division, in particular the Cubs’ signing of pitcher Greg Maddux and Houston’s acquisition of pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Clemens has been spectacular (14-4, 3.08, 172 strikeouts) and is a legitimate contender for the Cy Young Award. Pettitte, unfortunately, has been dogged by injuries. And though Maddux has won 12 games, including his milestone 300th, he is now a six-inning pitcher. His 3.86 ERA is higher than the Cards’ team average (3.74). St. Louis, on the other hand, has three 30-home-run, 100-RBI guys in Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, as well as what is probably the most solid defence in baseball. And, in a move reminiscent of the Roadrunner turning on the afterburners to elude the pursuing coyote, the Cards’ acquisition of Larry Walker at the trade deadline effectively left Chicago in their dust.
• Atlanta was supposed to have passed its best-before date by now, but the Braves just won’t fade quietly into that dark night. With a 75-54 (.581) record, they dominate their division. For all their consistent failure in the post-season over the last decade, the Braves are dominant over the long haul. The ultimate irony would be for them to finally win another World Series.
The conventional wisdom is to favour the team with the best four-man rotation in a best-of-seven series. This made Atlanta a perennial favourite when they boasted pitchers Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in their prime. Now without a roster of Cy Young aces, maybe they’ll defy what passes for wisdom and add to a great legacy that has been unfairly tainted by the failure to amass championships.
And what of this season’s great expectations?
• Everyone thought that the Yankees would be in first, of course. Did you really think the Red Sox weren’t cursed? The AL East’s divisional theme song ought to be “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” Even with a pitching staff decimated by injury (Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina) and a former MVP who’s been on and off the bench all year due to illness (Jason Giambi), the Bronx Bombers are, well, the Bronx Bombers. Perhaps what drives them is that no team suffers greater consequences from losing. The Gotham press is omnipresent and cruel, the fans are uncompromising, and the owner’s slash-and-burn policy quickly sends underachievers packing.
• As predicted, age has finally ground Seattle and Arizona down to the bottom of their divisions. Both will have to succumb to rebuilding programs and the painfully slow process of reinventing themselves.
• Lastly, what of the expectation that a demoralized and homeless Expos franchise would play out its long farewell with less dignity than Cher? A year ago, when it first appeared certain they were bound to leave Montreal, the Expos at least had the opportunity to publish a retrospective yearbook and honour some of their best-loved alumni with bobble head dolls. The 2004 season, on the other hand, has been an anticlimax with no commemoration of glories past. Fitting, I suppose, that this last season coincides with the tenth anniversary of the star-crossed season when a players’ strike resulted in the cancellation of the World Series and the negation of Montreal’s best record in the majors. Would today’s situation be any different if a championship banner hung over Olympic Stadium? We can only sigh and speculate. Maybe . . .
Tod Hoffman is watching the 2004 Major League Baseball season from the stands of the “Big O” in Montreal. The Baseball Notebook appears every second Tuesday.