Hope everyone is doing well and is getting excited and totally scorched about baseball. I am so excited, in fact, that I have decided to write about it, in some detail. There are many reasons why I love baseball... baseball legends can come out of unexpected places, such as Albert Pujols, every pitcher's worst nightmare. How many 13th round picks would be given the chance, let alone define a generation, in every season they play? That's one of the best aspects of baseball, to expect the unexpected. You can see a team go from worst to first in the best division in baseball. If you are not paying attention, you can be harmed as an audience member... in fact, if you are not paying attention, you could miss one of the best reasons to watch the game: the diving catch, the jaw dropping stop at short, the double (or even triple) play, ending an inning. And of course, the home run, perhaps the most dramatic play in all of sports. There are plenty of reasons to love baseball, and I'll never fully understand why some people don't like it. Perhaps one of the reasons why they don't, is what I think is one of its main strengths: there's no clock. Who needs a clock when you are relaxing and enjoying being outside, enjoying a frosty cold one during the good months?
I remember vividly playing little league games during summers around my years of age 14 to 16. Thinking about that, makes me feel younger, as I was in high school during the early 90s, and had been practicing, collecting, watching and listening baseball. The characters in the nearby township that I met, spitting loogies onto the fence over and over (some even chewed tobacco), had been playing baseball for years (and I had played neighborhood kid ball with like 2 or 3 other people for years, sometimes just with a tennis ball so as not to hit cars driving by). I jumped right into the league though, and upped my saliva jettisoning techniques... our team oddly named the Green Rock Orioles (we of course wore plain orange and grey). This was not without trepidation, because some of the pitchers could hurl at about 70mph, and I had a lot of difficulty getting up to speed. In fact, I pretty much sucked at hitting for the most part, because I was so far behind in skills (and I was a late bloomer, I didn't stop growing until I was about 22, and some of those guys were nearly gam level at age 16). I really didn't like using metal bats, considering I only used my Pedro Guerrero edition Louisville Slugger (my favorite player at the time), so I had to learn to hit a little differently. I did get a new glove that I liked immensely, my Mizuno. The best thing that happened with that revered specialty item, was during a night game the catcher's father, (aka little league manager) threw me into center field without warning, after our normal CF got hurt. Normally I was the right fielder and I would always get very nervous any time the ball was hit in my direction. Well, on this one mosquito infested night down by the Green River, I had a ball rocketed into center field, and I ran as fast as my stubby little legs would carry me, facing away from the ball. You see, this one was going to bounce off the wall, it was hit on the seams. Unbelievably, to everyone including myself, I held up my glove at the last second while slightly turning around, lights in my eyes. And that f'r dropped right into my glove. I couldn't believe it, and had one of the best feelings anyone can have, matched only by me finally getting a double in my 3rd year of playing (which proved to be the last year I played baseball, I finally got a hit greater than a single!!)... and well, playing in a band has similar positive mental effects I must say. I love teamwork involving people with vastly different skills and styles of playing/living, working together on something that is more than the sum of the parts. Call it gestalt, or man stew, or what have you.
To backtrack even further, I first became a baseball fan in the early 80s, as both my parents liked baseball. My mother has been to countless stadiums, including Yankee stadium, the original Shea, and many more cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, San Fran, and more (I guess that's what happens when your grandfather is the manager of a sporting goods store). My father and his brother, my Uncle Marv, were both Cardinal fans and immense beer drinkers (both in shape and quantity consumed). I must admit, my dad liked both the Cardinals and the Cubs, having periodic business trips to both St. Louis and Chicago... I guess you could say he was a more casual fan than most. But it was one of the few things that our family could rely on year in and year out, even my brother liked baseball (he was always sort of on his own trip).
As a kid living in the boondocks, the main appeal of baseball was always the diversity of characters, and especially the 1980s Cardinals, who always played good ball. I collected the baseball cards, usually only saving the Cardinal players' cards. I watched baseball on the tv when it was on, and when it wasn't I'd listen to Jack Buck on a quadrophonic radio equipped with an 8 track player. I had a pretty vivid imagination, so it didn't really matter that I didn't always get to see the game. It was just fun to hear the stories from Mike Shannon and company, about the Whitey Herzogs, the Vince Colemans, the John Tudors, the Ozzie Smiths of the world. And of course, Willie McGee, who was my mom's favorite player (and probably mine too, although Ozzie gave him some staunch competition in fandom). I got to see a few games in person, barely controlling my excitement whenever that occasion rolled around. We would always have to get there on time too, because if you didn't you would miss Ozzie Smith's grand entrance to every game, the cartwheel backflip. Plus you'd never know when he'd make one of those plays...
Another thing was that living out in the country, rural areas could get rather boring for a kid without cable. So I'd always coax my younger brother out of the house to play some catch, or taking turns pitching or hitting. I'd try to throw a split finger fastball most of the time, and when we got hits we'd run around the makeshift bases set up for the game (sometimes to my dad's chagrin, he would hit metal objects with his mower). It would have been nice to have more kids in the neighborhood to join in the fun, but me and the bro always made it work, even if sometimes he was less than thrilled to have to play baseball again (I was sort of a bossy older brother, I guess that goes with the territory). Heck, I'd even get my sluggish dad out of the lazy boy every once in a while, him almost falling over a few times swinging the bat, but it was well worth it, because usually he only believed in chores or going fishing as father son activities. I was just glad that he got me that Louisville Slugger though, and we always had plenty of baseballs to go around, even after I'd lose them in the field across the street, on the other side of a fence and passing cars.
So this time of year is always pretty special to me, because baseball is back, and the winter is slowly receding into the background of time again, which is in and of itself a great thing. But to see the storylines return, the ridiculous awesomeness of the stew of man return, just makes this time of year amazing and full of anticipation. And there are plenty of stories to follow, as we have yet another Cardinal team to focus on, the 2010 version.
After getting swept last year in the first round of the playoffs, one of the words to describe what is probably going through many of the players minds is redemption. And it isn't just limited to the players from last year. We have two new players who are really trying to prove themselves, as their history looks rather inconsistent, to put it bluntly. Brad Penny joins the starting pitching corps, and well, he's just all over the place. A glimpse at his career reveals FIP levels ranging from very good middle of the rotation type (3.39, 3.59, 3.64, and 3.63 in 2001, '04, '05 and '07) to back end of the rotation type (4.52, 5.27 and 4.46 in 2002, '08 and '09). His strikeout to walk ratio can be found anywhere between 2.98 to 1.21, depending on what year he is pitching. In the tERA dept, we see Penny somewhere between 3.85 to 5.59 in just the last 3 seasons (although in 2004, we see him at 3.67 tERA with a 1.13 ground ball to fly ball ratio!). Good news is, Dave Duncan is really good at these types of situations, so I have reasonable optimism about which side of the Penny will reveal itself this year.
Our other relative newcomer is Felipe "Lopex" Lopez, sort of a phoenix arising from the ashes. I am pretty excited that he really likes playing for St. Louis by his own estimation, and he is a true TLR-style roleplayer, in that he can play or reasonably imitate being a third baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, or an outfielder, in that order of preference. But like Brad Penny, Lopez has been pretty hard to predict, especially on offense, where his walk percentage can fluctuate pretty drastically from year to year, so what type of eye does he have? Also, his OPS can be well above .800 (usually meaning they are a pretty damn good hitter!) or it can be pretty awful, in the mid .600 range. Good news is, he has always hit the ball pretty hard, lots of line drives can prevent the defense from being able to stop you. Another odd thing about Felipe, is his slugging percentage and ISO are also pretty inconsistent. One last little note is, he does have some speed, a few years ago he was a base stealing threat, and he doesn't ground into a lot of double plays.
Another obvious redemption story would be David Freese, who has had some issues no doubt. Last year he missed a chance to win the third base job, possibly due to a car accident caused by some rather poor choices. And one of the big offseason stories was him being pulled over by the boys in blue, due to a rather high blood alcohol level. There's really no excuse for this, he's living the dream and might be a major league baseball player. But it's not a very surprising case... this stuff happens, whether you would like to ostracize him or not. He is still going to have the chance to win the job at third base, and prove that he should be starting there. Maybe he can use some of his luck to get some hits, and play some plus defense. I'd very much enjoy it if he can do so, because I've been touting him as a prospect since Jimmy Baseball left town. I still think that if he puts his mind to it he could hit 15 maybe even 20 home runs if he gets the playing time, and not stink up the joint with his 3B performance. We'll get to see if he can do it.
Back to the starting pitchers, Lohse can prove that he was worth all that money, after a rather disappointing 2009. His 2008 season pretty much made that year of baseball a lot of fun, because he was pretty much ace-by-default. I still remember that Lohse much better than the '09 one, because he had a lot of bad luck with injuries, it seemed like every time he turned around some small injury was bugging him, and it pretty much turned into a running the gauntlet type of year... he didn't quite make it through unscathed. But at least he tried and I have little doubt that he could return to a key contributor again in '10. What I'm really hoping for from him is sort of what Pineiro did last year, to be accurate, paint the corners, whatever he needs to do because, well, he's a great competitor from what I've seen. Oh yeah, and he pitched 200 innings in 2008, that's always an asset from any pitcher who's not a colonel.
On to our double headed ace, Carpwright or Wagon Christ, or whatever you may wish to call it. I think last season was the first year in all my years of baseball experience to see my team have two near-winners of the coveted Cy Young Award. I will be on the edge of my seat to see if Carp can make up for lost time over the years and stay healthy, because he can make a team. Speaking of competitors, I don't think anyone not named Albert Pujols can compare in that department. Except maybe everyone's favorite Waino, who is also quite the difference maker. Can Adam show that he is an ace-level pitcher Cy Young candidate again this season? Who knows, but I like his chances. He'll at least be better than most pitchers.
To finish up with the rotation, there's a great story for the #5 spot. Will it be yet another Duncan reclamation project, Rich Hill? Or will it be one of our minor league surgery recovery stories? If Hill is toast, McClellan or Garcia are heavy favorites to be that guy, the fifth day guy. It takes a lot of courage to pitch at the major league level after a major surgery, and it will be very interesting to see who will take the ball on the fifth game of the season. Hell, maybe it will be a boy by the last name of Lynn.
Lessee, any more redemption songs to think about... Albert is no longer plagued by a balky elbow, Yadi is, by all accounts, in the best shape of his life (and some are projecting him for a break out season on offense). Ah, here's one: can Skip Schumaker sell it at second base? We all know he can hit righties pretty well and be an adequate leadoff hitter against them, but can Mark McGwire make the cobbler attack the lefties? Hell, there's another one: can Mark McGwire be a great hitting coach? We shall see how it works out... I don't think they can do much worse than last year in the plate discipline area. Worth mentioning again, can Skip play second base? Well, we know he can after last year, but it will be very interesting to see just how well.
That's why I'm so stoked about this season, there's just so many stories on just this one team, that we are ecstatic fans of. Of course, I should be wrapping this up soon, I've been writing this for a while now I must say. And hopefully you're still reading this! I guess the last stories involve the outfield, where Ludwick had a bit of a step back in his hitting abilities. Not that he was bad last year, he was just so good in 2008 that we all had our hopes up for him (and if he did well, we might not have Matt Holliday on the team). Which brings me to, can Matt Holliday win back the hearts of the fans that were so disappointed by his non-catch in last year's playoff game... that was a big fuck up. At least he had a good attitude about it, everyone makes their mistakes. But can he prove that he is worth a rather large contract, the beneficiary of many a Cardinal fan's hard earned money? Many lamented that contract, it would be very cool to see him play like he did for us last year after the trade, there's no doubt dude can hit. And I hope he keeps up the good work.
Lastly, can Colby pick up where he left off last year? As our one time top prospect, Rasmus is one of the most captivating players to watch, for his fluid and very effective defense, and his rather intriguing power potential (some of those home runs were nothing less than BLASTS). I'll be the first to admit I was rather disappointed with his on base percentage, as well as his low batting average. But it's been said that he starts out slow at each level he begins at, and I am still very excited by his raw talent, defense, and speediness. Heck, fangraphs (where I've culled all my stat details from btw) even likes his clutchiness pretty well. Here's hoping he avoids the sophomore slump and makes it a sophomore bump, in offensive production.
That about wraps it up, I have a couple more players to mention: Mather, Craig, Ryan, Jay... we have a lot of double first name players on this team! Can boog recover from his late offseason malady, and prove that his defense from last year was no joke? Can Mather bounce back from his similar wrist problem, and be wrist strong? Will Allen Craig get the respect he deserves, and not find himself on a milk carton again? And will the Chief Justice make the team? That's why spring training is so exciting, you finally get to see some resolutions to all these storylines, well at least you get to go to the next chapter anyway.