Most baseball fans consider themselves seers in one way or another because they are more astute judges of talent than the managers and general managers of the major leagues, or because they have a deep faith in one team or another, they believe they know the eventual outcome of the season ahead. Pick-the-divisions baseball pools have always been popular, and the ever-increasing number of Rotisserie leagues testifies to the number of stats-conscious baseball eggheads--the Bill Jamesians--who, if they aren't exactly sure of the future, at least believe they know the reasons for past mistakes and therefore will not repeat them (picking the Cleveland Indians in the American League East, for instance). Of course, there is never any shortage of fools who buy season tickets believing they will have bragging rights over play-off seats when last year's sixth-place team comes in first--unless, of course, expressway repairs, a youth movement, and general mismanagement conspire to slow ticket sales to a trickle. Yet, here we are, I think, getting ahead of ourselves by getting a little too literal-minded too soon; we should pause, for one final moment, before settling into the baseball season and the actual personages who will concern us in their usual unusual fashion for the next three calendar seasons.
There is, I believe, a certain instinct to sports forecasting, and of course the more knowledge this instinct is based upon the more likely the forecast will prove true. I'm a great believer in a pick feeling right (mea culpa to the Jamesians--Bill, again, not Ellen--for whom such talk is blasphemy). Everyone's favorites, this year--the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates--are not my picks simply because they don't yet feel right; give them both another year to ripen. When I was a boy, this attitude toward feel was as literal as a second baseman's feel for knowing where the bag is on the double play. I'd pore slowly, baseball card by baseball card, through the rosters of each team. I believed I could tell the successful budding stars from the unsuccessful, and I must admit that I based most of my impressions not on the back of the cards--the stats--but on the front, by the way the ball players looked. Joe Rudi, in his early days with the Oakland As, looked like a ball player, and Aurelio Rodriguez was a certain star, I was sure, because only a future star could have a baseball card that made him look as if one sideburn were shaved and the other earlobe low. I'd flip, slowly, through the cards, in an invisible cloud of baseball-gum aroma and the players' very beings seemed to enter my consciousness through my fingertips. In the pattern of most baseball fans, I believe sometimes that I knew more about the game than I do now, because my unclouded mind had more capacity for baseball trivia than it does now. (I still remember that "Wahoo" Sam Crawford holds the lifetime record for most triples, but I can't remember the exact number, although 532 comes quickly to mind.) In short, I knew a lot of facts and figures back then, but I also believed more then, believed in a way only children and tiny minds can believe. It made for better predictions.
So, because I want choices that feel right, and mainly because I did such a lousy job of choosing on alleged intellect last year, I'm going to put away my stats just as William Faulkner's character in "The Bear" puts away his compass, and well see if I can't track down the eventual pennant winners.
The White Sox will finish sixth. They'll have a season resembling that of the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, but closer actually to that of the San Diego Padres. In other words, they will start horrendously, gradually gather themselves after tough times for team and manager, and by the end of the season they'll win enough games so that they'll pass some fading, quitting older team and make it out of the AL West basement. Jim Fregosi will remain throughout the term and will be back next year, with knowledge gained concerning which of these phenoms are legitimate and which are pretenders.
The separation of wheat from chaff is the big concern at this point on the south side. If all these players the Sox are investing their future in play up to their considerable potential, then it's true the Sox will compete for first place in the division. ("Anything can happen!" is their motto this year; if that doesn't foretell bad times, nothing does.) The Sox, however, are not going to be so lucky. Melido Perez is 22 (as in, "just turned 22," not "will turn 23 during the season"), and he is going to have some tough times. Jack McDowell is a month older, and he is not yet a year out of college. Also, he got hit a lot harder at Class AA Birmingham last year than at the major-league level--in a similar number of innings--and that is a finding that demands to even itself out somewhere down the road. The Sox are going into the season with two castoffs from the Saint Louis Cardinals as the mainstays of their pitching staff--Ricky Horton and Dave LaPoint. The ancient albino Jerry Reuss appears ready to join the staff as a fifth starter, for all those statisticians who base their picks on average age of players; he should almost double the Sox'. On the other hand, Bobby Thigpen has a clear route to becoming one of the league's best relievers. Without Bob James to distract Fregosi, he will now have to stick with Thigpen through good times and bad--the sort of treatment all great relievers receive, simply because they deserve it. (Remember the awful start the Philadelphia Phillies' Steve Bedrosian endured last year; he went on to win the Cy Young Award.)
The Sox will also score more runs than last year. Dan Pasqua is a fine if extraneous acquisition (more left-handed power?) who will help the Sox through the droughts they went through last season. Of course, as it's been written elsewhere, getting Harold Baines out to right field remains a priority, not for his well-being so much as for Carlton Fisk, who at the age of 41 should be counted on for barely 100 games behind the plate this year but may face 130 or so if he is denied an occasional break as a designated hitter. (The Sox' lack of right-handed punch makes his presence in the lineup essential.)
As with the pitching staff, the Sox count on youth in the field and at the plate. Ivan Calderon and Kenny Williams both look like solid properties at this point, but neither is yet a lock to repeat or better last year's figures. Williams, in fact, could suffer if the switch from outfield to third base proves too traumatic, or if he is forced to return to an already overstuffed outfield. Daryl Boston is facing a career year: either his career goes on or it ends, right here. Lance Johnson is a phenom who will prove true to his reputation. Fregosi is almost certainly familiar with him from their days in the Cardinals' minor-league system, and he is going to give the Sox the leadoff man they've recently lacked. (Suggestion only slightly tongue-in-cheek: the Sox should take out the wall in center field, forget about fielding a third baseman, and play four men in the outfield. Think about it.) Give me the Oakland Athletics to finish first, with the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins close behind and the California Angels coming hard on the comebacks of Mike Witt and Kirk McCaskill.
The Cubs, it is true, are not a last-place team, but they stand to finish there again in the highly competitive National League East unless they loosen up and play ball. If the New York Mets fail again, any team can finish first in this division, and anyone can finish last--including the Mets. The Cubs have three simple priorities: making sure Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux make good progress, finding a dependable stopper in the bull pen, and--most important--getting full potential out of Shawon Dunston and Leon Durham.
Ask any (white) Cubs fan (there are no black Cubs fans) what to do with Dunston and Durham and the answer will be a simple "trade 'em." The Cubs, however, are stuck with these fellows now, and if new manager Don Zimmer realizes they aren't such bad things to be stuck with he can lift this team a few spots in the standings. Both Dunston and Durham are players who were heavily criticized under the Dallas Green regime, and they'd improve themselves and the Cubs if they were expected to play up to their potential for once instead of being expected to play down to their past performance. Durham, however, is on a much shorter rope than Dunston; he had an awful year hitting in the pinch last year, and while I consider his stats inconsequential because they are not based on a significant number of at-bats, his failure to produce remained annoying. I'd play the hot bat, between Durham and Rafael Palmeiro, at cleanup, behind Andre Dawson. Dunston I'd move up in the order whenever possible, batting him third, even, ahead of Dawson, against left-handed pitchers on artificial turf. He remains a shortstop of almost limitless potential, and they have to get him out of the eighth spot in the order--a spot that is killing him, because it turns one of his biggest natural attributes, his exuberance, into a fatal flaw. Count on Jody Davis to come back, hitting 20 homers, and expect Vance Law to hit more homers than Keith Moreland will this year, while providing a great improvement in the field at third base.
Give me the Cubs in third, with Sutcliffe and Maddux enjoying good seasons and Calvin Schiraldi returning to the bull pen to help "Goose" Gossage before the season's out. Mets return to first.
In the other divisions, I'll take the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees. Aware ones will perceive that three of these four picks duplicate last season's, when I was shut out. I've finally realized that my feel for the game is a year ahead of actuality; it takes baseball a year to catch up to my beliefs. If I'd had my 1986 Rotisserie League team last year, with Rick Reuschel and Shane Rawley and Tom Herr, oh look out. This year, I stick with Bob Knepper.
Of course, all these picks are made without the mystical tarot baseball cards--that is one element of baseball fandom I'm never going back to--but if "the first city series in over 30 years" doesn't sound right, it feels right, at least to this writer. The Mets as champions in seven games.