BASEBALL AT THE BREAK: BUCS, BUSH AND BOSTON
by Brian C. Gardner
As a new baseball season began, the Lexington Legends changed their major league affiliation for the first time since their 2001 inception. No longer reporting to the Houston Astros, the future for Legends players lies with the promising Kansas City Royals. The Astros faced changes as well by switching from the National League to the American League. In a surprising fit of logical thinking, Major League Baseball is now structured so that each league is comprised of three divisions with five teams each.
Every summer, Major League Baseball pauses for its traditional All Star break. The venue for this year’s game, Citi Field in New York, is home to the New York Mets. In a couple of years, local fans will be treated to the Midsummer Classic as Cincinnati welcomes the 2015 All Star Game to Great American Ballpark. This year’s break provides a chance to look at the stories of the first half of the campaign and anticipate who will be this season’s winners and losers.
The biggest surprise of the season has to be the turnaround of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have one of the best records in the majors and were the first team to reach 50 wins. Pirates fans have endured years of futility. The last time Pittsburgh was in the playoffs, Bush was president. That’s George H. W. Bush and the year was 1992. The Bucs haven’t even had a winning record in that span. But with a retooled starting pitching staff and a host of young players, Pittsburgh looks to break the dry spell. Andrew McCutchen looks to be the biggest Pirate superstar since Barry Bonds had a normal sized head. Both the center fielder and second baseman, Neil Walker, came up through the Pirates farm system and played in Lexington against the Legends.
The Reds have all the parts in place to make a pennant push, but are plagued by inconsistency and injuries. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips earned All Star starts by being the top fan vote getters at first and second base. This brings to mind when Reds voters caused chaos with the All Star voting. In 1957 Cincinnati faithful voted Reds players to 7 of the starting 8 non-pitching positions. The only non-Reds elected was the immortal Stan Musial. In fact, fans went so far as to elect Redlegs Gus Bell and Wally Post ahead of future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Suspecting vote tampering, Major League Baseball ended fan selection of the All Star starters and turned that duty over to players and managers. It wasn’t until 1970 that fans were again entrusted to choose baseball’s All Stars. (One could question that wisdom given that Derek Jeter has over 500,000 votes this year and has not played one inning due to injury.)
The biggest disappointment of the season has to be the Los Angeles entries in the Major Leagues. With two of the largest payrolls in baseball, neither team appears to be playoff bound. University of Kentucky product Scott Downs is a stalwart in the Angel bullpen and the team recently acquired Lexington native and Henry Clay grad Collin Cowgill in a trade with the Mets. Up I-10 the Dodger’s everyday catcher is Dunbar graduate A. J. Ellis. The playoff picture is a lot brighter for another Lexington native, Robbie Ross, ( LCA). Ross is a big part of the success of the Texas Rangers. The Rangers look to be playoff bound partly due to Ross’s fine pitching and earned run average, remarkably under 2.00. Thankful to not have to bat against Ross, Ben Revere (Lexington Catholic) is having a fine year for his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Having been traded from the Twins, Revere is proving his worth as the everyday centerfielder for one of baseball’s most talented (and underachieving) teams. Revere’s leaping catch earlier this season is widely viewed as the best defensive play of the year.
As the trading deadline of July 31st approaches, look for teams to start playing “Let’s Make a Deal”. Teams hoping to make a post season push will trade prospects and cash to acquire helpful players from teams already making off season vacation plans.
The Cubs have been rebuilding since 1908 and expect to continue that trend. Look for them to trade any number of players including pitcher, Matt Garza, for a host of minor leaguers. The Reds might be in the market for another starting pitcher to replace Johnny Cueto who makes monthly visits to the disabled list. Homer Bailey is starting to look like the ace of the staff after his second career no-hitter. The pride of Franklin, Kentucky, Joe Blanton, might also be on the trading block when the Angels decide to jettison payroll.
Thinking ahead to the post season possibilities, in the National League, look for the Braves to win the East, the Cardinals to overtake the Pirates to claim the Central and the Arizona Diamondbacks the West. The Reds and the Pirates look to claim the 2 wildcard spots, giving the National League Central Division 3 teams in the post season. The Reds are looking for their 1st post season victory ever in Great American Ball Park (causing speculation the name should be changed to Pretty Good American Ball Park). By failing to qualify for the playoffs, the talk is that the Dodgers and their new ownership, led by Magic Johnson, may dismiss Manager Don Mattingly. Similarly, due to lack of recent post season appearances, the Phillies may persuade Manager Charlie Manual to seek early retirement.
With the Yankees lengthy disabled list, the perennial playoff contender looks to be on the outside looking in when the American League playoffs begin. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, Tigers and Rangers will be division winners. The resurgent Orioles and the money-balling Oakland A’s will claim the wild card spots. As summer melts into fall, expect the Red Sox to play the Cardinals in the World Series, a rematch of their 1967 meeting. After a 90 year drought, the Red Sox have the inside track to win their third World Series title in the past 10 years.
In a recent effort to make sure the game “counts for something”, home field advantage for the World Series is now awarded to the league that wins this month’s All Star game. This is a far cry from 1970 when Pete Rose, with nothing more than pride at stake, violently crashed into Ray Fosse at home plate to score the winning run for the National League at old Riverfront Stadium. No matter the outcome, the 2nd half of this baseball season promises to have plenty more stories, subplots, and surprises.