"Strange things are happening." That was the tag line used by Red Buttons in his comedy routine and it applies to baseball, where strange things indeed are happening.
The New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, both perennial playoff participants, are struggling to stay afloat. The Yankees’ pitching staff, which figured to be the team’s strongpoint in preseason ratings, is in disarray. Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez (El Duque) are on the disabled list, Mike Mussina has not come through as well as expected and the middle relief corps is a disaster. Combine all that with some weak hitting and it spells trouble for Joe Torre’s team”¦
Except for the Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, and Javier Lopez, the Braves’ everyday line-up is a patchwork. The comeback of John Smoltz has not materialized, Tom Glavine is definitely on the downside of a brilliant career and the bullpen leads the league in blown saves.
Although Greg Maddux continues to pitch well, veteran John Burkett has been the savior of the staff and its most effective hurler over the past month. The Braves may yet win their division but at the moment they are in a life-and-death struggle with Philadelphia and - here’s a huge surprise - Florida.
Long gone are the playoff hopes of the New York Mets, the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A’s, all of whom were in the playoffs last year. The San Francisco Giants, getting some decent starting pitching of late, are on the bubble. Unless Barry Bonds gets more hitting support from his teammates, the Giants will be another of last year’s playoff teams to fail this year”¦
July 31 is the deadline for trading players without having them clear waivers so the next few weeks will be filled with trades and rumors of trades. Every team that fancies itself as a contender is looking for pitching help. The hurler most likely to be moved - and soon - is White Sox southpaw David Wells. Here is one scout’s report on Wells: "He’s overweight and his 92 mph fastball is down to 88 mph, but he’s a professional pitcher capable of being helpful."
Wells has already had a definite effect, albeit unintended, on the National League pennant race. One of his deliveries broke the hand of St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew, sidelining him an estimated four to six weeks. The loss of Drew, who was batting .330 with 21 homers and 49 runs batted in, is a severe blow to the Cardinals”¦
The Seattle Mariners are home free in the A.L. West. The N.L. West, projected to be a four-team dogfight, may be changing. Arizona has slipped away to a comfortable - but not insurmountable - lead chiefly on the arms of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. At the moment, these two pitchers are dominating the division”¦
The Texas Rangers, mired in last place in the A.L. West some 30 games behind the Mariners, will be embarking on a massive rebuilding program, the keystone of which will be their $250 million shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, who, incidentally, is having a fine year. The team will soon drop veterans like third baseman Ken Caminiti (when he comes off the disabled list) and first baseman Andres Galarraga.
The Rangers have a big problem with Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, universally hailed as the best catcher in baseball. He’s eligible for free agency at the end of the current season and although the Rangers want to keep him and will make him an offer, the astronomical salary that he can command may not fit into the parameters of the team’s salary structure”¦
Commissioner Bud Selig made a grandiose public relations gesture when
announcing that the 2006 All-Star Game will be played in St. Louis in the new stadium. This came after word that the mayor of St. Louis, the St. Louis County executive and the Missouri governor had reached an agreement on a measure of public funding for the planned facility. But hold the phone. To take effect, the agreement must be ratified by the St. Louis City Board of Alderman, the St. Louis County Council and the Missouri Legislature. The first two are a slam dunk but hardly the latter.
The Bible Belt blue-noses that have major clout in the state capital of Jefferson City may be extremely reluctant to allocate taxpayer dollars to a new ballpark for the city slickers. Incidentally, in 1966, the more than 110 degrees in then-new Busch Stadium combined that with artificial turf made the place like an inferno. Afterward, Casey Stengel, when asked his opinion of the new stadium, replied, "It holds the heat very well."