Tonight at a welcome gathering for new and current graduate students of color at the university, I asked a young man why he and others, when introducing themselves and their native cities, yelled out "Lakers" in response to the New Yorkers' and Chicagoan's cheers for the Yankees and White Sox respectively.
"What about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim?" I asked, invoking the southern California franchise that was now in the playoffs.
"Nobody in LA cares about baseball," he answered me, with polite abruptness.
The poor Angels, no mojo, no love. And I still can't wrap my mind around that name; I actually saw them battle as the California Angels against the overhyped, overpraised Boston Red Sox, in the playoffs at Fenway Park, in 1986. Not being a violent person or someone who invites violence upon himself, I quietly rooted against the Boston team in its home park. (Mike Witt mercifully beat future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens that night, but Boston went on to win the pennant and then lost to the Mets in 7 games)
So what gives with this year's playoffs?
New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Yep, they're baaaaaaaaack! The Yankees won the division title by tiebreaker after trailing Boston (and falling below second place at one point) almost the entire season. They have one of the most impressive batteries in either league, led by MVP candidate and pretty boy Alex Rodríguez (A-Rod, gracing at right), longtime captain Derek Jeter, hot sulker Gary Sheffield, handyman Hideki Matsui, semi-rehabilited admitted roider Jason Giambi, and charming rookie Robinson Canó. Their pitching faltered for half the season, but they have future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson leading the corps and reliable Mike Mussina also commanding the mound. Two mid-season acquisitions, Shawn Chacón (from Colorado), and minor leaguer Aaron Small (who went 10-0!), pushed the Yankees over the top, and though neither has post-season experience, they are in very good hands. A fifth pitcher, Jaret Wright, wasn't so bad either, and former Mets star Al Leiter is also now on staff. The Yankees also have one of the best closers in baseball, Mariano Rivera, and good middle-relief, so they're well set to wallop the Angels and get to the next round quickly.
The Lost Anaheim...the Lost Angels of...Los Angelheimers...the Angels, let's leave it at that. The Angels also have a great lineup, led by MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero, Garrett Anderson, Darren Erstad, former Red Sox Orlando Cabrera, Adam Kennedy, and second year basestealer Chone Figgins. They finished with the exact same record as the Yankees, 95-67, though in a weaker, smaller division. Though they popped the Yankees in the 2002 playoffs, they simply don't have the starting pitching or the lineup to match the Bronx Bombers this year. Only starter Bartolo Colón won more than 14 games, and is a candidate for the Cy Young (with a 21-8 win-loss record and 3.48 ERA), but Colón is nobody's ace. The Angels do have very good middle relief, and a superb closer in Francisco Rodríguez, who first came to national attention in the Angels' 2002 World Series victory, and racked up 45 saves this year with a 2.67 ERA and 91 Ks in 67.1 innings.
The undeniable fact is that the Yankees haven't won the Series since 2000, and they have a pardoned-but-once-convicted-felon madman as owner always breathing down their neck, an issue the Angels--no other team, for that matter--don't have to deal with. "Every Angel is terrifying," Rilke wrote. But not these, so I give the edge to the Yankees.
Yankees in five games.
Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox
Oh, the Red Sox, the Red Sox! Last year by trouncing the Cardinals they broke their stupid curse, and got a film starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, songs, Lord knows what else out of it! Spare the rest of the world, please! (I also think the bad karma led to Kerry's loss against the Dictator, but that may be stretching it.) I was praying--about as close as I come to it--for Cleveland not to collapse, so I wouldn't have to hear the Red Sox' name bandied about for even a few more weeks, but it wasn't to be. They have a fiercesome lineup, that I don't feel like mentioning except for Big Papi David Ortiz, another MVP candidate who slammed 47 home runs and a league-leading 148 RBIs, and the cute and dreadlocked Manny Ramírez (al derecho), who yet again proved his indispensibility by hitting 45 HRs and driving in 144 RBIs. And to think that Boston's owners seriously considered getting rid of this man! They let Pedro Martínez go (as they did Mo Vaughn, Roger Clemens, Carlton Fisk, etc.), which should have produced enough ill will to sink them, but no, it wasn't to be; they're here. Their pitching is decent, even without Pedro and Darren Lowe, who was shipped out west, but it's no match for Chicago's. Plus, the more they win, the more we'll have to see that bloated right-wing blowhard Curt Schilling. He makes me want to retch. All of which is to say, please, Chicago White Sox, do us all a favor, and send them back to Boston as soon as possible!
Now, as for the Chicago White Sox: they labor in the Southside shadow of the yuppie-beloved, endlessly disappointing (if you care), losing team that plays in Wrigley Field, on the Northside (Wrigleyville). The White Sox have an ignominious history (the Black Sox scandal) that they've never lived down. They have a doofus for an owner. They hired a cute, speech-challenged homophobe as manager. And they basically could not hit a ball out of the infield after the All Star break and were on the verge of being the first team ever--or something like that--to be up by 15 games and then fall out of contention. What kept them in the running was their outstanding starting pitching, which no team can ever have enough of. Starters Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland were the first half leaders, steadily winning and allowing very few earned runs game after game, and José Contreras, an enigma whom the Yankees let go and who I'm convinced is about 10 years older than his stated age (34? oh come on!), pitched like Jim Palmer down the stretch. In fact, Contreras, who started the season in mediocrity, finished with a 15-7 record, winning his final eight starts. Freddy García, the third original starter, was iffy at times, and El Duque (Orlando Hernández), the ageless, oft-injured mound magician from Cuba, factored much less into the White Sox's success, though a healthy and sharp Garcia may be required to get past Boston and win the pennant, especially if the White Sox's bats remain atrophied. (They came alive tonight in a 14-2 win.) Since the Team from Boston won the Series last year, the two teams from Chitown have gone the longest without a world championship, but I don't think this is going to be Chicago's year--if they make it that far. Just beat the Red Sox, though. That's all I ask.
White Sox over Red Sox in five games.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres
In 1982, my classmates and I watched jubilantly as the Cardinals, with a slap-hitting lineup and average starting pitching, beat the Milwaukee Brewers and win the World Series. They had one of the best managers of all time, Whitey Herzog, who could manufacture runs out of bubble gum and birthday wishes. Under his tenure they returned to the Series twice, in 1985 and 1987, each time with unintimidating lineups but incredible heart. They did not win in either return, but they came very close and Herzog showed that anything was possible. The Cardinals now have the second-winningest manager in MLB history, Tony LaRussa, who has taken them to the post-season repeatedly since he became their manager, but who's never won it all. Not once. LaRussa's questionable moves are legendary, and I think the man is a walking liability, though others construe this as genius. (The St. Louis Rams have a similarly infuriating, seemingly incompetent but occasionally dazzling coach, Mike Martz.) Despite LaRussa's managerial faults, the Cardinals' lineup is good enough to win it all this year. I'm saying that with a bit of bubble gum and a birthday wish tossed in for good measure.
The Cardinals, who won 100 games for the second straight year, had the National League's best starting staff, with Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.83 ERA, 213Ks, at right), Mark Mulder (16-8), Matt Morris (14-10), Jeff Suppan (16-10), and Jason Marquis (13-14) producing the most quality starts of any team. Carpenter in fact had a 22-game stretch of starts with at least 6 innings in which he allowed no more than 3 earned runs (from May 12-Sep. 8), the best such streak since 1920 (and this includes outstanding seasons by the likes of Gomez, Koufax, Gibson, Drysdale, Hunter, Palmer, Carlton, Valenzuela, Gooden, Clemens, Johnson, etc.), but fell apart, as did Mulder, Morris and Marquis, at the end of the season. Morris, in fact, was so bad that he went 4-9 after a 10-1 start! But supposedly all is well, Carpenter's arm is okay, he pitched six shutout innings this afternoon, Mulder, a sharp lefthander, also is supposedly to be back on track, Suppan has improved since early September, and Marquis (who can hit like Rod Carew) had five good starts before his Oct. 1 debacle, so Morris, I think, is the main liability. Which means that LaRussa, in his infinite wisdom, is starting Morris (and not Suppan) third! Their relief corps is problematic, so the starters have to show up with game.
On the batting side, the Cardinals suffered numerous injuries throughout the season, and lost the production of third baseman Scott Rolen, who went MIA in the playoffs. Outfielders Reggie Sanders and future Hall of Famer Larry Walker also were injured for stretches. They still had and have leading MVP candidate Albert Pujols (.330, 42 HRs, 117 RBIs, 129 runs), Jim Edmonds (whose average dropped dramatically this year, though he hit 29 HRs), and sparkplugs David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek. Rookie catcher Yadier Molina played very well, as did substitute baseman Abrahám Núñez, but outside of Pujols and Edmonds, and Sanders before he suffered a broken leg, the Cardinals' bats were solid but not outstanding. It'll have to come down to pitching, then, and timely hits, which I hope they can scare this year. Last year in Boston....
The Padres mustered an 82-80 record, which should have sent them home to the sun-bathed shores of the Pacific, except they were in a division so weak that they finished first. At one point, they were even in first place while lacking a .500 winning percentage. Even with so little to recommend them, they beat the Cardinals 4 games to 3 in the season series, and don't give up. But they might as well in this series, since they've lost their best pitcher to a fractured rib (which he got in a pile-on after the team realized it'd won the division--guys, you're grown millionaires, don't you know better?), and the lineup isn't that dangerous either. After Ryan Klesko, Brian Giles and Khalil Greene....
The Cardinals in four.
The Atlanta [Braves] vs. The Houston Astros
Atlanta has won 14 straight division titles in a row. They're formerly-owned-by-Ted Turner engine that can. Once upon a time the keys to that engine were Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who will have plaques and ceremonies in Cooperstown within the next decade. Greg Maddux is now finishing his career with the team he broke into the majors with, the Chicago Cubs. Tom Glavine is now a Met. Only John Smoltz remains. Still, the Atls, with their skillful manager, Bobby Cox, who just smiles and says very little, and their determined victory machine, keep on winning. But...they have only won the World Series ONCE in those fourteen years. Oops!
They do have a great lineup, powered by MVP candidate Andruw "Thickness" Jones, the pride of Curaçao, who hit 51 homers and drove in 128 runs, rebounding from a lackluster 2004 season. Alongside him are a mix of established players like Chipper Jones, Marcus Giles, and Rafael Furcal, and terrific rookies like Adam LaRoche, Wilson Betemit and Jeff Francoeur. On the pitching side, alongside Smoltz, a real talent has emerged in young Dominican Jorge Sosa (above right), who went 13-3, while former Oakland starter Tim Hudson has pitched well too. This Atlanta team also played in the toughest NL division, so they have been tested.
Their opponents are the Houston Astros, a team that initially was in a tailspin, but after the midway mark started to turn things around. The major reason behind their resurgence was the pitching, without which it's almost impossible to win in the playoffs. The most noteworthy Astro was Roger Clemens, who was supposed to have retired two years ago after a "final" outstanding season as a Yankee, but came back with Houston, went 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA and 218 Ks, and won his seventh Cy Young award. This year, he was even better, despite his pitiful 13-8 win-loss record. Twice in the season, Clemens went five starts without a win despite performances that would have resulted a 10-o record on most other teams (cf. Matt Morris), and he gave up 4 or more earned runs only three times in 32 starts. His earned run average was a MLB best 1.87, and opponents batted only .198 against him. Andy Pettitte, who was the Yankees' other reliable winner for nearly a decade (1995-2003), switched to the Astros after being treated with indifference by Steinbrenner, then had a down year in 2004. This year, he was one of the best pitchers after the All Star break and rose to his old form, going 17-9 with a 2.39 ERA. The third member of the Astros' outstanding staff was Roy Oswalt, consistently excellent for Houston year and year out. He went 20-10, with a 2.94 ERA, and 184Ks. All three will be extremely important if Houston is to advance, because the hitters this season were a bit off. Not bad (Morgan Ensberg hit 32 home runs, Craig Biggio and Jason Lane each hit 26; Lance Berkman nearly broke .300, while driving in 82 runs, etc.), but not up to their standard of recent years. But then with Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt pitching the way they have, do you need a lot of hits? Houston better hope the answer is no, and Atlanta had better hope that...well, Clemens only won 13, Pettitte 17, and Oswalt lost 10, so there is a way to beat or neutralize them. Bobby Cox, run those charts!
A tough one, but I say Houston in 5.
I'm not predicting the ALCS and NLCS winners yet. I want to get through this round first.