Thursday, March 30, 2006

MLB Season Begins Next Week + NCAA Basketball Final Fours

Baseball Classic BracketEarly next week will mark the beginning of the 2006 Major League Baseball season. The ongoing steroids scandal, which has been an issue nearly two decades, overshadows this year's campaigns. One of baseball's greatest hitters ever, San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, may break the lifetime home-run record set by Hank Aaron, 755 round-trippers, later this season, but Bonds is accused of having used steroids and has admitted to using other problematic (though not banned) supplements, and so one chief question will be whether Bonds' achievement is valid at all. The US Congress, as if it doesn't have enough to do, has said it will investigate the steroids problem, as will MLB, but both are years too late. MLB enacted stricter testing rules and penalties last year, but this does nothing to address the past problems or the potential for future abuse, with designer drugs that may take years to be detected.

For the first time ever, a truly international baseball tournament, the World Baseball Classic, preceded the season. Sixteen teams from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia competed, and the final game featured Japan's squad defeating Cuba's 10-6 in a thrilling game. At one point, Cuba, a team some sportswriters suggested couldn't compete the with the other star-packed squads from the Americas, pulled within a run on a spectacular home run by outfielder Frederich Cepeda, but then couldn't make up the one-run difference, which quickly became four. Japan's pitching was superb, and MLB single-season hit champion Ichiro Suzuki got 2 hits, scored 3 runs and batted a robust .364 for the tournament.

As was widely reported, the US players couldn't score in the clutch and often looked listless. In addition to losing to neighbor Mexico, the US also fell to (South) Korea, eventual champion Japan and a Canadian team made up mostly of minor leaguers. Future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. hit an amazing .524, which included 3 homers, but he couldn't drive in runs all by himself. Team Dominican Republic was expected to reach the finals, but fell to the Cubans in the semifinals. The Cubans, who almost were not allowed to participate by the current US administration, face a quandary, as they cannot keep their second-place prize earnings and wanted to donate it to the Hurricane Katrina survivors, but may not be able to do so.

Overall viewership and game attendance exceeded MLB's expectations, so it appears that the WBC will return for at least a second time four (or two) years from now

VirgilOne fascinating note I came across on Dominican Today, by following a link, via Anthony Montgomery's Monaga blog on Luis Llosa's upcoming film version of Peruvian author and conservative former presidential candidate (his cousin/brother-in-law) Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, was that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Dominican player in the major leagues, Ozzie Virgil Sr. (at right, Topps) who debuted with the New York Giants in 1956.

For whatever reason, I'd always thought that there'd been a Dominican player before Virgil Sr.; there were Cuban players going back to the early 20th century, and Puerto Rican Hi Bithorn had played in the 1940s, but most Latino players, no matter what their nationality, weren't allowed to compete in the major leagues until after Jackie Robinson broke the racialized color line in 1947. (I think one of the first Afro-Latinos to play was Cuban Minnie Minoso.) Since Virgil's 9-season career, over 400 Dominicans have played in the major leagues, including stars like Hall of Famer Juan Marichal; the Alou brothers, including Felipe Alou, the first Dominican manager in the major leagues; Sammy Sosa; and current stars Pedro Martínez, Manny Ramírez, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodríguez.

Predictions? I always hope the St. Louis Cardinals make it to the World Series, and they have the pitching this year to do it. Other top National League teams will include Atlanta (as always), Houston, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the American League, the Yankees, Red Sox, last year's champion White Sox, the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels, and Cleveland's teams should be strong contenders.

•••

I've barely followed the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year, but I wanted to call attention to the fact that this time, a true underdog has made it to the final four. On Saturday, 4th seed LSU faces 2nd seed UCLA, while upstart 11th seed George Mason faces 3rd seed Florida. Three of the 1st seeds (Memphis, Connecticut and Villanova) were knocked out in the round of 8, and George Mason knocked off the Nutmeg State's Huskies. This is George Mason's first NCAA visit, and it would spectacular if they won it all. Meanwhile, South Carolina defeated Michigan in the NIT men's final tonight. In the women's NCAA tournament final four on Sunday, it's nearly an all ACC affair, as Duke, Maryland and North Carolina, along with LSU, will face off for the championship game.

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