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Baseball Update

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Now that we’re a third of the way through baseball season, it seems a good time to make some tentative assessments. I am not, as you can tell, from that school of baseball pundits/bloggers/writers who lay down season forecasts before Spring Training even ends. I’ve been especially reluctant to pass judgment on the Yankee situation, particularly new manager Joe Girardi, this early in his tenure: for me the guy began with two strikes against him just for replacing my beloved Joe Torre, before he created a single lineup. When he changed the lineup more than a dozen times, he racked up a few more strikes in my book, and as the weeks have passed without Girardi much distinguishing himself, I’ve been disappointed in him.

Last week, though, Girardi certainly did distinguish himself. On Thursday he confronted an umpire, arguing a strikeout call against Giambi, with more than the usual anemic face-saving managers’ gestures. As the New York Daily News describes it, “Girardi slammed his hat down, kicked it, kicked some dirt and did his best Lou Piniella impression after he was ejected, making sure to get his money’s worth.” (See Video here.) For his trouble Girardi got a one-day suspension, which was probably well worth it to him, since his tantrum garnered accolades from fans as well as writers. Says blogger Yankee Chick, “When was the last time a Yankees manager showed such passion? Certainly not our dear pat-on-the-back-lovin’ Torre. Will this be the spark the Yankees needed?

When I first heard about the dustup, my initial reaction was that Girardi’s little fit was the height of tackiness, a thing Joe Torre would never do, having far too much class. But after thinking it over, I agree it might be a positive step: It took Girardi out of invisible mode. Besides, you can’t argue with success: moments after the tantrum, Cano hit a game-winning RBI single.

I won’t even mention the team’s pitching problems and the failure of management to go after Johan Santana during the off-season. Even without that blip, the Yankee situation is layered with complexity this year. As if a change in management, plus Steinbrenner Senior’s withdrawal and a takeover by his kids isn’t enough, there’s also been a plethora of injuries to key players. Alex Rodriguez was on the DL for two weeks, and Jorge Posada is still out, for the first time in his long career. As a result, the Yankees are in a kind of adjustment crisis, in fourth place in their division.

The good news is that Posada may be back early in June. More good news: Pitcher Joba Chamberlain is headed for the starting rotation after doing time in the bullpen. There’s apparently been some back-and-forth disagreements between Girardi, Cashman, and Hank Steinbrenner about how to best use Chamberlain, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out who wants what and whose opinion prevails. Every other day we hear that Cashman’s job is on the line. I’ll bet Torre’s relieved to be outta all that. Incidentally, the LA Dodgers, who hired Torre in a nanosecond, are in first place in their division.

I’ve been wondering if Willie Randolph, who disconnected himself from Joe Torre’s hip two years ago to become the Mets manager, might regret the move, since if he’d stayed in the Bronx he might have become heir to Torre’s bench. Randolph got into some trouble over in Queens last week when he told a reporter that media coverage of him seems to be tinged with racism. This was unlike the affable Randolph, who almost immediately withdrew the statement, apologizing “for the unnecessary distraction that I created.” The NY media tried their best to keep the thing going, yapping on with speculations of strife and dissent in the clubhouse, but the Mets don’t seem to be having any of it—unless the way they’re playing is a reflection of strife.

A lot of bad playing is popping up in unexpected places this season. The Seattle Mariners, for instance, were predicted to do well, but they’re in the cellar. Of greater concern to me personally is the ongoing saga of Barry Zito, who bombed last year in his first season as a Giant and started out this year even worse. Zito finally pulled out of a nine-game losing streak last night, when he pitched a winner against the Florida Marlins. Before that, things were grim. Manager Bruce Bochy sent Zito into the bullpen either as punishment or rehab, then paroled him after one measly week. Maybe that week helped him win last night—but one win does not a comeback guarantee, and there’s no way to know if this is the beginning of Zito’s recovery or just a fluke.

Meanwhile the Oakland A’s are right behind LA in their division. Last night they stomped all over the Red Sox, with a final score of 8-3. Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas happily re-joined the team after Toronto threw him out for allegedly poor performance. There’s something about the A’s that seems homey and warm, despite Billy Beane’s strategic dumping of players every other week. I get the sense that guys really love being in Oaktown, that there’s a camaraderie they don’t find elsewhere. Thomas is sure acting like it, and there doesn’t seem to be any problem with his performance now.

Home runs throughout MLB are the lowest they’ve been since 1993, a result, most likely, of players laying off the juice in the wake of Congressional interference. Fans, it is said, will have to adjust to a “less exciting” version of the game, one in which scores are lower, pitcher duels more frequent, and wins slower to nail down. Can we handle it? I’ll let you know in October.