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Heaven Help Us

Fred Harper

The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary -- which should know better -- defines "baseball" as "a game played with a wooden bat and a hard ball by two teams of nine players each...the object of the game being to make as many runs as possible within nine innings of play."

Nonsense.

As anyone who follows the sport understands by now, "baseball" is a game played with hundreds of millions of dollars by George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees...the object of the game being to make all the teams who are not the Yankees feel completely inadequate in terms of spending and skill when the World Series rolls around.

Like clockwork, King George and his Court have swept into the post-season again this October, leaving the ever-miserable Boston Red Sox in their wake once more and putting the surprising Anaheim Angels, their opponents in the first round of the American League playoffs, in the unenviable fix of having to open the Series in the Bronx. Not only must the Angels face the likes of Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens, but they'll have to put up with Rudy Giuliani and several million other braying Yankees fans who believe it is their team's divine right to win the Series for the 27th time.

After all, the Arizona Diamondbacks -- a bunch of mooks with a swimming pool in center field, fer chrissake -- slipped by the Yanks in game seven last year. That won't happen again. You can bet your spaghetti putanesca on it.

This compels baseball fans to ask: Is there a God? And if there is a God, does he read the box scores? Is he merciful? Does he understand justice? If so, then he'll kick the New York Yankees out of paradise in the first round, and while he's at it, drive the strutting Atlanta Braves out to the golf course. He'll then rub some celestial liniment into the arms of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff, who are grieving the loss of one of their own. He'll bless the bats of the plucky, underpaid Minnesota Twins, who survived an assassination attempt by their own owner earlier this year. Alternatives? This good and just God will ignore possible charges of nepotism and smile on the Angels, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1986. He may anoint the Barry Bonds-led San Francisco Giants, who haven't won the World Series since 1954, when they lived in New York. Or invigorate the Oakland Athletics, who put together a twenty-game winning streak this summer but face the cruel burden of working and playing in...Oakland. But don't look for divine intervention to help the Colorado Rockies -- now or ever. Not even God can help starting pitching that awful. (The exception: probable rookie of the year Jason Jennings, 16-8.)

Meanwhile, do baseball's dreamers have a shot to unseat the Yankees, the Diamondbacks and the Braves this October?

Well, they do if the anything-can-happen strangeness of the regular season is any measure. This was a year, after all, in which Mets catcher Mike Piazza called a press conference to deny published rumors that he was gay. Within weeks, the reconstructed, $100 million Mets dispelled rumors that they could play baseball. When the great Boston Red Sox icon Ted Williams died, his children joined a battle over whether to cremate his body or turn dad into a Popsicle. Amid the season-long threat of another ruinous baseball strike, Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, whose record ten-year contract will pay him $252 million, said he would give a third or more of the money back if it would help bring labor peace. The next day A-Rod changed his mind: Baby needs shoes.

This was the year in which two beer-crazed Chicago White Sox fans -- a father and son, no less -- leaped from the stands and attacked Kansas City Royals first-base coach Tom Gamboa. The All-Star Game ended in a tie. Here in Colorado, the high-altitude Rockies were found to be keeping baseballs in a humidor to stop them from later flying out of the park. (Maybe if the Rox had set up a cot for starter Mike Hampton inside the thing, he wouldn't have gone 7-15 with a 6.13 earned-run average while getting paid eleven million bucks.) Late in the year, members of the aforementioned Mets were said to be smoking pot -- one pitcher had a seizure in the parking lot -- and the manager of the woebegone Milwaukee Brewers (one of four teams to lose over one hundred games) benched shortstop Jose Hernandez for four games so the home crowd at Miller Park couldn't cheer if he set a major-league record for striking out. Boston missed the playoffs, despite two twenty-game-winning pitchers.

Because of a weak economy and growing public disgust over the strike threat, attendance dropped significantly in twenty of the thirty big-league parks -- including Coors Field, which drew fewer than three million spectators for the first time in six years. The alarm also sounded about Rockies' ownership: Can Jerry McMorris and the Brothers Montfort still afford to play in the big leagues? Maybe not. Meanwhile, a sports-magazine poll found that 75 percent of fans still haven't forgiven baseball for its disastrous 1994 strike. In Anaheim, on the eve of this year's August 30 deadline, angry fans pelted the dugouts with spare change and dollar bills. The average major-league player, they knew all too well, now makes $48,000 per week.

Come October, though, baseball's arrogance is usually forgotten (if not forgiven), and it will be forgotten faster than Bill Clinton's wedding vows if, say, the Twins and the Cardinals were to compete in the ultimate underdog World Series. Ten months ago, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, with the blessing of owner Carl Pohlad, tried to kill the financially troubled Twins through "contraction" (the Montreal Expos shared that chopping block), but Minnesota's runaway performance in the American League Central -- they finished thirteen games ahead of the White Sox -- has instilled missionary zeal in a team that's strong up the middle, defensively sound (73 errors, fewest in the game) and blessed with good pitching. They have something to prove. "It started this winter, when they tried to kick us out of the game," manager Ron Gardenhire said last week. "They tried to take the team from the fans and the state of Minnesota. There's a lot building up here."

Minnesota's Cinderella quest will be tough. The Twins went 3-6 against the A's and 0-6 versus the Yankees in 2002, and their batting order inspires no fear, least of all against lefties. But with top starters Brad Radke and Joe Mays back from injury, the Twins just might take their revenge on Selig and the doubters -- despite a $40 million payroll that ranks 27th of the thirty big-league teams. As for the Yankees (first in salaries, at $126 million), even the cabdrivers working Fordham Road can tell you that New York's main weapon of mass destruction, bulletproof pitching, has declined, and closer Mariano Rivera is fresh off the disabled list. Oakland and Anaheim? They're deserving, well-balanced, attractive clubs with a great shot at the Yanks. But the wretched of the earth -- which is to say, all of us beleaguered baseball fans -- have to be pulling for Minny.

So, too, must we stand and cheer for Tony LaRussa's Big Mac-less, never-say-die Cardinals, who are on a personal mission of their own in the National League. Just days after the June demise of their beloved octogenarian broadcaster, Jack Buck, the team was shocked by the sudden death of 33-year-old starting pitcher Darryl Kile, a former Colorado Rockie, from an apparent heart attack. The club pulled together admirably, and the black "DK57" patches on the players' uniforms aren't the only things they're wearing on their sleeves: The Redbirds have their hearts out there, too.

The opposition will be unmoved, if vulnerable. The World Champion Diamondbacks throw a brace of unhittable 23-game winners, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, into the post-season, but the Snakes have lost their home-run and RBI leader, Luis Gonzalez, to a shoulder separation. The Giants boast the best player in the game, Bonds -- who's enjoying an MVP year at age 38 -- along with hard-hitting Jeff Kent, but their pitching is suspect, and they could be worn out after that scintillating, late-season battle with the hated Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL Wild Card. That leaves Atlanta, which cruised to another NL East title: With Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz in charge, the Braves' pitchers are aging but still sublime, and the Jones boys -- Andruw and Chipper -- anchor an underrated batting order. If Atlanta can finally get past its playoff failures (just one World Series win from eleven straight division titles), the Tomahawk Choppers could be parading down Peachtree Street.

Chalk players will take Yankees-Atlanta in a heartbeat. But those whose hearts beat true have to be pulling for Twins-Cards. Now then, who's bringing the beer?


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