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Season's Greetings

As Pokey Reese can tell you, this is the year in which some of baseball's most cherished records are likely to be demolished. Pokey himself got the ball rolling on opening day by committing four errors at shortstop in support of his Cincinnati Reds' 10-2 loss to San Diego. There's probably no way to stop this juggernaut. By May 15, we can surmise, he'll have fifty "E6"s on the books and enough lithium in his bloodstream to kill Marge Schott's Saint Bernard. Just don't call Pokey "Pee Wee."

Meanwhile, out in the Windy City, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has added former Boston wife-beater Wil Cordero to a roster that already boasts chamber of commerce darling Albert Belle and, to strengthen the Chisox bullpen, two former capos from the Giancana family. "We're going for it all this season," Reinsdorf announced last week. "We mean to control the entire angel-dust trade on the South Side, and once we've got that in hand, we'll sell the outcome of every game in that big July series with the Indians to the highest bidder. This is Chicago, and don't you forget it. If Eddie Cicotte, Swede Risberg and their pals could throw the World Series in 1919, we sure as hell can give the AL pennant away again this year. Just you watch."

On the North Side, the Cubs are primed and ready to go after their second Series crown of the century, with or without Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" up in the booth. Cubs management says a different celebrity--including the team's starting pitchers--will perform the seventh-inning-stretch favorite each game day. To a man, they vow to be freshly shaved and showered by the top of the fourth. And be sure to mark that August 31 date with the Reds on your calendar, Cubs fans: Pokey Reese and Mrs. Schott are booked to fill the friendly confines of Wrigley Field with their duet rendition of "Deutschland Uber Alles," in honor of Chicagoland's many German-American fans.

If 1998's dawn was any indication, this is also the year when Roger Maris's 37-year-old record for season home runs will finally fall. In the first week of April, the game's big boppers smashed the ball out of the yard as though teenagers were out there on the hill. Make no mistake: Major League pitching quality has been diluted again by the expansion draft, and the fellows sewing cowhides in Costa Rica for 26 cents an hour had better get their fingers in gear if they expect to keep up with the demand for fresh baseballs.

Through a special arrangement with commissioner Bud Selig and eleven National League clubs, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, who hit 58 in 1997, looks to be the first behemoth to crash 62 homers this year. "The starters are under strict orders to groove heat right down the middle to Big Mac," Selig boasts. "These guys might be making the big bucks, but I'm still the boss around here. In the best interests of baseball, that record has to go, and it might as well be McGwire who does it first. July 1--that's what we're shooting for. Certainly by the All-Star break. Tell you this: The only reason I shipped my Milwaukee Brewers over to the National League was to get this thing done. Of course, if McGwire gets injured again, or if Albert Belle throws sulfuric acid in his face during that big Cards-Sox interleague set in June, we might have to rethink the whole plan. How does Barry Bonds strike you?"

Out West, in the rarefied air of Coors Field, the Colorado Rockies' Blake Street Bombers are looking forward to producing some fireworks of their own. "Tell you the truth, a nine-year-old girl could hit the ball out of this place," outfielder Dante Bichette reveals. "I've seen badminton players stand at home plate and whack the birdie into the left-field cheap seats. Why, back in 1995, in a day game against the Giants, I saw a heater on the inside corner from Rod Beck, got only decent wood on it and broke a window at a Mexican restaurant in Brighton, Colorado. And if you know Brighton like I do, you know the prevailing winds blow in toward the ballpark."

Adds center-fielder Ellis Burks: "This year our team expects to hit 400 home runs, give or take. Course, we got that deal going with the Dodgers pitchers which says that every time Walker, Dante, Castilla or I step into the batter's box, we get straight heat in our wheelhouse. The new owner out there in L.A.? He loved the deal. Way I hear it, Murdoch wants to market American baseball in Kazakhstan and Burundi through his TV networks, and the only way to do that is jump up the score. You think a tribesman in a grass breechcloth with bird dung smeared on his cheeks is gonna encourage a first-born son to work on his batting stroke after watching a lot of 2-1 games? No way. I say Larry hits 75. Me? I'll be happy with 64, just like every other dude in the league."

As the true fan knows, baseball is rooted in its rich history. But a couple of clubs, still stung by the fans' outcry over the 1994 players' strike, have their eyes fixed firmly on the future. One of them is the storied New York Yankees, whose owner, George Steinbrenner, has released a list of the next seven Yankees managers ("One for each digit in the great Mickey Mantle's jersey number," Steinbrenner enthuses), all of whom will be appointed, serve out their innings and face a firing squad at dawn by the turn of the new millennium.

"It's this kind of careful planning the game needs if it intends to retain its unique place in the national imagination," the owner says. "Tradition is everything. Listen. If Billy Martin were still alive, I'd be delighted to hire and fire him all over again. That's the Yankee way."

Down in Miami, the world-champion Marlins certainly don't want to be left out of the mix, future-wise. Management continues to be concerned about runaway player salaries and, even as we speak, is negotiating terms of the team's 1999 transfer to the Single A Florida State League. "We will be competitive," outgoing owner Wayne Huizenga promises. "Our players will be making $8.78 an hour plus three bucks a day meal money, and that will keep everyone happy, given the circumstances. If some of the boys have to take second jobs painting houses or cleaning up hurricane debris, so be it. Keeps 'em in shape. I'll tell you this. The Jupiter Hammerheads and the Kissimmee Cobras better look out when we come into the league, because we've been to the top and we're loaded for bear."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles are looking ahead to Cal Ripken Jr.'s 10,000th consecutive start in orange and black. By the end of 1998, the Iron Man will have played 2,640 straight games--so long as Albert Belle doesn't beat Ripken senseless sometime this season after being tagged out at third base. But that's a drop in the bucket, Orioles officials say. "It will take Cal only 46 more years to reach the previously unattainable 10,000 mark," Big Bird Peter Angelos says. "And wait till you see the party we throw for him then! A couple of bottles of nice domestic champagne. Nothing vintage, mind you, but ice-cold. I'm arranging for Cal to enjoy occasional golf privileges at my own club. And there's the gold-plated wheelchair. Can you believe it? Some baseball people say an 84-year-old man won't be able to get around on the fastball anymore. They don't know our Cal. In any event, he'll be in the friggin' lineup every day until the year 2044 if I have to carry the sonofabitch out there to third on my very own back. That's how much we love baseball tradition here in Baltimore. Records are made to be broken, haven't you heard?"

It has been some decades now since the horse was replaced by the pickup truck as America's primary beast of burden. The exception is Dan Issel. As irony would have it, the Denver Nuggets' new master planner is a lifelong devotee of the thoroughbred racehorse, whose cargo rarely exceeds 126 pounds, but Issel is one horse who will have to carry a load a lot heavier than that--and a lot farther than a mile and a quarter.

It remains to be seen whether the hapless Nuggets can win a tenth game this season and avoid the ignominy of tying the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers' record as the worst team in NBA history. The most popular Nuggets player in the life of the franchise will not have an easy time trying to rebuild.

Can it really be only four years since Issel, as coach of the Nuggets, spent the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby presiding over the team's unlikely playoff-clinching win over the mighty Seattle Super Sonics? Given the Nuggs' recent woes, that shining moment may as well have happened in the Bob Cousy era. Since then, the Avalanche has won the Stanley Cup, the Broncos have finally won a Super Bowl, and the Rockies have faced Atlanta in the National League playoffs.

And the Nuggets? Since 1995 they've declined from miserable to unspeakable. Now The Horse is expected to put them back together again. He helped the team reach the playoffs eight times, and he's a proven winner. Forget the season in hell. Forget the long odds. Our money's on him.