Somewhere, People Cheer

Where is everybody, baseball fans? Well, let's have a look:

Larry Walker is in St. Louis, suddenly in the pink and belting playoff home runs. The Montreal Expos are in oblivion, waiting to be revived next spring as -- what? Let's say, the Washington Lobbyists. Most of the Cubs faithful are in therapy. Others are in Harry Caray's place, swilling Old Style and cursing that damn goat. Tinker to Evers to No Friggin' Chance. Barry Bonds, age forty, is in his prime. And if we can believe the personal preferences listed on his website, Barry's also in a Chinese restaurant (eating his favorite food) while he contemplates an afternoon round of golf (his favorite sport), to which he will be transported in a big Hummer (his favorite vehicle) as a personal assistant recites verses from the Bible (his favorite book). Bonds's favorite steroid? The man with 703 home runs isn't saying.

The baseball radar also tells us that the California Angels are in their rumpus rooms, watching the good playoff teams on TV. The Rockies are in turmoil. And incognito. Todd Helton is in purgatory, and Shawn Chacon is in LoDo, running for his life from a mob of season-ticket holders armed with pitchforks. Oh, and Denny Neagle is in rehab. Yes, still. Be patient. These things take time. Like a trip to Pluto. Or getting Uncle Elmer from Fargo to pick up a dinner check.

Whither the New York Yankees? As usual, the Yankees are in their glory, sharpening up the cutlery for their next encounter with the Boston Red Sox. Because when they have the gall to lose, George Steinbrenner turns into Saddam Hussein's kid -- the one who tortured the soccer players. And Roger Clemens? Roger's back home in Houston, enjoying the golden years. From what we hear, though, the old fellow can still bring a pretty good heater to the plate. Why, just the other day he threw 116 pitches in a 9-3 playoff win against the Atlanta Braves. Not bad for a creaky retiree who was recovering from a bout with the flu. Said he: "I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel." Yes, and Bush is about to dump Cheney for Muqtada al Sadr.

When the history of the 2004 baseball season is written, it will show that a skinny slap hitter from Japan -- the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki looks like he's shooing mosquitoes up there at the plate -- broke a Major League record for hits in a season (George Sisler, St. Louis Browns, 257) that had stood since Woodrow Wilson was president. It will show that the aforementioned Mr. Bonds won his second National League batting title (.362) in three years while setting new career marks for on-base percentage (.609), walks (232) and the price of personal memorabilia: a Bonds-signed baseball commemorating his 700th home run goes for $699.95; a San Francisco Giants jersey autographed by the outfielder and his godfather, Willie Mays (who struck a mere 660 home runs in his career) will set you back $2,995.95. Plus tax. God only knows what a wad of Bonds's game-used bubble gum will bring next season, when he will presumably surpass Babe Ruth's 714 homers and set sail after Henry Aaron's record of 755.

Alas, the Giants failed once again to make post-season play. Cubs and Red Sox fans can bellyache all they want, but the Giants have put together a nice little drought of their own: They haven't won a World Series since 1954, when they were the New York Giants and Mays was their young center-fielder.

Elsewhere, the master of finesse, Greg Maddux, won his 300th game, pitching for the team he started with, those same star-crossed Cubs. In view of five-man rotations and the specialization trends in relief pitching, it's likely Maddux will be the game's last 300-win man. But the North Side was again cloaked in October gloom, as what was supposed to be the best Chicago team in twenty years dropped five of its last six games and folded its hand in the NL wild-card race. This year, they didn't even have a fan in the stands to blame for failure, although plenty of heat came down on manager Dusty Baker and on WGN broadcaster Steve Stone -- the traitor! -- who had the nerve to point out the Cubs foibles in no uncertain terms. Good for you, Stoney. 'Bout time somebody turned the lights on at Wrigley.

Sic transit gloria, as Yogi Berra used to say. The Arizona Diamondbacks, world champions just three seasons ago, did the Dorian Gray thing in 2004, losing 111 of their 162 games for the worst mark on baseball. But Randy Johnson, the Snakes' forty-year-old, 6'10" lefty, apparently was paying no attention to the clock, or to that musty odor down in the National League West cellar. This year the Big Unit pitched a perfect game against the formidable Atlanta Braves and became just the fourth guy with 4,000 strikeouts; appropriately enough, he set the all-time mark for lefties (4,137) against -- who else? -- the Colorado Rockies.

While we're at it, step into the morgue for a moment, and we'll have a look at the autopsy report. For just the third time in their twelve years, the hapless Rox lost more than ninety games -- finishing 68-94, 25 games behind the division-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. They were five games under .500 at homer-happy, customarily Rockies-friendly Coors Field, and they managed to put just 29,596 mostly unhappy customers in the seats, on average. Baseball obsessives on a strict budget had no more trouble catching, say, a Rockies-Brewers game than Pamela Anderson would have crashing a smoker at the Sigma Chi house. On Blake Street in August, you could snag a pair of box seats from a scalper for fifteen bucks. Where is everybody? Scratching each other's eyes out for Nuggets tickets, that's where.

Post-mortem, manager Clint Hurdle allowed that his top priority in the off-season would be to shore up the Rockies bullpen. This is a bit like the captain of the Hindenburg telling his passengers that the first thing he'll do when they get to New Jersey is install fire extinguishers. First baseman Helton batted .347 (second only to Bonds in the NL) and scored at the top of five more hitting categories; Jeromy Burnitz hit 37 home runs (eighth in the league); and fan favorite Vinny Castilla, who returned to Denver for more punishment after stints in Atlanta and Tampa, led the NL with 131 RBIs. But the Rockies team earned run average was a grotesque 5.55, and the man everyone loved to hate, recently deposed closer Shawn Chacon, gave up 71 hits, 52 walks and 52 runs in just 63 innings pitched and lost nine games while winning only one. Chacon is not the only problem toeing the slab for the Rockies -- the bullpen lost a league-leading forty games, overall -- but if you want a poster boy for futility, Chac's your man.

Looking for a ray of light? Pitching coach Bob Apodaca sent two decent starting pitchers out there this year: Shawn Estes (15-8, 5.84) and Joe Kennedy (9-7, 3.66). But what does it say about 2005 that the shining hope is young Jason Jennings, who went 11-12 over 201 innings this season and nailed the team ERA mark with 5.51? Look for the dirigible to get almost to the docking tower again next season.

Meanwhile, real baseball, October baseball at the highest level, is being contested in other time zones this week. While the cash-strapped, pitcher-poor, suddenly youth-obsessed Rockies have no chance of returning to contention in the next five years -- the only time they had a winning record in 2004 was after their opening-day win -- clubs with authentic talent and actual tradition are duking it out for the big prize. If there's a God, the Yankees will manage the near-impossible and fail to reach the World Series again -- making way for the Bambino-cursed, long-suffering strivers from Boston. The Big Guy's already retired the Braves and their red foam tomahawks for another season, and He's dismissed all those sushi-munching L.A. Dodger fans with a Rose Bowl wave. And he'll probably remind Clemens and Andy Pettitte that, yes, they already own World Series rings, so the rest of the Astros will just have to suffer, too.

The Best and the Brightest? The St. Louis Cardinals, decorated these days by our own ex-hero, Larry Walker, and by three MVP candidates, versus the Red Sox, who haven't won the Series since 1918. The finale? Boston in six -- Babe Ruth and the Yanks be damned.