Random thoughts as the baseball season gets under way... You may have missed it, but the regular season actually began last week in Tokyo -- when Seattle and Oakland split a two-game series before two sellout crowds. Why did they play in the Tokyo Dome? Because there are very few times that either the Mariners or the Athletics draw 44,000 to a home game. This is another version of "Money Ball." For us old-fashioned fans who think Major League Baseball should be played on American soil, the season was kicked off Wednesday night in Miami's futuristic new ballpark with its retractable roof and pop art home run sculpture. By the weekend, barring inclement weather, all 30 teams will have played a game or two. Different worlds are juxtaposed at Marlins Stadium. Inside, fans sip cocktails or swim in the pool at the Clevelander lounge (a subsidiary of a South Beach nightclub). Outside is Little Havana, one of Miami's poor neighborhoods where residents let fans park their cars on their lawns for $20 or so. It's a tradition carried over from when the stadium site was known as the Orange Bowl. It seems to me that more than ever this year the old cry "You Can't Tell Players Without a Program" rings true. Most notably, the best hitter in the game, Albert Pujols, has moved from St. Louis to the Los Angeles Angels. And one of the premier closers, Jonathan Papelbon, motored down I-95 from Boston to Philadelphia.
So are the Angels and Phillies better than in 2011? Yes and no. The Angels, after also signing free agent pitcher C.J. Wilson, are better equipped to challenge Texas in the AL West. But the Phillies have been weakened by injuries to their most valuable players Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The door is open for Miami, Washington and Atlanta to challenge the Phillies.
The Marlins nearly doubled their payroll, signing free agents such as shortstop Jose Reyes and pitcher Mark Buehrle, and added a new colorful manager, Ozzie Guillen. The Nationals have a bunch of young studs who have moved through their top-rated farm system and may be ready to bloom.
And the Braves? Not so much. They look like the same team that imploded the last month of 2011. Chipper Jones is done and has hung around a couple of years too long. If Atlanta gets off to a bad start, look for manager Fredi Gonzalez, who wore out the bullpen last year, to come under fire. And guess who will be rumored to replace him? Yep, my money is on Bobby Cox, but Chipper will be in the discussion. On the subject of managers, Bobby Valentine will be front and center. He has already changed the climate during Boston's spring training. Lots of hard, tedious work on fundamentals; more innings in exhibition games and less time for golfing and the beach. Will this pay off in more victories or will the players rebel? Stay tuned. In my view, the three best managers in baseball are the Tigers' Jim Leyland, the Angels' Mike Scioscia and the Rays' Joe Maddon. All are no-nonsense, creative and -- while respected by their players -- are not "Players' Managers." And they don't refer to their players by annoyingly cute little nicknames like Cox and Terry Francona did. Raise your hand if you've heard of a pitcher named Matt Cain. Well, get this: Last Monday, Cain became the richest right-handed pitcher in baseball history when the San Francisco Giants signed him to a $126.5 million, six-year contract.
His record last year was 12-11 and his career record is 69-73. Hmm, just 286 victories fewer than Greg Maddux.
Which raises the question: Why are baseball owners paying this kind of money on long-term free agent contracts? When one owner spends outrageous sums it impacts the amount other owners will be expected to pay for the next free agent. While players celebrate, paying customers should be outraged. In the end, they will foot the bill. Lastly, an example of dumb moves. The Red Sox, with former GM Theo Epstein calling the shots, gave lucrative long-term contracts to outfielder Carl Crawford, and pitchers John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. All three failed to live up to expectations last year and all three are on the disabled list as Boston starts its season tonight. Lackey and Jenks are gone for the year and Crawford is a question mark. Epstein? He has taken his wisdom to Chicago. Good luck, Cubs fans.