January 4, 2011
For millions of baseball devotees, Opening Day in early April is the most anticipated date on the calendar. The promise of their favorite sport being played on a daily basis again provides an immediate and uplifting antidote to their annual winter depression. It's the start of a seven-month involvement with statistics and on-field happenings augmenting their daily routine.
But this is not the case for many other baseball fans.
There are basically three levels of fandom for baseball or any sport - even religion, for that matter. There are the fanatics, who live and breathe their favorite pastimes from before the season to after it. On the other end of the spectrum are those who pay attention only from the pennant stretch through the World Series. Think of the worshippers who attend religious services only on specific holy days.
Yet for most baseball fans, the season really commences now, at the All-Star break. Considering that most who follow baseball also keep track of other sports, up to now baseball has really taken a back seat. Basketball and hockey playoffs took precedence from April through mid-June. There were also the two most important golf events, the Masters and the U.S. Open, plus the French Open and Wimbledon in tennis as well as other events like horse racing's Triple Crown and the Indianapolis 500. And of course this year there was the matter of the just-concluded World Cup.
Now there will be few other sporting distractions until the second week of September, when our actual national pastime, the NFL, starts its regular season. Until then there are just two golf majors, this week's British Open and the PGA Championship in mid-August, to deflect attention from our summer game.
So for countless fans, this is their time to catch up and see what has been going on these last three months. The Midsummer Classic serves as a primer of sorts, almost like a midterm exam testing their baseball acumen as many fans will have been cramming these last few days to make sure they're up to date as the second half of the season approaches.
Everyone is cognizant of the big news items thus far. Most have been pitching accomplishments: Ubaldo Jimenez's 15-1 start and no-hitter, perfect games by Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden, Jim Joyce's blown call that prevented a perfect game by Armando Galarraga, and young phenom Stephen Strasburg in our nation's capital. All of these exciting developments surely generated interest and excitement.
But many other stories have slid under the radar of most casual fans yet have added much color to the unfinished but already rich canvas that is the 2010 season. Two that come to mind are a pair of 35-year-old players vastly different in accomplishment, style, background and legacy: Vladimir Guerrero of the Rangers and R.A. Dickey of the Mets.
This has not only been a season of vindication of sorts for Guerrero but one that should further certify his Hall of Fame credentials. Always seemingly relaxed to the point that some thought he lacked a crucial competitive drive, few believed that Vlad - or the Rangers, for that matter - would make much of an impact this year. After all, Guerrero struggled with nagging injuries over the last two years, and the Angels decided not to re-sign him.
But with a new team and a new position - DH, to ease the burden on his aching body - Guerrero has been what he always was, a dominant offensive force. Currently second in the American League with 75 RBIs to go with 20 home runs and a .319 average, he'll easily secure his ninth season of at least 30 homers and 10th of 100 RBIs.
If he stays healthy another couple of years, he'll surely reach that magical 500-homer plateau and gather upward of 1,700 RBIs, certain Hall of Fame numbers. And this from a player about whom has arisen nary a scent of steroid use. The only unfortunate thing is that we're no longer witnesses to his extraordinary arm, which allowed him to record double-digit assists in seven of his first eight seasons.
With the Rangers looking like strong contenders to make the postseason, Guerrero's second-half exploits will become that much more compelling to watch.
Dickey will never be mistaken for someone enshrined in Cooperstown. Entering this season, the peripatetic Dickey had compiled a meager 22 victories in seven years with the Rangers, Mariners and Twins. Once a promising prospect who played with the bronze-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 1996, Dickey has spent the better part of his career in the minor leagues.
Determined to alter his destiny, Dickey developed the knuckleball about five years ago. Soon after, he garnered two dubious distinctions - tying the record for most home runs surrendered in a start, with six, as well as tying the record for most wild pitches in an inning, with four (though this can be viewed as an honor as he's tied with Walter Johnson and Phil Niekro, among others).
After honing his new pitch, Dickey was summoned from the Buffalo Bisons to the Mets in early May and has never looked back. Compiling a 6-2 record in 10 starts, Dickey's contributions are a major reason the Mets are in the thick of the NL East and wild-card races.
Add to his impressive numbers a throwback hair and socks style, along with a pleasant and intelligent demeanor, and it's impossible not to like and root for this guy. The Mets are fortunate to give Gotham such a treat. I just can't conjure up an image of someone so loose - not to mention hairy - playing for the stuffy and humorless machine that is the Yankees.