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Whether or not progress is inevitable is one of those things that
historians, cranks and the Census Bureau spend plenty of time kvetching
about, usually all at the same place and at the same time. If you’re
someone who thinks things do get better, here are some reasons to believe
it, and some reasons to doubt it, all courtesy of the AL Central.

Lets start with the Twins, because I’m still chuckling about a couple of
news items involving them. First, my buddy Keith Scherer reports that the
Vegas over/under for the Twins is 64 1/2 wins. Now, I don’t want to condone
gambling, because it has become a national problem. But I can’t help
wanting to plunk down some money on that. I can’t help but think Guido,
while he might be a distant cousin and a gourmand of no small repute, is
taking both Sports Illustrated and CBS Sportsline far too seriously
when they say the Twins will be the worst team in baseball. It’s a trendy
pick, but in a world that’s giving us the Marlins, the Angels, the Brewers
and the Cubs, none of us should believe it for a second.

The Twins have already made two correct choices where they had to exercise
some discretion. They’ve made space for both David Ortiz at first
base and Matt LeCroy at catcher. They made some other sensible
decisions too, punting Chad Allen, Doug Mientkiewicz and
Javy Valentin. Toss those choices into the same hopper that’s
spitting out Corey Koskie as a regular and a hopefully healthy
Matt Lawton, and it means the Twins are going to score a lot more
runs than they did last year. Add that to a rotation that might be the
second-best in the division, courtesy of Terry Ryan’s insistence than no
matter how many times the media wants to hand Brad Radke to the Red
Sox, he’s going to keep the right-hander. To me, that looks like a team
that should win at least 70 games, and might surprise everyone with 75.

Let’s move over to the Tribe. I’ve heckled them in the past for moving
Steve Karsay into the rotation, but if there’s a guy better-suited
to the Eck-style closer’s role, I don’t know who he is. Like Dennis
Eckersley
circa 1987, everyone knows there’s only so much that Karsay’s
right elbow can stand. He has outstanding control, but far from dominating
velocity. Although he doesn’t have a bunch of wins, a no-hitter and several
drinking binges under his belt like the Eck had by the time Tony LaRussa
got hold of him, Karsay is generally credited with knowing what he’s doing.
So while most teams don’t need to fiddle around with turning people into
one-inning closers (guys like Keith Foulke and Derek Lowe are too valuable
to use that way), this is the right kind of situation for a team to get
maximum value out of an otherwise uncertain pitcher. A situation where the
past can teach the right kind of lesson for the right kind of player. It
isn’t progress, but it is improvement.

But while the Indians have the chance to do something good, the decision to
carry both Bobby Witt and Scott Kamieniecki hardly seems like
progress over last year’s antics with Tom Candiotti and Mark
Langston
. Who’s next? Mark Gubicza? Randy Lerch? Rip
Taylor
?

There isn’t much to say about the Tigers. Last year’s master plan of solo
home runs and…well, that’s about as far as Randy Smith got…didn’t work
too well. This year’s master plan of solo home runs in a bigger ballpark
has been bolstered by a rotation made up of damned-fine well-meaning third
starters. This might be an improvement over the previous plan, but if
improvement is saving Randy Smith’s job, then this is the
Counter-Reformation, right down to the stultifying boredom every Sunday as
we all laze in the cool breezes and quick innings their lineup will so
generously provide.

The Royals? Every time you think Herk Robinson may have figured something
out, he does something else that reminds you that progress has to be
cumulative if it’s going to amount to anything. He wised up just long
enough to notice that Paul Sorrento wouldn’t do him any good, then
went back to plodding in the same circular rut by deciding that Sal
Fasano
isn’t better than Jorge Fabregas despite several seasons’
worth of evidence.

If the Royals are so strapped for cash, why toss more money at the A’s for
someone they could have signed as a minor-league free-agent themselves (in
this case, "Rico" McCarty, the non-Bopper)? Because Billy Beane
is a delightful conversationalist? Herk must think keeping his team in a
few decades’ worth of a self-inflicted Time of Troubles might be enough to
keep the Mongols off the Great Plains.

At least the White Sox seem to have gotten the hang of progress. Maybe.
While they have their fair share of good young hitters and potentially
better young pitchers, progress can depend on an ability to apply the
lessons the past provides. Do the Sox get it? Not when Jerry Manuel talks
about the thunder Greg Norton might provide in the eighth slot, if
he gets to play at all, and this after last year’s success with Norton in
the second slot, where his OBP does them some good.

The absence of progress that’s chawing my hide right now is related to
something William Gibson wrote in Wired over seven years ago, about
how the media is always years behind the learning curve. A perfect
illustration of this is Les Munson’s sanctimoniously high-minded piece on
Frank Thomas in Sports Illustrated, where cutting-edge
journalism "proves" that Thomas hasn’t hit for the last two years
because of his business dealings, his personal life, screwing up his Reebok
endorsements and not taking enough Vitamin E.

I know we’ve gone down this road before, but none of this adds up to
anything close to direct evidence for why Thomas hasn’t hit as well in the
last two seasons as he did when he was drawing comparisons to Ted
Williams
. It makes for a neat story, which in the magazine business is
good for the big bucks, except that Chicagoans and Sox fans have known
about Thomas’s off-field adventures for a couple of years now. You could
just as easily crank out a half-dozen pages about why Jerry Manuel is the
catalyst for Thomas’s problems, and it would be no more true or false. All
it takes is a few leading statements about how good Frank Thomas was when
that nice man Terry Bevington ran the team, and how everything went sour
when a bible-thumping preachy headline-grabber came to town. None of it has
to be true or based on anything more than circumstantial evidence, but
sports journalism isn’t the business of fairness or proof. It’s the
business of getting a share of your entertainment dollar. And that hasn’t
changed since Gibson wrote why news isn’t now, or since W. Randolph Hearst
decided to start a war.

So progress is slippery. The things to take faith in are the teams and the
players, and the ways in which they’ll surprise all of us no matter how
much information we have at our command. Some teams will blunder to glory,
and others will be genuinely surprised and caught totally flat-footed when
things don’t work out the way they thought or claimed they would. Some
teams will win, and that may get called progress. Some teams will lose, and
will nonetheless claim they’ve made progress. But until teams demonstrate
that they understand the things that win ballgames, simple things like OBP
or sensible comparative talent evaluation or running a pitching staff, not
everybody is going to make progress. Baseball isn’t like Lake Woebegon,
where all the children are above average. For every Billy Beane, there’s a
Randy Smith, and that just means progress for the fortunate will come at
somebody else’s expense.