Tim Wendel is the author of Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever (2012), which recounts a World Series (the Tigers came back from a three-to-one deficit to defeat the Cardinals) played against a background of national tragedy and turmoil (the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a tumultuous Democratic National Convention, and urban riots). The author of eight other works of nonfiction and fiction, Wendel is a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University. His novella Habana Libre is due out this spring. In anticipation of opening day, we asked him to pose questions about prospects for the summer of ’13 and other baseball matters.
1. Steroids in baseball made headlines again in the off-season when sportswriters couldn’t bring themselves to select anybody for the Hall of Fame. Thanks to whispers about performance-enhancing drugs, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens remain on the outside looking in, but such “clean” nominees as Craig Biggio and Jack Morris also failed to gain entry. Voters (members of the Baseball Writers’ Association) get a reprieve on the 2014 ballot because pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas will be eligible for consideration. None are believed to have used PEDs, and Maddux could rival Tom Seaver (98.84 percent) and Nolan Ryan (98.79 percent) for highest vote percentages ever. But what happens after this love fest, especially when it comes to Bonds and Clemens? And will the latest steroids scandal, allegedly involving Alex Rodriguez and others, further influence the voters down the road?
2. The last night of the 2011 season has been called the most exciting in baseball history. Divisional rivals Atlanta and Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, and Tampa and New York played taut contests with playoff eligibility on the line. With Houston shifting to the American League at the beginning of this season, baseball has 15 teams in each league. That may look good on paper, but it means fewer rival games when it matters most and often reduces the marquee divisional matchups that most of us want to see. The Yankees, for example, play six of their final nine games against the Giants and Astros. Think that’s bad? Take a look at Detroit’s schedule. The Tigers close out the regular season with three games on the road against the Miami Marlins. Are there too many interleague games?
3. Baseball’s narrative has long been dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The epic rivalry dates back to Babe Ruth’s trade from Boston to New York in 1919, through the midcentury years when Joe DiMaggio (Yankees) and Ted Williams (Sox) were power hitters, and up to the present day with Derek Jeter and David “Big Papi” Ortiz, who have regularly taken center stage in classic games down the stretch and in the postseason. Even with the Tampa Bay Rays playing interloper, the American League East has often come down to the Yanks and the Sox. This year, however, in a division turned upside down, the Toronto Blue Jays are considered by many to be the best team on paper as the season begins. Thanks to a pair of costly trades, Toronto landed National League Cy Young winner R. A. Dickey, as well as front-line pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. If Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes—two more Toronto newcomers—can stay healthy, are the Jays destined to capture their first title since 1993?
4. Last year, the Washington Nationals reached the postseason, the first time a D.C. team had done so in 79 years. Now, thanks to strategic signings by General Manager Mike Rizzo, the Nats are being touted as the favorite in the National League. The bullpen imploded in the playoffs last October, so relief specialist Rafael Soriano has been brought in. Also, right-hander Dan Haren, known for his control and ability to mix pitches, joins one of the game’s best rotations, alongside 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez and fireballer Stephen Strasburg. Even the puzzle about who should bat leadoff was solved with the arrival of center fielder Denard Span. Will it be enough to put a Washington team in the World Series for the first time since 1933?
5. For decades, the Yankees had the game’s biggest payroll, and owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner aren’t scaling back very much. Still, the deepest pockets now reside in Southern California. A year after giving Albert Pujols a 10-year, $240 million contract, the Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were in bankruptcy a year ago, were expected to have a payroll above $210 million as the season opened, according to The New York Times. In comparison, the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, and Cleveland Indians are projected to field teams for only $80 million or so. Once again we have to ask, can big money buy a championship?
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