Reflecting on the top baseball stories of the year will occur to others, whose evaluations may not be as Toronto-centric as mine, or as personal. Most will agree with the top four, but some may put my #10 on their "worst of" lists. To all Batter's Box contributors and readers, Happy New Year!
1. Labour Peace
This wouldn't have been much of a list, or much of a season, if the threatened strike hadn't been averted at the eleventh hour. I hope that one day, Tom Glavine (with a decent ghostwriter) publishes his autobiography and devotes several chapters to what really happened. My assumption is that he, and some other influential players, persuaded Donald Fehr to accept an unpalatable deal, because they didn't want to be blamed for ruining the game. On the other side of the table, I've portrayed the real dispute as a handful of militant owners vs. the sensible majority, and I'm sure the Commissioner changed sides, bringing at least one of the hawks with him, in order to reach the agreement. While I was relieved at the time, and considered it a return to business as usual for four more years, there were unexpected consequences (see #7 below) to the Luxury Tax. To me, the settlement was obviously the story of the year, for plenty of reasons, including the most important -- it made the next one possible.
2. World Champion Angels
The October entries on this site confirm that I rooted for Anaheim throughout the postseason. As a coach, I try to convince my players that a team can be greater than the sum of its parts, which describes the 2002 Angels perfectly. Although Fox and its advertisers wanted a repeat of Yankees-Diamondbacks, the wild-card World Series provided plenty of drama and great baseball. Among many unsung heroes, GM Bill Stoneman made all the right personnel decisions, manager Mike Scioscia pushed all the right buttons, and an unselfish group of players blended their skills to perfection. The amazing Frankie Rodriguez, the Ecks factor, the giant 3B (what's his name again, Bud?) and G.A. -- Mr. Clutch, no matter what the statheads say -- provided the best memories for this fan. Overcoming the triple-threat nuisances of Rally Monkey, Thunder-Stix and Tim McCarver, the "other" L.A. team prevailed, despite their ace losing two games, and bumped what would have been the year's second-biggest story down a notch.
3. Barry Bonds
What do you do for an encore after hitting 73 home runs? You become a 38-year-old batting champion (.370) whose OBP (.582) is astonishing. You draw 198 walks -- a third of your plate appearances -- and a lot more than the official tally of 68 are intentional. You hit 46 taters and become the fourth member of the 600 HR club. You lead your teammates to the pennant, putting an end to all the nonsense about your postseason failures. In short, you do everything humanly possible (and redefine "possible" along the way) to win a championship, but though you're the greatest player of your generation and one of the best ever, you lose in seven games to a deeper, more harmonious team, and you are robbed of the MVP. (In June, you put on an awesome batting-practice display at SkyDome that leaves one old coach tingling and speechless, then smash a high Politte fastball out -- "hang time" estimated 0.7 seconds -- during the game.) Welcome to the company of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, who coincidentally, weren't sweethearts either.
4. Contraction -- Not!
You gotta love the Minnesota Twins. A fantastic job by GM Terry Ryan to assemble a contender, despite the meddling of Carl "Scrooge" Pohlad, a brilliant injection of fun and humour into the staid Tom Kelly philosophy by skipper Ron Gardenhire, and an exciting bunch of young players with great attitudes. It was a perfect reponse to the appalling threat by MLB that it was to be their final season. If Pohlad had sold to Donald Watkins (or anyone) the future would be even brighter, and with anything resembling normal health in the rotation, they could go all the way in '03, on a still-modest budget. The Montreal/San Juan Expos are a sadder story, but at least they dodged Bud the Executioner's guillotine for another year. I've complained more than once about the conflict of interest; the Commissioner controls, barely at arm's length, two franchises too many. I'm resigned to losing a Canadian team, as I don't see a new ownership group emerging in Quebec, but the sooner the Expos are sold and relocated, the better for the game.
5. J.P. Ricciardi Saves Toronto
This won't make the lists of scribes in the U.S., and even among the local media, the Jays' GM has never received the credit he's due. From his first day as a GM, only 14 months ago, J.P. made smart, courageous moves to improve his lineup while cutting costs. The most optimistic of us, people who recognized that Ricciardi was both the protege and best friend of Billy Beane, figured it would take at least three years to rebuild a team that was going nowhere, expensively. J.P. accomplished it in record time, and the franchise is on the verge of immediate and long-term success. He promoted the right prospects, cut the deadwood, and revamped the entire organization. Not every decision has worked, but they all made sense according to the master plan. Allowing Buck Martinez to return to the broadcast booth, where he's so much better than in the dugout, and promoting Carlos Tosca, was a fine example of how doing the right thing matters more to J.P. than doing the popular thing. Toronto baseball, according to many observers, was headed down the Expos' path to extinction. Ricciardi and his staff gave fans a reason to care again.
6. Manager Roulette
Joe Kerrigan didn't survive spring training. Buddy Bell, Davey Lopes, Phil Garner, Tony Muser and Buck Martinez didn't last much longer. (Under the Little General, the Blue Jays were 58-51.) Charlie Manuel exited Cleveland's revolving door, Joel Skinner lasted only a couple of spins; enter rookie Eric Wedge. Other interim managers didn't survive; Bruce Kimm and Luis Pujols have been replaced by Dusty Baker and Alan Trammell, respectively. You probably forgot the 13-game reign of John Mizerock in Kansas City before they hired Tony Pena, if not Jerry Royster's brief and embarrasing tenure in Milwaukee. Jerry Narron and Hal McRae are out, Buck Showalter is back, and Ken Macha is finally in charge. Big names like Don Baylor and Bobby Valentine got the axe; unknowns like Bob Melvin and Ned Yost got a chance. This unprecedented flurry of activity, which I'm sure is an incomplete list (like most of my stuff, it's off the top of my head) isn't "good" or "bad," but it sure was newsworthy.
7. Baseball's Economy
A spinoff of #1, with a nod to #5. The impact of the new CBA has been more dramatic and more sudden than anyone (to my knowledge) predicted. A new era of fiscal restraint has begun, and it's too early in the game to fully understand the implications of the new rules, but Blue Jay fans should be celebrating that their management was so far ahead of the curve. Teams (even the Yankees and Phils, the only free-spenders so far in this bearish offseason) are trying so hard to unload their "bad" contracts, they will pay someone millions to take them. Toronto was the rare club with the vision to dump the likes of Mondesi, Gonzalez, Fullmer, Plesac, Borbon, Loaiza and Koch before this current market stagnation, and as the astute Mr. Beane (not Rowan Atkinson) pointed out, payroll flexibility has become more valuable than almost any player. Toronto has it, and J.P. knows how to use it.
8. There's No Tying In Baseball
9. Newest Jays Save Season
At the 2002 all-star break, the Blue Jays were 34-52, and had lost seven of eight. Eric Hinske was establishing his Rookie of the Year credentials, Vernon Wells was beginning to assume more responsibility in the clubhouse and the outfield, and recent callup Josh Phelps was settling for singles. Orlando Hudson and Mark Hendrickson were still in Syracuse; Chris Woodward was a backup, who had missed 20 games with an injury. How dramatic was the turnaround? The team went 44-32 after the break -- a 30-game swing, from 18-under .500 to 12-over, and a 94-win pace over a full year. Thank the kids: Hinske and Wells were for real, Woody emerged at SS, the energetic O-Dog arrived, and Phelps unleashed his massive swing. No kid, merely a 6'9" lefty rookie, the ex-NBA guy is 3-0, with an ERA under 1.00, as a starter. Naysayers may cite the soft September schedule, but their 19-8 final month, compared to that horrible 8-16 April, reflects the season-long improvement. I've credited the front office and the manager elsewhere, but here's a nod to third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who inherited Tosca's old job. Butter turned the erratic fielding of Eric Hinske around almost overnight, and helped all the talented youngsters make the transition to the Show. It will be fun to see what they accomplish in a full season together.
10. Coach Writes
My personal baseball highlight this year? The rebuilding Ursula Franklin Academy Flames overcame an abysmal start (we lost the first two games 15-0 and 8-1) by "running the table" to make the playoffs and reach the Final Four in our downtown high school league. Great work, guys; I'm proud of you. On the MLB front, my ESPN gig as Toronto fantasy correspondent began. Over 130,000 hits, and thousands of e-mail queries, made it a rewarding experience. My colleagues named me Rookie of the Year and MVP; I'm honoured. Regular readers requested a column archive, so after the season, this fledgling Web designer finally built a site. At first, it wasn't very exciting, but with plenty to say about baseball that didn't fit the narrow mandate of Blue Jays fantasy tips, I started blogging. After a month, Jordan accepted an invitation to join me. Two voices are better than one, and Batter's Box, to my surprise, caught on. Craig, Sean, Dave and Mick have enhanced our lineup, and I'm thrilled at the response, in comments and e-mails, from so many people in such a short time. Thank you all, and wait 'til next year.