A month into the 2006 baseball season, and we have already seen a lot of surprises. Did anyone expect Albert Pujols to absolutely crush the whole “best player in baseball” talk so soon? I mean, he is in a league of his own right now, and not only does he do it every day, he does it in those moments that define greatness, in the late innings. Did anyone think that the Mets would be this good and the Braves this bad? How about Jim Thome? Did anyone see this coming? Washed up, naw…not even close, all it took was a change of scenery for Thome to bring out the Grade A beef this year. Anybody else surprised by Barry Bonds struggles this season? I mean, I knew he was hurt and it would take him some time, but I didn’t think he would be hitting a pedestrian .262 with 5 HR and 12 RBI ? He WILL improve, no doubt, but we have come to expect incomparable greatness from him, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again from him. Forget the whole steroids issue, he is an amazing baseball player and we are witnessing greatness with each at-bat he takes. I got to see Barry Bonds when he played the Atlanta Braves at the Ted and he hit a homerun, and I will be able to say 50 years from now that I saw arguably the best player ever hit a homerun, and that means something, regardless of all the controversy surrounding him.
Is anybody else highly apprehensive and anxious about the Braves early season exhibition of ineptitude? The Braves had been notorious for starting out slow over the last few years, but how far behind do they want to fall back? The Braves are younger than those previous teams and far more prone to injury. Andruw Jones had to carry the entire team on his back and have a franchise record-breaking year to carry this team to the playoffs last year. The Braves have to get their act together, especially now that the Mets have already shown the Braves this season that they are not intimidated and that they are part of a new regime that is more talented and confident than in years. The Braves better not expect the other teams to falter, rather they should focus on trying to straighten their own situation out and to start winning some more ballgames. They HAVE to do something about the bullpen, the bullpen is exactly what let the Braves down last year against the Houston Astros in the NLDS, and it is already rearing its ugly head. The Braves inefficient and inconsistent play in close games has only exploited this major weakness. Ever since John Smoltz left the bullpen to become a starting pitcher again, the Braves bullpen has taken several steps back and has regressed. Roger McDowell was brought in to replace Leo Mazzone to primarily provide some insight about relief pitching and to improve the bullpen. Mazzone’s area of strength was starting pitching and the organization felt that they should hire a pitching coach who had experience and expertise in relief pitching. I think I can speak for all Braves’ fans when I say that we are still waiting on those results. The Braves will get it together, I have no doubt about that, they are exceptionally coached and well disciplined, and do not often beat themselves, but will it be too little, too late? They cannot rely on their reputation anymore because the other teams in the NL are now looking to take advantage of the Braves’ inefficiency. It’s like the Braves are playing poker and are just folding every hand until they get that big hand where they will be able to win big, but they better be real careful. However, I have learned one universal truth over the last 14 years: never bet against the Braves ( at least in the regular season ) and never doubt Bobby Cox ( at least not in the regular season ). On a side note, Isn’t Bobby Cox the Frank Costanza of baseball managers? I mean, the guy sits quiet in the dugout for most of the game, then just runs out to the field and explodes in the face of the umpire. He’s like a cobra. Nobody sees or feels him coming, but every now and then (more often than any other manager), he will become irate about a call or miscall and get in the face of the umpire and go absolutely bananas…Can’t you just picture him going to the umpire, screaming, hurling obscenities, and then just yelling at the top of his lungs, “Serenity Now!!!”….
I even heard a local sports radio show this morning bragging on how the Braves beat up on the Mets this past Sunday (13-3) and how we really showed those New York Mets. Somebody please take the crack pipe away from some of these sports radio hosts!! Did they not see us being dismantled by the Mets in the last two series? What has given anyone the indication that we still own the Mets? I give credit where credit is due, and the Mets how shown that they will NOT back down this year and that they are far improved from previous years. They are the BETTER team ( at least on paper ), I am not afraid to admit that, but that does not in anyway guarantee them the division. If anything, us Braves fans should be worried and we should start wanting to see some major improvement and consistency from our hometown team instead of relying on our reputation and feeling indifferent to this dismal start to the 2006 season. Teams relfect their fans, just like the hard working citizens of Philadelphia represent the blue collar work ethic of the Philadelphia Eagles. If we as fans become complacent about success, then the team will start to reflect that and exude those same characteristics and qualities of the very fans that support them.
Now, back to the crazy 1st month of baseball. It’s good to know that there are some things that we can always rely on, like the Royals being as bad as they always have been (they are the anti-Braves, they don’t know how to win), the White Sox being every bit as good as they were last year, and the Cubs once again without Wood and Prior. Will Wood and Prior every live up to their potential? How about the Cubs trading either one and getting some players that can actually play 150 games a year? There are a lot of teams who are willing to give up great players and/or prospects for either of those pitchers. Could anyone have imagined a few years ago when Gred Maddux signed with the Cubs that he would be their best and most consistent pitcher this year? How long are they willing to wait on their dream rotation?
What about those Reds? They CANNOT be this good, and the season will show that they aren’t, but that offense will carry them to a land far from mediocrity, but not far enough to the promised land of the MLB playoffs. The same can be said of the Colorado Rockies, who are one of the youngest teams in the majors and are proving to everyone that they can win on the road and that they should be taken seriously this year. They will fade too, but this is the beauty of baseball, the pure unpredictability of the MLB season NEVER ceases to dissapoint.