Battin’ Around: Nine Interesting Things About Baseball Now

Associated Press

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Chris Sale delivers the ball to the plate against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday as part of his masterful one-hit performance.

By Kyle Means, Regal Radio

Even though the weather is starting to favor the sport more consistently now than any other game, baseball has it pretty tough in May.

Basketball and hockey take center stage in May and with good reason, their most important games are going on now. Football is an unwilling second fiddle at all parts of the year so of course there’s more breakdowns of new rookies at OTAs and new transfers at college spring games on some channels than there is breakdowns of the Royals staff and the Reds’ lineup.

Even niche sports like horse racing and auto racing (maybe go-kart racing too) have their biggest moments in May and try to snatch a little bit of shine.

Baseball is pretty secure of itself, so it doesn’t need me to come to its defense but in order to feel like a responsible arbiter of sports news I feel inclined to keep up with the sport at some time prior to July. With that said here’s nine all-star story lines lined up along the baseline, applaud as they tip their hats:

1. The future is all Chicago baseball has right now And that future stood out in a pronounced way this past Sunday with White Sox ace Chris Sale’s dominant performance that night against the Angels, a squib hit from Mike Trout away from perfection, and with the news leaking later that night that Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo was given a seven-year, $41 million dollar extension.

With the two teams a combined 10 games under .500 and sitting in their respective division cellars, there’s only promise to be had in both sides of town right now but in Sale and Rizzo the teams have managed to pick two good horses to get behind.

Sale is a top-10 pitcher in the league now and his starts now have to be appointment viewing for anyone who truly appreciates good pitching, his Sunday performance was the type to inspire plays like this, from fielders who otherwise have struggled this season. A perfecto would have put him firmly in Chicago sports lore but he still has time, he’s only started 37 damn games.

Rizzo, on the other hand, plays a glamour position in first base, he’s a handsome guy with a hell of a back story and an accessible ethnicity about him that will help endure him to many different segments of the Cubs fan base.

Plus, he smacks the ball around, his power numbers of nine homers and 29 RBIs this year already rival his previous best from last year (15 and 48). The Cubs exercised good timing on this one, jumping on Rizzo and securing him into his 30s before he really starts to draw attention to himself at the plate.

2. Big Z bouncing around For anyone who followed the Cubs in recent years, the idea of Carlos Zambrano pitching for the Independent League in Long Island, as he did earlier this season, was an eye-opening (and funny) proposition. Zambrano is no longer a source of such laughter as he was announced today to have signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies.

Zambrano’s unpredictable and often dominant demeanor on and off the field made him a notable figure in the game during his years with the Cubs but he fell right off the map last year in Miami. No one tried him at all this past off-season and in April he was spotted at Wrigley supposedly not to test the Cubs willingness to bring him back in the fold, a sight that couldn’t have been sadder if he panhandled in front of the Ron Santo statue.

Taking the long way back to the majors is always a compelling story, so if Zambrano could sport a Phillies jersey sometime this year it would be quite a sight.

3. To Live and Die (and Pay) in LA Two of the six top payrolls in baseball reside in the LA area, the second-ranked Dodgers have the only roster clocking over $200 mil besides the Yankees and no team made splashier signings over the past two years than the sixth-ranked Angels (Pujols, Josh Hamilton, etc) so why are they a combined 15 games under .500?

And like the sad pair in Chicago, these two would be both in the basement of their divisions if not for the woeful Houston Astros’ new existence in the American League (almost worthy of a spot on this list itself — really, what good did that move do for anyone, except for the teams that play Houston several more times a year, of course).

4. Strasberg may need some more time off He isn’t getting it of course, he’s too important to the mission of the Washington Nationals (too bad they couldn’t fully figure that out last year), plus he’s pitching Thursday in his home town of San Diego, but the erstwhile ace’s 1-5 start to the season has been one of the unfortunate surprises that has caused the World Series favorite Nats to have a so-so 21-19 start to the season.

Could unresolved issues from his late season shutdown last year be messing with Strasberg mentally? Could it be a arm mechanic twitch? Maybe he’s as wrapped up in the stalemates in Congress as any other good Washingtonian? Ionno, but if things don’t turnaround for Strasberg, we’re going to see another SI World Series prediction go down the drain. Surprise, surprise.

5. The Yankees Live! The old, beaten down Yankees, who got swept out the playoffs last season currently sit atop the AL East with a 25-16 record, better than everyone in the AL except for Texas and eight games better than the free-spending Toronto Blue Jays, who were so many people’s sexy pick to overthrow the old order in the East.

Instead, the Granderson-less Yanks and the “Boston Strong” Sox are still 1-2 at the top of that division. Baltimore still looks like competitors but Tampa Bay is square at .500 and news broke out Thursday that Cy Young winner David Price is hitting the DL. The more things change, yall…

6. Interleague takeover Nothing much to say here about interleague games being played all season long. Maybe it is the way it should be, it is the way every other sports league operates, but its confusing to see the White Sox play the Nationals in the second week of the season and the whole idea officially waters down whatever was special about the idea in the first place.

I did hear the interesting idea this week of a unified MLB one day where only the top eight teams make the postseason, with no regard to divisions. Doing away the idea of pennant races would be a hit to baseball for many, but the game already has play-in wild card games now. When you can finish third in a so-called division and still play into October, why really have divisions at all?

7. Bury me in center field, coach Nobody does it quite like the Northwoods League, I tells ya, and I know having helped cover the Wisconsin Woodchucks of Wausau for several years. A NWL rival of the Chucks, the Eau Claire Express, has to have the front-runner for weirdest team promotion of the year though.

The Express is actually having a funeral pre-planning night with one lucky fan winning a pre-planned funeral worth $4,000. Take me now, lord.

8. Jackie Robinson of the SEC passes One man who, with all due respect, is already enjoying the upper room is Stephen Martin, a hero for all of us.

To put it plain, Martin, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 66, integrated the sport of baseball in the Southeastern Conference…in 1966…in the freakin’ Southeast part of the United States, also a full year before the first black varsity competitors in football or basketball in that conference. It doesn’t take a great imagination to picture what Martin had to go through to.

The film 42 so vividly laid out recently what Jackie Robinson went through and most of that happened in northern states, imagine trying to play the game with people’s children in the Jim Crow south. A great figure who I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know before today. There are stories like this all around, lets not quit unearthing them.

9. Baseball can still bring people together, if we let it Maybe if the example of men like Jackie and Stephen Martin were cited to the parents and coaches of Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, a situation wouldn’t have happened where the North Side school just played a baseball game with Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep of the South Side this past weekend after two questionable re-schedulings.

An ongoing story in Chicago, a postponement of a high school baseball game entered a cross-section of racial, social and political cross-hairs when it came out that parents from Payton did not initially want their kids to travel to Brooks, which is located in the Roseland neighborhood, one of the South Side’s rougher neighborhoods by reputation.

There was apparently a worry from people who by all means are Chicagoans but who only see the area south of Roosevelt Road (12th street) in the prism of weekend shooting reports and Chief Keef lyrics. In some ways its hard to blame those North Siders for their fears but you can’t let those thoughts exercise themselves in such a blatant disrespectful act as it was for Payton to not initially show up for that game. I wonder what that school’s namesake would have thought of the way these people were treating and portraying a poor black neighborhood and young black athletes that just wanted to host a game and prove themselves on the field once more this season.

A lot of irony and unfortunate circumstances to go around here, but in the end the game brought them together– they played, in the heart of Roseland, no one got shot and no one had any hard feelings beyond Payton getting the better of Brooks on the field. Through the ongoing coverage of this situation it seemed like the kids themselves just wanted to play, it was the adults around them who were swirling around wrong-headed ideas and showing a lack of leadership. Aint that so often the way?

We got to do better by our kids in Chicago period, there’s a lot to deal with for people on all sides of the city. To foster irrational fear of any kind of Chicagoan or any kind of Chicago neighborhood helps no one. Its good to know that at least where there are some games to play and some fields to play on that some common ground can still be found.

Follow Kyle Means on Twitter @Wrk_Wrt

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