Baseball season opens Thursday, with a refreshing lack of labor problems
Unlike other major sports, baseball is free from labor strife. The season will open this week — on a Thursday for the first times since 1976. The Mariners' first game is Friday in Oakland.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The 2011 major-league season will begin this week with something completely different: the first season-opening games played on a Thursday since 1976.
The schedule was rejiggered in an effort to get the World Series finished before November, a noble goal endorsed by every shivering postseason fan.
The even better news for baseball fans, however, is that there is virtually no risk of the season being disrupted by a labor dispute, despite a collective-bargaining agreement that expires on Dec. 11.
While the NFL is in the midst of a nasty lockout, and the NBA and NHL face perilous upcoming negotiations, there seem to be no major issues impeding the baseball players union and the owners from reaching a pact. For a sport that once seemed almost preordained to have bloody labor wars, it's a hugely positive development.
In that spirit, let's leave the distasteful world of labor strife and get to the fun stuff. The 2011 season — the first without a Ken Griffey (Sr. or Jr.) on the field since 1972 — will feature the San Francisco Giants defending their improbable championship on one extreme, and the Pirates trying desperately (and probably futilely) to carve out their first winning season since 1992 on the other.
The biggest shadow of the year will be cast by Albert Pujols, whose decision to cut off negotiations with the Cardinals will add tension and intrigue to what could be his last season in St. Louis. I'd bet decent money — though well short of the unfathomable dollars he stands to earn if and when he hits free agency next winter — that Pujols will rise to the challenge with an epic campaign.
If 2010 was The Year of the Pitcher, featuring six no-hitters (including two perfect games and one postseason no-no, not to mention Armando Galarraga's should-have-been perfecto), then 2011 could be The Year of the Rotation.
Specifically, the year of the exalted Phillies rotation, boosted by the unexpected signing of Cliff Lee, stolen from right under the Yankees' noses. With Roy Halladay (who had one of the perfect games last year, and also the postseason no-hitter, to go with his second Cy Young Award), Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and now Lee, the Phillies have, on paper, one of best quartets in recent baseball history.
But on grass, they'll have to deal with the ongoing health concerns of second baseman Chase Utley and another stint on the disabled list by closer Brad Lidge. As the Miami Heat has shown, the mere act of congregating superstars does not guarantee a smooth season. That said, I like their chances.
On the offensive front, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays disproved the notion last year that the 50-homer man is obsolete in the steroids testing era. Bautista came from nowhere — actually, from undistinguished stints in the Pirates, Orioles, Rays, Royals and Mets organizations — to belt 54 of them. No one had hit 50 homers since Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder in 2007. Now Bautista faces the inevitable question: Can he do it (or even come close) again?
Speaking of A-Rod, he needs just 18 homers to reach 631 and surpass his old Mariners teammate, Griffey, for fifth on the all-time list. Poised to move into the 600-homer club (growing less exclusive by the year) is Minnesota's Jim Thome, who ended last year with 589.
Derek Jeter, having endured a surprisingly messy contract squabble over the winter, sets his sights on becoming the first Yankees player to reach 3,000 hits. Jeter begins the year at 2,926, leaving him 74 short. Teammate Mariano Rivera needs 41 saves — a number he has surpassed six times — to reach 600 for his career. Only one player has achieved that magic number — Trevor Hoffman (601), whose retirement ensures he'll be joining Griffey in Cooperstown in five years.
The Mariners last year were the worst offensive team in the DH era (which began in 1973), but as usual Ichiro is on the brink of some impressive milestones. If he racks up another 200-hit season (and if he's breathing, he's racking), it would be No. 11, surpassing Pete Rose's record for the most 200-hit seasons in a career. If Ichiro again leads the majors in hits, it would be the eighth time, giving him sole possession of a record he currently shares with Rose and Ty Cobb. Ichiro also needs just 17 more steals to reach 400.
You'll have to look in new places to find Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez (Boston), Zack Greinke (Milwaukee), Jayson Werth (Washington), Adam Dunn (White Sox), Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez (Tampa Bay), Matt Garza (Cubs), Rafael Soriano (Yankees), Adrian Beltre (Texas) and Vernon Wells (Angels), among others.
And if you peer into dugouts, you won't find some of the icons — Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Cito Gaston, representing more than 7,500 wins, 14 pennants and eight World Series titles, have all retired from managing. They were replaced by, respectively, Mike Quade, Fredi Gonzalez, Don Mattingly and John Farrell.
Another new manager this season is Seattle's Eric Wedge, who inherits the Mariners' 101-loss mess from last year. Like everyone else in baseball, Wedge will go into the season dreaming of better times ahead. On Thursday, some of those notions will begin to be disproved, and some will be upheld.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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