x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Major League Baseball will be extra wild this season

An extra team added to each league's play-offs means added hope for numerous sides. Batter up! The Major League Baseball season is here.

It's all new in South Florida, where the Marlins have dropped the "Florida" and added "Miami" to their name and will don new uniforms in a new stadium when they trot out new faces Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle to play for new manager Ozzie Guillen, above.
It's all new in South Florida, where the Marlins have dropped the "Florida" and added "Miami" to their name and will don new uniforms in a new stadium when they trot out new faces Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle to play for new manager Ozzie Guillen, above.

Dusty Baker is still pained by what happened nearly two decades ago, during his first year as a big league manager. His San Francisco Giants finished with a 103 wins - but missed the play-offs when they finished second to the Atlanta Braves in the National League West.

In those days, only division winners made the play-offs, and the Giants - despite their best record since 1963 - came up short on the final day of the season.

"I went to the ballpark every day for 10 days to watch on TV," he said recently. "Finally, my wife told me I had to let it go. I was hurting."

But there are no such worries of a great team getting left out this season. A team could conceivably finish in third place and still make it to the World Series.

The major leagues are now a major free-for-all, plain and simple. Credit goes to an expanded post-season format that adds two more wild card clubs this October.

So good luck in your farewell season, Chipper Jones. Welcome back, Andy Pettitte and Manny Ramirez and nearly 50-year-old Jamie Moyer.

Glad you are feeling better, Buster Posey, Johan Santana and Adam Wainwright. Get well soon, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Hope to see you around, Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero and Roy Oswalt. Nice you could make it, Jesus Montero and Matt Moore and, in due time, fellow rookie Bryce Harper.

And hello, Magic Johnson. Maybe you can bring a big basket of success to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Because this year, it seems as if almost everyone is in the play-off race — even with a recent rash of injuries.

Spring training has been harsh on several teams, with relievers Ryan Madson, Joakim Soria and Joel Zumaya already out for the season and Miguel Cabrera, Joba Chamberlain, Chris Carpenter, AJ Burnett and Jones getting hurt.

In Boston, fans smarting from last September's collapse want the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park to become a year-long celebration under their new manager Bobby Valentine. In Texas, the two-time American League champion Rangers are a worldwide attraction with their Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish.

In Miami, it is all new: the ballpark, the line-up, the uniforms, the expectations and Ozzie Guillen. Mark Buehrle, who pitched for the excitable manager with the Chicago White Sox, provided a preview for the Marlins newcomers Jose Reyes, Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell.

"Ozzie keeps everybody loose," Buehrle said. "When he's talking to you, you kind of laugh and giggle. And when he turns around and walks away, you look at everybody and say, 'Does anybody understand what he said?'"

There is hope, too, in Washington and at Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs' faithful want to believe the general manager Theo Epstein will end a championship drought dating to 1908.

It is possible. Know this: five of the past 15 World Series champions have been wild cards, including the St Louis Cardinals last season.

To the Detroit manager Jim Leyland, whose team won the AL Central by 15 games and then signed Prince Fielder, a bigger post-season field is OK.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions but as long as the play-offs don't get watered down, it's fine, but that won't happen in baseball," he said.

To World Series MVP David Freese, it is all right. Up to a point, anyway. His Cardinals were ten-and-a-half games out of first place in early September and made the play-offs under the previous system.

Of course, the Cardinals benefited from a monumental meltdown in the final weeks by Atlanta. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, took advantage of a similar fold by Boston.

The result was the most thrilling day in recent baseball history, when the play-off picture changed by the pitch during the last hours of the regular season. In the aftermath, Valentine was hired to replace Terry Francona as Boston's manager.

"I see where it'll bring more interest to more cities and that's good," Freese said. "But I'm old school. You go through a six-month grind for a reason. I'm fine with 10 of 30 teams making the play-offs, but I wouldn't want to see any more."

Michael Weiner, the players' union head, recently assured that adding two play-off clubs was not the first step toward approving several more. As it stands, the two wild cards in each league will hold a one-game play-off to see who reaches the next best-of-five round.

Mark Shapiro, the Cleveland Indians President, has changed his thinking on the subject.

"This is a good thing from a baseball standpoint," Shapiro said. "It places a greater significance on winning the division. I have always been an advocate of that.

"It also energises more fan bases simply because more teams should have a chance to get into the post-season."


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