Blocking the Plate

By Dan Ankeles

The sense of excitement in the Tampa Bay sports world these days is as high as it has ever been. Some of you are likely thinking, “Another Super Bowl article at the end of February? Who is this guy kidding? He can’t possibly be writing about the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no way he would give the Devil Rays any press. What could possibly be so exciting about Tampa Bay?”

Answer: The New York Yankees. Before the addition of the Rays to the majors, Tampa, Florida was always Yankee country. Every spring, the Bombers bring their perennial cast of All-Stars down south to put on a show for the many transplants, retired people, and spring training nuts from the New York area. Over the years, the springtime Yankees have even converted a fair number of native Floridians with the mysterious allure of their pinstripes.

This March looks to be no different from previous seasons in terms of the predictions for post-season success. Yankee fans are already convinced that they have won the American League East by over 10 games and have even begun to wish their fellow fans in Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, and especially Tampa better luck next year.

As an ardent Red Sox fan, I have had little to cheer about over the last few years. There was, however, that one day last April when Derek Lowe pitched the first no-hitter in Fenway Park since Dave Morehead did it against Cleveland in 1965. I was in the city that day and could easily have gone to the game. Instead I elected to take my girlfriend for her first walk on the Boston Common, which had by then exploded with flowers. Right now I am kicking myself.

This year the Yankees’ management has done an especially good job ensuring that Red Sox fans will continue to lose years off their lives wallowing in the horrifying glory of New York baseball. Yankees GM Brian Cashman took the off-season battle abroad this winter, acquiring some of the best international players in baseball. So much for the deterrent effect of the luxury tax.

First, Cashman emerged victorious from a one-on-one showdown with Red Sox President Larry Lucchino over the latest big-name pitcher to defect from Cuba, Jose Contreras. The bidding war was accompanied by some vicious verbal jabs that got quite a bit of press in the Boston media and left many wondering whether it was really such a good idea to provoke the wrath of the Yankee front office. When New York finally came to terms with Contreras, most of us felt the pang of inevitability and fled to the nearest sports bar for some group therapy.

Just to show that there were no hard feelings, New York then got together with its Japanese counterpart, the Yomiuri Giants, and purchased Japan’s most prolific slugger, Hideki Matsui. Unlike slap-hitter Ichiro Suzuki, Matsui isn’t afraid to swing for the fences. Most members of the Japanese sports media know this, which is why they have filled every hotel in Tampa Bay. Devout baseball fans in Japan who woke up at 3:00 a.m. to see Matsui’s debut were certainly not disappointed. In only his second at-bat as a Yankee, he hit his first home run on American soil.

It’s no longer a question whether the Yankees can continue to dominate the AL East. Once again, New York has an overabundance of starting pitching, an almost bona fide superstar in Alfonso Soriano, and a manager who brings out the best in his players and has earned the respect of the entire baseball world.

As a Bostonian, I still hold out hope that the Red Sox would some day win a pennant and beat the Cubs in what will be most watched World Series in the history of baseball. As it is not yet August, the time the Yankees usually take or extend their division lead, I am officially defying all the analysis in this column and picking the Sox to win the East. I still believe in the power of the big four–Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, and Derek Lowe–and I somehow hope that the loss of Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Stanton will kill the Yankees’ middle relief. Perhaps the Sox will even unleash their new secret weapon, David Ortiz, whom Boston stole away from the financially troubled Minnesota Twins. Well…we can dream, can’t we?