SPORTS

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May 7, 2002

Foul Tips

Mike Cameron, who has absolutely no business whatsoever hitting four home runs in one game, in particular against the Chicago White Sox, now knows as well as anyone that Major League Baseball is among the most discontinuous, surprising, and unpredictable sports you can find. Any self-respecting pundit will admit that even the best-educated predictions are often rendered worthless within a matter of weeks. In the spirit of this confusion, a brief retrospective on the early season will reveal any number of absurdities. To wit:

Players Who Were Better Than I Thought

1. Mike Cameron, Seattle. He's the introduction, so you already know why he's on this list. But I felt obligated to include him formally.

2. Kazuhisa Ishii, L.A. Yet another Japanese sensation I have been naysaying ever since Hideki Irabu made George Steinbrenner look like a complete buffoon who was trying to get Hideo Nomo but missed. But lately, the Japanese imports have been exceeding all expectations. Witness Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Pikachu. Now Ishii is 6-0 with a virtually undetectable ERA, and his stuff, by most accounts, is excellent.

3. Jacque Jones, Minnesota. The Twins have a way of spontaneously generating unbelievably productive players. Insiders argue that Jones will not last the season with this kind of productivity, but he surprised them once and can do it again.

4. Shea Hillenbrand, Boston. Started last season with a bang and remained true to form this year, hitting around .340 in the month of April. Some people are saying that his precipitous drop in batting average in the past few weeks comes from his inability to hit during the month of May. I can't quite figure out how that makes any sense, so I will argue that Hillenbrand is bound for .400 at season's end.

5. Mike Williams, Pittsburgh. Why would a 35-year-old journeyman reliever suddenly turn into an effective closer for a team that has not been good at any time in the past 11 years? Mike Williams does not know. Neither does his manager, Lloyd McClendon. But both have willingly accepted the change. Expect this trend to reverse itself when the Pirates stop winning games, a process which started last week or so.

Players Who Were Worse Than I Thought

1. J.D. Drew, St. Louis. His unsatisfactory play is probably injury-related. Drew coped with some problems during the off-season and has been playing all season, but has simply not been himself. The jury is still out as to who he has been instead, but that person does not appear to be a particularly talented baseball player.

2. Ken Griffey Jr, Cincinnati. Griffey went down in flames on the infield grass after being caught in a rundown, and has been out ever since. But even before his injury, Griffey did not have his characteristic smooth swing or his speed. Griffey at his best floored analysts and sparked speculation about home run records, but his time in the sun appears to be up, or at least running out.

3. Adam Dunn, Cincinnati. Lots of hype said Dunn would hit 50 home runs in the first week. At present his count is four. This disappoints Cincinnati fans.

4. Hank Blalock, Texas. Peter Gammons and others raised a lot of fuss about Hank Blalock and his spring training miracle swing that would take over the world. So far, nothing of the sort has taken place. Blalock has been flirting with the minors all season, and will probably not have a legitimate presence in the league for at least a few months, and possibly a few years.

Other Things That Were Surprising

1. Cleveland Indians pitcher Bartolo Colon's incredible aging process.

2. Other Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia landing a few dates with tennis star Serena Williams, who is older and roughly one-seventh his size. Not bad for such a big young guy.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Nick Bierbrodt walking seven consecutive batters during a spring training game, and then breaking that streak by hitting one. Four earned runs, zero hits.

4. Bierbrodt giving up three runs on zero hits in his next outing.

5. Eminent analyst Peter Gammons naming four different pitchers (Roy Oswalt, Nick Neugebauer, A.J. Burnett, and Josh Fogg) as this year's National League Cy Young award winner.

6. Gammons being right about all of them.

Needless to say all of the predictions I have made in this article will be shown to be wrong within a few weeks, or months at most. In light of that fact, I will note for the sake of having made the prediction once in my life that the Red Sox will win the World Series this year