SPORTS

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January 13, 2004

Baseball perfects the art of stealing the show

This winter baseball teams and players alike are, week after week, refusing to go quietly and wait until after the Super Bowl for their inevitable return to the front page. Instead they have somehow managed to shove even the most exciting NFL playoff games off to the side, at least in some cities. Talk about pushy.

In Houston, which is due to host Super Bowl XXXVIII in less than three weeks, hundreds of local fans are clicking a link on the Astros home page that reads "Be The First To Own A Roger Clemens Astros Jersey." Are you kidding me? The Astros are a team that has never appeared in a single World Series, and now people down there are daydreaming about an easy romp in the NL Central, having quickly put David Carr's improving Texans out of their minds.

Baseball fever is alive and well in Los Angeles, even though an NFL referee called a penalty in Saturday's playoffs on a "Los Angeles Rams" team that has played in St. Louis since 1994. Fans of both the Angels and Dodgers were jittery at the thought of acquiring Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who was nearly replaced in Boston by Alex Rodriguez. Most recently, however, Angels fans are thinking World Series once more now that they have suddenly acquired Vladimir Guerrero and former White Sox and Indians hurler Bartolo Colon.

Even in Boston, where the frostbite-loving chowderheads are one Patriots win away from booking airline reservations to Houston, callers to the country's highest-rated sports radio station waited until well after Christmas before finally focusing on football. Instead they wanted to talk about Terry Francona, the potentially tenuous relationship between Garciaparra and first baseman Kevin Millar, Curt Schilling, and of course the infamous A-Rod "deal."

About 400 miles southwest of Fenway, emotions are running high for many a New Yorker. Let's face it, 2003 was an absolutely terrible year to be a sports fan in the Big Apple. Of the city's eight professional franchises, only three even made the postseason, and who really cares about the Islanders and the Metrostars? Despite the hit the Yankees' rotation took, the team has more than restocked its perennial talent pool. Fans of the Bombers are now trying to decide whether or not turn on Clemens, who essentially spurned the team with his un-retirement. Mets fans are already convinced they've finished last in the NL East again, after a mediocre offseason in which they came away with Mike Cameron and Kaz Matsui, a shortstop that is still unproven in the Majors.

Other cities' fans are in the same boat as the hopeless Mets. The Twins, who already have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, decided that it would be a great idea to follow up their 2003 AL Central Division Championship with a fire sale. The bullpen is decimated with the loss of LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado, but the team somehow feels that Shannon Stewart, who does not pitch, can fill the void. Minnesota also expects Stewart to simultaneously play catcher for A.J. Pierzynski and take Eric Milton's spot in the starting rotation. Hello, last place. Oh well, at least the Vikings are in the pl—oh, never mind.

Finally there's the Cincinnati Reds, whose fans have already endured the racist horrors of Marge Schott, a management team that can build a new ballpark but can't win anything, the Boone family crisis that eventually cost the Red Sox a trip to the World Series, the Griffey bust, and now Pete "the Profiteer" Rose's all too timely gambling confession.

Why has baseball made so much noise? The answer likely lies in the extraordinary success of last year's playoffs, where game fives and game sevens were almost routine, and which was one Steve Bartman and one Grady Little away from a fairy tale World Series. Teams that had come so close either to making the playoffs or winning it all built on the momentum of the postseason and went right back to work in hopes of tapping the significant talent pool in this year's free agent market. A headline here, a headline there, and suddenly it's less than two months until spring training begins. Go figure. In the meantime, I think we have some football to watch.