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April 15, 2005

Fandemonium: After disheartening offseason, thank gods for baseball

Thank goodness that's over.

The last time we got to see an MLB game, we had just finished up one of the greatest postseasons in history with the triumphal coronation of one of the game's great franchises. Sox fans were flooding into Kenmore Square to celebrate the end of the Curse, David Ortiz was pointing at the sky on the Busch Stadium field, and baseball lovers everywhere were finally taking a moment to catch their breath. After some of the most hotly competed playoff series in history, it seemed that everyone needed a little break to fully grasp what had just happened. How could 2005 possibly be better than that?

Well, now that the boys of summer are back at Wrigley, we have our answer. After the last five months, we don't need it to be. We just need it to be good enough to restore the honor of the game.

After years of whispers and insinuations, baseball's steroids problem has finally come to a head. Thanks to the unlikely combination of Jose Canseco and Congress, we at long last can reasonably conclude that a number of the great stars of the 1990s were users. Records have been tarnished, hearts have been broken, and after a decade of rebuilding the trust of the fans, the league's image has been reduced to something akin to that of the Watergate conspirators, a wall of silence covering up a senseless crime.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the baby steps various teams had taken towards financial sanity after the most recent labor agreement were almost completely reversed. With great players in short supply, teams like Arizona, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia, and the Mets joined the Yankees and Red Sox in throwing fiscal responsibility to the wind, handing massive contracts to some truly mediocre players. So much for our dream of competitive balance. Can this league be saved?

Halfway through April, the answer might just be yes. After all the chaos, there still might be a way to get us back where we were on October 27, 2004. If you get a moment, these are few things you might want to request from the baseball gods.

As always, put in a plea for a little small market magic. Maybe the writers at ESPN.com were engaging in a little wishful thinking when they picked the Twins to win the World Series, but if this model franchise could win it all on a shoestring budget, it might teach everyone a valuable lesson. If Santana isn't quite smooth enough, here's hoping for playoff baseball at the Jake in Cleveland; Jake Peavy and the youthful Padres to keep the wheeling and dealing Dodgers, free-spending D-Backs, and the Cardiac Giants honest; and for your N.L. Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers to make everyone look very, very foolish.

Beg them to keep Barry Bonds at home with the family he loves so much. Steroids or no steroids, isn't it time we accepted that Hammerin' Hank Aaron deserves better than to lose the all-time home run record to such a jerk?

As long as you're asking for the end of the juiced homer era, maybe it's about time that we saw someone pass 61 for real. Maybe, perhaps, via a dramatic comeback from a certain (junior) outfielder at the Great American Ballpark?

If it's not too much to pray for, too, put in a good word for another taste of the wonder that was the 2004 playoffs. We need amazing match-ups, tape-measure homers, gutsy and dominating pitching performances, and more walk-off wins than we can handle.

And as long as they're ending curses, it might be nice if they finally cut the Cubs some slack for that whole billy goat thing.

On the business side of things, as long as there's baseball in Washington again, doesn't this seem like the right time to find an owner for the long-suffering ex-'Spos?

And as long as we're talking money, if the baseball gods could put a sock in the mouth of anyone making three million a year complaining about their contracts, it would go a long way to help restore the battered image of the players.

Also, if the true lords of the game wouldn't mind, give us the strength to take a swing at a defenseless outfielder, even if he is a damn Yankee.

Obviously, that's one heck of an order. To soften things up, it might be worth thanking the baseball gods for the gifts we have received. For face plants into the stands on foul balls, double plays from deep in the hole, and catches made while running into brick walls; for the beauty of a strike out on high heat, and the ritual posting of the K in the bleachers; for collisions at the plate that everyone walks away from; for the way everyone in the park looks up when they hear that particular crack of a ball that's just made contact with the sweet spot.

For all the trouble this offseason has seen, thank the baseball gods that at long last, we can finally just watch the game again.

Astros over Twins in seven.