You can have the NCAA basketball tournament. And who really pays attention to the opening rounds of the NBA or NHL playoffs. Give me the
day-in-day-out, every-pitch-counts drama of Major League Baseballs playoffs, and Ill be a happy, invigorated bundle of Bonds-loathing joy.
(Isnt that guy something? Makes you understand what fans felt like watching the spike sharpening Ty Cobb do his thing three generations ago.) Following are a few observations on the clubs still alive on the path to the World Series, three of whom were part of baseball's league championship series 15 years ago.
¥ ANGELS -- I was in the stands at what was then known as Anaheim Stadium in 1979 when the California Angels won their very first division title. I can still hear the chants of Yes We Can! -- the franchises mantra, adopted from a local hardware chain -- shaking the very foundation of that ballpark. Watching those Angels of Ryan, Carew, and Baylor knock off the perennial AL West front-runners -- Whitey Herzogs Kansas City Royals -- was a powerful display of the passion long-suffering fans can
unleash with a taste of postseason success. It's been 16 years since those Angel fans have been able to scream in October.
Which brings us to last weekends impressive sweep of two games in that very same stadium from the mighty Yankees, wrapping up the Halos very first playoff series victory. It was no fluke. The Angels talented core -- Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad -- has been in place for years. With an established ace in Jarrod Washburn and lights-out closer in Troy Percival, Anaheim is actually overdue for some October headlines. Their only question mark is the depth of their rotation. Ramon Ortiz? Kevin Appier? The Angels may have to outscore Minnesota in the ALCS. And if youre looking to bust a scoreboard or two, theres no better place to start than the Metrodome.
¥ TWINS -- Forgive me for not signing up for the Homer Hanky Feelgood Charm-a-thon that is the 2002 Minnesota Twins. On the surface, the
small-market, no-name Twins are exactly what baseball needs these days (One national sports publication called them the team that saved
baseball.) The fact is, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is an atrocity, and if eliminating this franchise is the only way to rid baseball of that oversized coffee filter (with the worlds largest Glad Bag in rightfield), then so be it. Home field advantage is one thing . .
. altering the very dynamics of the way baseball is played is an outrage. When routine fly balls are lost in a roof -- a roof, people! -- the game loses its balance. Keep in mind: the Twins won each of their two World Series without winning a single road game.
Credit is due these Twinkies, as they beat a formidable Oakland outfit, and actually won two games under the sunshine. Theyve started to mirror the 1987 world champs, with the roles of Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, and Tom Brunansky being reprised by Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, and A.J. Pierzynsky. Their closer, Eddie Guardado, looked as shaky as a
Harmon Killebrew bobblehead Sunday in finishing off the As. Hell have to be strong for Minnesota to hold off the Angels.
¥ CARDINALS -- If anyone doubted before the playoffs began, it can be confirmed now: this team is playing for a higher purpose. At the press conference following their sweep of the defending champion Diamondbacks Saturday night, Cardinal second baseman Fernando Vina (he of the .600 batting average against the imposing Arizona pitching staff) made reference to Darryl Kile, Jack Buck, Enos Slaughter, and Darrell Porter, all members of the family who passed away during this season of triumph and tragedy in Cardinal Nation. When a team hears Kiles widow say this is Darryls last chance at a ring, well, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling seem like mere speedbumps on the road to redemption.
St. Louis will be the underdog against the Giants in the NLCS. Who knows if injured third baseman Scott Rolen will be able to swing a bat? Who knows if Andy Benes can take it up a
notch, or if Woody Williams might return for a dramatic starting turn? Hollywood can be very demanding when it comes to good sports stories. But when Albert Pujols, Matt Morris, and Jim Edmonds are joined by the likes of Miguel Cairo in the circle of Cardinal heroes . . . well, at least worth watching.
¥ GIANTS -- In looking at Barry Bonds numbers, heres the closest I can come to criticism. His 2002 season was the best ever for a player
hitting 27 fewer home runs than he did the season before. Slacker.
Despite the television coverage, this Giants club is more than Mr. Surly. Jeff Kent -- the National League MVP only two years ago -- is the best player in baseball nobody cares about. Robb Nen is the best closer among the four teams still alive. Shortstop Rich Aurilia matches up very well with the Cards Edgar Renteria. (The play Aurilia made on a bad-hop
grounder off the bat of Chipper Jones Monday night was as fine a play as youll see a shortstop make on his feet.) Kenny Lofton is still a headache in the leadoff spot and plays a mean centerfield. The question for San Francisco -- just as with St. Louis -- is that starting rotation. Unlike the Cardinals, the Giants had a steady five-man crew all season
long. But are Kirk Rueter, Russ Ortiz, and Livan Hernandez of pennant-winning stuff?
The Giants may not have a Matt Morris to send to
the hill, but they also arent relying on graybeards like Chuck Finley or Andy Benes. Bonds can make the difference in the NLCS, but the fact is he doesnt have to beat St. Louis by himself. Scary thought if youre
wearing a pair of birds on your chest.