Baseball’s top stories won’t overshadow the game

Football bore Tebowmania. Basketball unleashed Linsanity. And baseball has … baseball. It’s quaint and it’s simple and as camps open across Florida and Arizona this week with the sport coming off its best postseason in decades, it’s appropriate for where the sport is today.

As football has stolen away baseball’s national-pastime grip and basketball has chipped away at its market share, baseball has carved out a comfortable niche as a sport not easily dominated by a single person or narrative. This is its failure. It is also its triumph.

While having an entire sport’s universe revolve around one person plays to our modern consumption – we can text and tweet and Facebook and YouTube until our fingers fall off – the lack of such a pop-culture phenomenon dovetails with baseball’s languid pace. It’s a slow game, a slow season, something to be savored rather than gorged upon. It has lost fans because of this. Those who stick by the game appreciate it for the very elements upon which its critics prey.

New Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine eyes a pitch during spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
(AP)

More than 100 days later, people still talk about Game 6 of the World Series like the transcendent slice of sports it was. And they yearn for another night like the final one of the regular season, which yielded the sort of organic chaos that the overcommercialization embodying Tebowmania and Linsanity would’ve ruined.

Baseball had Fernandomania once upon a time, and Washington celebrated Strasmas every fifth day in 2010. At their heart, those were local crazes. Baseball is capable of such things, but the game writ large resonates more than any one story. Woven together, those little threads produce a game being played at perhaps the highest level in its history, minus the pomp and circumstance that rules its peers. What a concept.

Of course, these wee storylines teem with intrigue, and while it’s presumptive to think they can produce a better season than last, they do make for a delicious spring training. And if we’re going to start anywhere, it might as well be with …

1. Albert Pujols slipping on a new kind of red-and-white uniform, hopeful the second decade of his career can be as fruitful as the first. The Los Angeles Angels expect Pujols to be at their camp Monday, the first arrival of 10, they hope, as he starts working off the $250 million deal signed this offseason.

Months later, the numbers – and, frankly, the way the whole thing went down – boggle the mind. Pujols has been the best player in baseball since Barry Bonds retired, and he may have stolen the title from Bonds before that, and to see him in a different hat, a different league, a different time zone – a different life altogether since, let’s be honest, most of the people who move from St. Louis to L.A. spend most of their time waitressing – remains a tick off.

This whole offseason was a mass of confusion. Prince Fielder back in Detroit, where his estranged dad, Cecil, once starred? Yu Darvish, a Japanese star, going to Texas? Jose Reyes among three top-flight players poached by the Miami Marlins? Among the top 50 free agents this winter, just 10 re-signed. The only thing that would make it weirder would be a 69-year-old manager urging his team to break camp with a 19-year-old outfielder, and that’s exactly what’s happening with …

2. Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals. Davey Johnson managed Dwight Gooden as a 19-year-old, and he understands Harper’s talent trumps his date of birth.

On the other hand, it’s been 22 years since a position player who was 19 qualified for the batting title. That was Ken Griffey Jr. Before that? Robin Yount, in 1975. Only 11 other players own such a distinction. Among them: Hall of Famers Al Kaline, Mel Ott, Freddie Lindstrom and Ty Cobb. Also among them: Cass Michaels, Bob Kennedy and Sibby Sisti.

Barring injury, Harper will arrive in Washington sometime this season. It makes more sense for it to be May or June, since joining the Nationals in April would make him a free agent in 2018 instead of 2019. And, yes, we’re talking about six years from now because that’s the sort of talent Harper possesses. Sports Illustrated compared him to LeBron James when he was 16, and Harper has done nothing to make it look foolish.

When he arrives, he’ll be the closest thing baseball has to a figure that punctures baseball’s bubble that separates it from the general populace. In the meantime, spring in Viera, Fla., will be as much about him as it is the acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson and the fact that – gulp – the Nationals actually have a chance to bring playoff baseball to Washington for the first time since 1933. This version of the Washington baseball club hasn’t done it, nor did the previous incarnation, whose failure prompted a move to Texas, where …

Josh Hamilton

3. Josh Hamilton enters the most vital season of his career. He fell off the wagon less than a month ago, spent the time since reassessing his sobriety and remains a vital cog to a Rangers team that twice was one strike from a championship. Compound that with Hamilton’s impending free agency at the end of the season, and the focus will remain on him all year, good, bad or otherwise.

Certainly Hamilton has ascended from worse. Going from passed out in a ditch after a crack binge to the American League Most Valuable Player shows that his fortitude matches his raw talent. In that respect, he’s a sterling example for …

4. Ryan Braun as he faces a no-win situation: He’ll either be suspended for 50 games for using a performance-enhancing substance – the arbitration panel for his appeal is expected to reach a decision sometime in the next week – or face skepticism about why his test came back with such a high ratio of metabolites.

The closest thing to a player of Braun’s caliber being suspended would be Rafael Palmeiro or Manny Ramirez, and both were toward the end of their careers, not in their prime and winning an MVP award, as Braun did last year. The defection of Fielder only heightened Braun’s importance to the Milwaukee Brewers, and for him to potentially miss the first 50 games of the season in which Zack Grienke and Shaun Marcum’s contracts expire would make his getting popped evermore worse.

Whether the suspension is upheld or overturned, Braun’s explanation – if he offers one – will be mandatory. As PED users have learned, sometimes an apology is better than the gory details. The memory of …

Alex Rodriguez

5. Alex Rodriguez stumbling through a press conference three years ago after Sports Illustrated busted him remains a pitch-perfect lesson on how not to handle it. A-Rod does that a lot, though his play always tended to overshadow the unsavory elements of his personal life bubbling to the surface.

Except that A-Rod has gotten old. His injury-pocked 2011 was the worst full season of his career, and as he enters a year in which he turns 37 in July, it’s fair to wonder: Just how much more is left? While six years and $143 million remain on his contract – and don’t forget about the additional $30 million in bonuses that could come with milestone home runs – Rodriguez’s immediate future is set against a cumulonimbus wall.

He went to Germany to undergo therapy on ailing body parts, something of a Catch-22: If it invigorates him, it’ll reignite all the A-Rod-needs-to-be-doped-up-to-succeed chatter that chased him after the steroid revelation, and if it doesn’t, ready for a torrent of A-Rod’s-washed-up talk. Typical A-Rod. Can’t win for losing.

Another question is how much longer he can stay at third base, and at least he won’t be the only one answering that. It’s a story everywhere this spring, from …

6. Miguel Cabrera to Mark Trumbo to Hanley Ramirez. It would make plenty of sense for Ramirez, a shortstop who outgrew the position, if he weren’t so reticent to make the move. The Hanley’s happiness subplot will smolder all season, and the odds of new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen at one point or another spraying a little lighter fluid on it are something like 183,000 percent. That should be fun.

The Cabrera and Trumbo transitions provide an entirely different sort of amusement. The Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels deserve credit for trying to embolden their lineups by moving big-bodied first basemen across the diamond, but yeesh. Cabrera was a bad third baseman four years and 30 pounds ago. And Trumbo, coming off a stress fracture that has prevented him from running, has not played third base in eight years – and it’s been eight years because he was dreadful when he tried.

Hey, at least each of those teams has a shortstop, something …

Mike Matheny

7. Bobby Valentine can’t say. Valentine is the new Boston Red Sox manager, and while he inherits a team flush with talent, Boston traded its two candidates to be everyday shortstops, Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie, and find themselves choosing among Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and Jose Iglesias. You know what mom always said: If you don’t have anything nice to say, just laugh.

Valentine may inherit the best team of the managerial class of ’12, though St. Louis’ Mike Matheny does take over the World Series winner and Guillen gets the Marlins when they carry a payroll of $100 million after one season subsisting on less than A-Rod got himself. While the other two newbies – the Chicago two, Dale Sveum (Cubs) and Robin Ventura (White Sox) – will oversee rebuilding projects, the only comebacks with more intrigue than Valentine’s belong to …

8. Buster Posey and Adam Wainwright. And, for that matter, Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Heyward and Stephen Drew. Posey’s gruesome broken leg in a home-plate collision with Scott Cousins ruined the follow-up to his breakout rookie season. He’s the offense the San Francisco Giants desperately need. Wainwright’s elbow blew last spring, torpedoing his season and seemingly the Cardinals’ before baseball worked its magic.

And with Santana trying to bring the New York Mets some hope, Mauer and Morneau doing the same with the Minnesota Twins, Heyward aching to fulfill his potential and Drew trying to recover from a similar injury to Posey’s, modern medicine once again takes center stage.

It has saved some careers. It has failed others. It provides hope. It bestows frustration. One trainer likes to say the first team that figures out how to keep its players healthy will win five straight World Series – and he’s probably right. In the meantime, teams just cross their fingers and pray, which the Rangers did when they gave …

Yu Darvish

9. Yu Darvish $60 million on top of the $51.7 million posting fee for his rights. The 25-year-old right-hander is by all accounts the best pitcher to come out of Japan since Hideo Nomo absconded to the major leagues 17 years ago. He throws hard. His command is impeccable. He is, the Rangers believe, the piece they need to go from great to championship.

While this was the offseason of the mega-contract – Pujols’ and Fielder’s are the third- and fourth-biggest in American sports history, behind both of Rodriguez’s – the secondary story with resonance is the international influx. Oakland gave Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes $36 million. Cuban teenager Jorge Soler’s deal could exceed $25 million. Baltimore signed Yei-Win Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada from the Japanese leagues and may put both in its rotation. Milwaukee solidified its bench with Norichika Aoki.

As baseball has gotten more international, its popularity and TV ratings have winnowed. Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe there’s something to it. For the quality of the game, however, the influx of Dominican and Venezuelan and Japanese and Puerto Rican and Cuban and Korean and Colombian and Panamanian players has provided an immense boon. About 15 years ago, a teenager named …

10. Albert Pujols moved from the Dominican Republic and ended up in the Kansas City area. He drew little interest from scouts, who mistook his stocky body for one that would turn fat. The St. Louis Cardinals chose him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. Less than two years later, he proved a revelation in spring training. In the 11 years to follow, he won three MVPs and two World Series.

And now he is an Angel, on Monday a really, truly, your-eyes-aren’t-deceiving-you-and-this-ain’t-a-dream Los Angeles Angel. He turned 32 a month ago, and the comparison to A-Rod’s contract isn’t in money alone; Rodriguez was 32 when he signed his deal, too.

We won’t find out the wisdom of the Pujols contract for years, and that’s consistent with baseball’s charm. This isn’t a game of texts and tweets and messages and clips. It’s a long, slow burn, one that develops with the expedience of a Polaroid. It may be dated. It may not be for now. But that’s OK.

Baseball’s back. And, damn, it’s good to have it.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 20, 2012