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Baseball in 2010: Perfectly imperfect

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Baseball in 2010: Perfectly imperfect

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The Twins paid $184 million to keep Joe Mauer's big bat in Minnesota at least eight more years

This could be a top 20 list. Or top 50. Or even top 100. Baseball never lacks for great stories, and 2010 was a particularly ripe year.

And for once, thankfully, the highlights – or, as it were, lowlights – of the season don't include any freak shows. As much as the schadenfreude of Frank and Jamie McCourt's divorce titillated, and as sad as it was to see Roger Clemens bull his way into an indictment, and as epic as it was to watch a Philadelphia cop blast a 17-year-old with a taser for running on the field, the most intriguing plotlines in baseball this season were less tabloid and more substance.

Top 10 stories of 2010

10. Managers say goodbye

With 6,665 wins among them, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella will find themselves enshrined in the Hall of Fame one day. So to see them bow out simultaneously – Cox and Piniella retired, Torre's future TBD – wasn't mere coincidence.

Managing is an ever more difficult job, the responsibilities now involving reams of paperwork and number crunching to accompany the typical duties of dealing with a clubhouse of 25 different personalities, a press corps always asking for more and a front office looking for its own hide, too.

Piniella left midseason to take care of his ailing mother and avoid the rest of a dead-end Chicago Cubs season. Torre named Don Mattingly his heir to ease the transition. Cox bowed out in the postseason. Though each took a different path out, their careers converge in the same place: great success.

9. Junior snoozes, retires

Never did Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) come out and deny that he fell asleep during a game in May, an incident that sparked an uproar and led to his retirement less than a month later. It's better that he didn't. The truth might've hurt too much.

Even as the back half of his career was full of injuries and disappointments, it's easy to idealize Griffey, and with good reason: He is one of the last scions to the pre-steroid era, and he managed to stay clean throughout it. That he was the best player in baseball during some of the juiciest years is even more impressive.

Alex Rodriguez(notes) hit his 600th home run this year, and nobody blinked. He's well on his way to breaking Barry Bonds' record, too, and the buildup will be, as Bonds' was, anticlimactic. It could've been Junior. But then he could've avoided going out in such inglorious fashion. For all the joy his career brought, it's impossible to deny the sadness, particularly as it ended.

8. Leak exposes MLB finances

The single most important story this year came from Deadspin, which published financial documents from the Marlins, Pirates, Rays, Angels, Mariners and Rangers.

Florida's was of particular interest, since its scheming owner, Jeffrey Loria, and his henchman/team president David Samson had refused to turn them over to Miami-Dade County as they swindled county commissioners into paying for a new stadium.

The overarching lesson from the documents was simple: Next time owners cry poor, don't listen.

7. Playoffs likely to expand in 2012

We've recently gone over what a stupid idea it is to add one wild card to each league, how it opens a Pandora's Box of off-putting possibilities and how commissioner Bud Selig needs to put his foot down and, for the good of the sport, stop it from happening.

But he won't. And though it hasn't been announced formally, since the owners and union haven't agreed on the exact format, it's essentially a done deal. Which means come 2012, you could be seeing the two best teams in a league, ones that have clinched playoff spots, fighting to win and burning their pitching during the last week of the season while four teams with worse records rest their starters and prepare for October.

Good plan!

6. Stephen Strasburg's(notes) amazing debut

The poor, poor Pittsburgh Pirates, patsies they always are, were the raw meat tossed at the lion starved for two months. Stephen Strasburg had spent enough time in Harrisburg and Syracuse for a life, and here he was, in Washington, D.C., ready to start the greatest career in the history of everything.

Naturally, he warranted every morsel of the overwhelming hype. Strasburg struck out 14 on only 96 pitches, and for the next 10 weeks he mystified and mesmerized with his 100-mph fastball, diving changeup and unfair slider.

Then his elbow blew up. Tommy John surgery. Done for the year, and probably next.

And so the greatest player in the greatest rookie class in decades ceded his phenom title to Aroldis Chapman(notes) and his 105-mph fastball, to Jason Heyward(notes) and his preternatural ability, to Buster Posey(notes) and the most beautiful right-handed swing in the big leagues. Hey, at least we have a good reason to look forward to 2012.

5. The Yankees' tumultuous 2010

The look on Derek Jeter's(notes) face, and the tone in his voice, and the overall tenor of the news conference to announce that he was returning to the New York Yankees for three more years mimicked the year for baseball's titanic team: anger, uncertainty but the prevailing sentiment that, in the midst of some change, everything is going to be OK.

George Steinbrenner, architect of the unrelenting leviathan that is today's Yankees, died in July at 80, and his passing set off a reassessment of the team's present fortunes. Sure, Steinbrenner had ceded control to his sons Hal and Hank a few years back, but his death cemented that this is indeed a new era, and the negotiations with Jeter during free agency proved that.

The Boss would've locked up Jeter at a far greater deal than the three years and $51 million at which Jeter settled, and the public mudslinging it took to move the Yankees past their initial $45 million offer unsettled Jeter. Because he and the re-signed Mariano Rivera(notes), along with Jorge Posada(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes), are the final four links to the era in which George ruled and no one dared believe otherwise.

Though some of George Steinbrenner's principles remain, the Yankees do business differently now. Golden parachutes are merely 14 karat, and Jeter's getting his was a fitting cap to 2010. From the inglorious exit against Texas in the ALCS to getting slammed in the media by anonymous team executives, this year was one Jeter and the rest of the Yankees organization want to forget.

4. Big money going everywhere but New York

First came the eight-year, $184 million deal the Minnesota Twins gave Joe Mauer(notes) to stay in his hometown, then the $125 million the Philadelphia Phillies handed Ryan Howard(notes) to extend his deal. Tack on another $142 million (Carl Crawford(notes)), $134 million (Troy Tulowitzki(notes)), $126 million (Jayson Werth(notes)), $120 million (Cliff Lee(notes)) and a nod-nod, wink-wink $150 million (Adrian Gonzalez(notes)), and teams this year committed nearly $1 billion to just seven players.

Welcome to MLB 2010 and beyond, where the $100 million contract is but the price of doing business when dealing with superstars. Some franchises, such as the Boston Red Sox, can afford to take on a pair within a three-day span (Gonzalez and Crawford) and not bat an eyelash. Others – notably the Colorado Rockies – bust their budgets to ensure Tulowitzki is theirs for a decade to come.

In no other sport are such big-money long-term contracts as prevalent as baseball, and with the collective-bargaining agreement expiring after this season, perhaps these megadeals are a sign: Business in baseball is good, and the labor disagreements of years past – ones that are threatening the livelihood of the NFL, NBA and NHL – are easily solvable. All it takes is a few nine-figure contracts and everyone is happy.

3. The Year of the Pitcher

The name was assigned early on, and it stuck, from the first pitch of the season, by Josh Beckett(notes), to the last, from Brian Wilson(notes). Baseball was about pitching in 2010, and it was a welcome and fanciful departure from what baseball fans had grown to expect.

There were the perfect games (Dallas Braden(notes) and Roy Halladay(notes)) and the no-hitters (Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), Edwin Jackson(notes), Matt Garza(notes) and Halladay again, in the postseason, no less). Home runs plummeted. Runs, too. Fifteen starters finished with sub-3.00 ERAs. A decade earlier, it was two.

Halladay, naturally, stood atop the NL pedestal as its Cy Young winner. And in the AL it was the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez(notes), whose victory in spite of finishing 18th in the league in wins – and with an unsightly 13-12 record – showed that the populace, too, appreciated good pitching. Hernandez wasn't the best by all traditional measures. He was tops at his craft, though, in a year where staking that claim was awfully difficult.

2. San Francisco celebrates

The more amazing story, of course, would've been the Texas Rangers emerging from bankruptcy to win the World Series on the back of a manager who had been popped with a positive cocaine test a year earlier and a team president who had been a conquering hero as a player and was now trying to cement an even greater legacy.

Instead, we got to watch a thrown-together bunch win a championship for a city that deserved it.

Giants fans hadn't been through Cubs hell or Indians hell, but they were certainly somewhere in Dante's Divine Comedy. So to see a group of questionable hitters do more than enough to supplement a troupe of incredible pitchers sent San Francisco into a tizzy. They cheered the guy with the thong (Aubrey Huff(notes)) and the bong (Tim Lincecum(notes)), they feared the beard (Wilson's) and they sang along with Steve Perry.

And on the first day of November, they celebrated. Prop 19 was voted down the next day, but that was OK. Giants fans were on a high that still hasn't worn off.

1. The perfectly imperfect game

At the end of this decade, when we're reminiscing this little slice of the world, hopefully we will remember Armando Galarraga(notes), Jim Joyce and their tale of humility and forgiveness. For every cynic that dismisses as anachronistic schmaltz baseball being a game that teaches life lessons, the fashion in which Galarraga and Joyce conducted themselves in a history-loaded moment remains incredible six months later.

To recap: Galarraga, a middling right-hander, had pitched 8 2/3 perfect innings for the Detroit Tigers. Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald(notes) hit a dribbler to first base, which Miguel Cabrera(notes) tossed to Galarraga for what should've been the 27th out. Joyce, one of the best umpires in the major leagues, called Donald safe. The perfect game was lost. Replay showed Joyce's mistake.

Galarraga could have complained. Screamed. Cried. Bellowed. Called for Joyce's firing. He didn't. He said Joyce was human.

Joyce could've hid. Cowered. Denied. Claimed he was right and that replay is bogus. He didn't. He said he blew the call and felt awful for Galarraga.

In each of their most vulnerable times, Galarraga and Joyce rose above conventional thinking and rhetoric to show two emotions rare in sports: compassion and guilt. Galarraga forgave Joyce. Joyce accepted it humbly. And they went on with their lives, Galarraga struggling to stay on the Tigers roster, Joyce calling balls and strikes and diligently trying to get them right, both imbued in our minds as what's right with baseball, what's right with sports, what's right with people.

Player of the year: Josh Hamilton(notes), OF, Texas Rangers – From crack addict to AL MVP, he was so good that he missed almost all of September and still won the award running away.

Team of the year: San Francisco Giants – Who else could it be? From clinching a playoff berth in game No. 162 to burying their opponents in all three postseason series, the Giants weren't the most talented or the most exciting. They were just the best.

Game of the year: Nobody was better than Roy Halladay on Oct. 6 – not even Galarraga, Braden or Halladay himself in their perfect games. Halladay epitomized why he's the game's pre-eminent pitcher by pitching a no-hitter against Cincinnati, baseball's first postseason no-no since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

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