Memorial Day serves as a day to rightfully honor those who served their homeland with the ultimate sacrifice. On a personal level, though, it stands as a landmark for the sacrifice I unknowingly realized I'd have to make for the next two decades when it came to enjoying a ballgame on the tube.
May 30, 1988. It was the day I realized that Joe Morgan was a boob.
It was during a telecast of ABC's Monday Night Baseball when the revelation hit, Morgan telling booth partner Al Michaels that Memorial Day was about the time in the baseball calendar when the standings looked just about how they would at the end of September. I was 14, a gullible age indeed (I have a Bradlees receipt somewhere that confirms a Stryper CD purchase), but even then I recall sitting in front of the TV, saying to myself, "Well, that doesn't make very much sense."
It didn't. It doesn't. Twenty years later, Morgan is still spouting this sort of nonsense, pictures of God knows who hidden deep in his briefcase.
Of course, later that summer the Red Sox came from 9˝ games back in the AL East to win the division (with 89 wins nonetheless), back in the days when we settled things solely on an East-West basis. Boston finished a game over the Tigers, two games over the Blue Jays and Brewers, and 3˝ games ahead of the Yankees. Morgan had them cooked back in May.
The point here is not to needlessly pound Morgan's ineptness (others do that far better), but to illustrate just how volatile each baseball division is this season as we hurtle our way toward June. In no division does a first-place team have a lead greater than 3˝ games (Arizona). In only two divisions (AL and NL West) do teams face deficits of double digits, only four teams in all. On this date a year ago, twice that number existed, four of them in the AL East alone.
In 2007, Morgan's theory would have proven correct as far as the AL is concerned, the Red Sox, Indians, and Angels all in first place in their divisions on this date and in October as well, but he would have been 0-4 in the NL, and short on the AL wild card. In 2008, good luck convincing anyone that what you see now is what you'll get come fall. The Red Sox would be your wild card, and Tampa Bay would have home-field up through the World Series (pending outcome of the All-Star Game, of course).
Boston would face their traditional ALDS opponent Angels, while the White Sox would travel to St. Pete. Who had that in their preseason predictions?
In the NL, it would be Diamondbacks-Cubs, Cardinals-Marlins.
Last season at this time, four of the six division-leaders had cushions of 4˝ games or more (11˝ in Boston's case). Nobody has that sort of lead a year later, a direct result of there being a multitude of emerging contenders. Tampa Bay, Florida, the Chicago White Sox, and Oakland are a combined 32 games over .500. There comes a point during the season when you no longer chalk that up to a fast start, and consider them in for the long run. Not that this is that point, but it's a pretty good place to start.
Oakland: Great pitching, as we witnessed over the weekend in a three-game brooming of Boston. But an OPS of .706 doesn't instill a great threat of what the A's can do over the long run offensively; and is Jack Cust (.422 OPB, .860 OPS) really going to keep this up for another four months? Fade.
Florida: Dan Uggla (1.092 OPS, the fourth-best in baseball) and Hanley Ramirez can battle it out for the NL MVP, but Mark Hendrickson is the Marlins' ace. Fade.
White Sox: Carlos Quentin leads the team in every offensive category. Mark Buehrle has morphed into Casey Fossum. And sooner or later they'll likely have the Tigers and Indians nipping at their heels. Fade.
Then, we have the case of the Rays, baseball's longtime joke who are enjoying their best-ever start to a season and aren't relenting as the weather heats up. Today, at 31-20, Tampa Bay has the best record in Major League Baseball. Really. Many expected Tampa to be good. But this good? Wild card contention, yes. At no point over six months did I expect to say "best record in baseball." But there you have it.
According to the Tampa Tribune, "the Rays became the first team in modern baseball history, dating to 1900, to have the best record in the game through Memorial Day after finishing with the worst record among all teams the previous year."
The trouble is, the Rays are going from nice, little story to major thorn in the side of the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and anyone else with designs on the AL East or wild card. Scott Kazmir made his first start off the DL in Boston earlier this month, allowing three runs over four innings. Know how many he's given up since then? Two, over 26 innings. Two He's only given up 13 hits over that same time span. Yesterday against Texas, he allowed three hits, one run, and struck out 10 over seven innings, walking nobody. Nobody in the division is pitching even close to as well as the lefty has come out of the gate in 2008.
Mix Kazmir in with a nice No. 2 in James Shields, a decent start by Matt Garza (3-1, 4.06), an offense that should land a handful of All-Stars in the Bronx (B.J. Upton has a better OBP and batting average than any Red Sox player), and a much-overlooked improved defense, and it's evident that Tampa Bay is not going to be labeled with the erroneous "fluke" tag much longer.
They seem too balanced, too determined to fade anytime soon, which probably means an unexpected nuisance for the Red Sox to deal with all summer long.
As the season progresses, sooner or later the surprises start to thin out and come back to the rest of the pack. But every year, there is also a team of emerging talent for which it all comes together. See Colorado, 2007. Detroit, 2006. Florida, 2003. Atlanta, 1991. Etc., etc.
If you had to choose one that's in it for the long haul, that's Tampa Bay, the only team to have a winning record vs. its brethren in the AL East (21-12). The Rays have won four in a row and have the best record in baseball at the Memorial Day marker. One year ago today, they were 13˝ games behind the Red Sox.
Today, they are 13 games better than they were last year.
Joe Morgan has them in the World Series. We don't, of course.
Not yet, anyway.