Tag Archives: Major League Baseball

MLB 2010: Philadelphia Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies returned to defend their World Series championship last season, marking the first time in the 126-year history of the franchise that the club appeared in back-to-back MLB championship series. And although the team fell two games shy of a repeat, the new 2010 season dawns with them once again as the favorites in the National League.

To actually make that ‘favorite’ status turn out to be a reality, to become the first National League team since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals pulled the trick during the years when talent was seriously reduced all across the Major Leagues during World War II, the Phils will have to navigate a mine field of tough opposition both in and out of their division.

First, the Phils faced a stiff test a year ago from both the improving Atlanta Braves and the always budget conscious Florida Marlins. Both of those clubs remain solid this year, and the Braves in particular look strong. They have a deep starting rotation, bullpen talent, some impact bats, and one of the best looking young offensive prospects in years in outfielder Jason Heyward. It would be an upset if Atlanta does not at least push the Phillies all season long, and contend for both the division and the Wildcard.

Around the rest of the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Colorado Rockies lead the group of 7-8 teams who could emerge as serious threats for the pennant based on how they actually perform, whether they stay healthy, and what additions they might make during the course of the long season.

For the most part, however, there appear to me to be just two things that are likely to keep the Phils away from a 3rd straight trip to the World Series. Those two things would be injuries, which can crop up and add up and derail any team’s promising season, and themselves. Better teams than these Phillies have self-destructed by not performing up to their overall talent levels during a particular season or playoff series.

The main place that the self-destruction could begin, the team’s only apparent achilles heel entering the season, is in the bullpen. Closer and 2008’s perfection hero Brad Lidge has started the season on the DL after off-season surgeries. Joining him on the DL to open the year is lefty setup man J.C. Romero. With former #2 bullpen lefty Scott Eyre having retired and last year’s relief savior Chan Ho Park having left via free agency, the group that will try to nail down games at the end has plenty of questions to answer.

Can Ryan Madson hold down the closer duties with strong performances until Lidge returns, or in the long term if Lidge’s injury issues linger? Will newcomer Danys Baez thrive and succeed in the primary righthanded setup role? Can young lefty Antonio Bastardo show that he is finally ready to claim a Major League job? Can aged veteran Jose Contreras squeeze one more solid season from his arm? Is Rule 5 find David Herndon for real and a keeper? The reliable Chad Durbin is back, a good thing. Getting both Lidge and Romero back sooner rather than later would be an excellent thing. Not getting them back at all, or later, or having them become constant injury problems would make for a season of tough spots.

The starting rotation is in much better shape than their bullpen counterparts. That rotation is now led by one of the best pitchers on the planet in righthander Roy Halladay, one of the biggest free agent signing in Phillies history. Halladay is that rarest of finds, a genuine ace with a track record of big success in the prime of his career. Everyone remembers how good Cliff Lee was last season, but few seem to remember that the Phils did not acquire him until August. They will have Halladay around this year from Day One, which makes them much better right off the bat.

Cole Hamels went from NLCS and World Series MVP, hero, and budding superstar legend to an enigma seemingly overnight. He came to camp last season on a World Series hangover that produced a combination of nagging injuries and mental funk from which he never fully emerged, showing only glimpses of his true talent. Still, a close look at his overall numbers show that he was not far off. He was much more focused and determined, and worked harder, this past winter. There is no reason, especially with Halladay now manning that #1 slot, that Hamels should not emerge as one of the best lefties in the game once again.

Joe Blanton is an underrated #3 starter who eats up innings and gives the Phils a chance to win every start out. Unfortunately he will start the year on the DL as well. Out 6-8 weeks, the Phils will have to make due short in their rotation until his return in late May. With last year’s rookie sensation lefty J.A. Happ, ageless lefty Jamie Moyer, and born-again-hard Halladay protege Kyle Kendrick around the rotation should be at least capable of weathering that early challenge to it’s depth.

The Phillies lineup is one of the 3-4 best in all of baseball from top to bottom. They have power, speed, clutch veterans, and now newcomer Placido Polanco gets dropped into the #2 hole in the order and adds in a bit of the one thing that has been largely missing – patience. Polanco was here before the playoff years, and now is back to take over at 3rd base from the great-glove, light-hitting Pedro Feliz. Polanco won a Gold Glove the last couple years at 2nd for Detroit, and so provides some depth in case of some flukey major (bite my tongue) injury to Chase Utley.

To Polanco’s left in the shorstop hole, and directly in front of him in the batting order at leadoff is veteran spark plug Jimmy Rollins. The man affectionately known as ‘JRoll’ won the 2007 NL MVP Award and delivered once again in the clutch in last year’s NLCS vs. the Dodgers with a now-legendary 9th inning, 2-out, 2-strike hit in Game #4. Jimmy has set goals of 50 steals and 150 runs scored. Those would be career highs and appear slightly out of reach, but I for one would never say that Rollins cannot do something that he sets his mind to accomplish. If he even approaches those numbers, it will be phenomenal. Look for a big year out of the Phillies shorstop.

2nd baseman Chase Utley is steadily building what could end up as a Hall of Fame resume. The #1 draft pick, 15th overall, in the Phils 2000 draft, Utley took over the starting 2nd base job in 2005 after platooning in ’04. Since becoming the starter, an average season has produced a .300 batting average with 30 homeruns, 100 rbi, 110 runs scored, and 15 steals. He has received MVP votes each of those years, finishing in the top ten in voting 3 times. He has been an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger Award as the top offensive player at his position for 4 straight seasons. And going a step further, Utley has been acknowledged as a strong defensive player at 2nd base who has worked hard each year to get better there.

At 1st base, Ryan Howard seems like he has been smashing homeruns for a long time in the middle of the Phils batting order. However, 2010 will mark just his 5th full season as a starter. He was probably ready for a shot earlier in his career, but was blocked for a time by the imposing presence of Jim Thome at 1st base for the big league club. Since finally taking over the full-time duties for the 2006 season, Howard has put up an average season of 48 homeruns, 140 rbi, and 100 runs scored. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005 when he wasn’t even the starter all  season, then followed that up by winning the NL Most Valuable Player in 2006. He has finished in the top five in MVP voting each of his full seasons, and is a 2-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner at the toughest position to gain those honors. All that, and last year he finally took his conditioning seriously, lost weight, and made himself much better defensively.

In the outfield, the Phillies group received rare public acknowledgement of their individual accomplishments a year ago when all three starters, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth were selected for the NL All-Star team. Ibanez started out his first season with the team by providing offensive fireworks for more than two months, carrying the club while some of the other stars struggled. Victorino, a fan favorite as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian”, provides speed, an emotional spark, and Gold Glove defense to centerfield. In right, Jayson Werth finally had a full, healthy season and proved that he could produce big time. He is currently in his contract year, and a decision on whether to re-sign him just as he may be emerging into stardom will be the Phillies management team’s toughest decision in the coming months.

At catcher, the Phillies are blessed to have the steady Carlos Ruiz. The man affectionately known around the clubhouse and with the fans as “Chooch” has grown into a leadership role in handling the pitching staff as well as any catcher in the Majors. He has a strong, accurate throwing arm, and he stands up at his position defensively as well as anyone. He has also shown himself to be a clutch hitter at playoff time in the club’s recent run of post-season success. Brian Schneider, a former Phillie-killer, has joined the club as an experienced, talented backup backstop who would be capable of stepping into the starting role with ease should anything happen to Ruiz.

The rest of the bench in addition to Schneider is improved over last season’s bunch. Greg Dobbs and Ben Francisco return, providing a strong lefy/righty pinch-hitting tandem with pop in their bats and covering backup defensive duties at 3rd base, 1st base, and in the outfield. Juan Castro gives the Phils a solid option when they want to rest either Utley or Rollins in the middle infield. Ross Gload has been one of baseball’s top pinch-hitters in recent years, and gives the Phils another proven left-handed option off the bench.

The Phillies largely cleaned out their minor league system during the last two years in order to bring in first Cliff Lee to help nail down last season’s run to the pennant and World Series, and now Roy Halladay for the long term. Still, there is help down on the farm, and there are gems coming soon. Outfielder John Mayberry has shown that he is fully capable of holding down either a temporary starting role or a key bench role should the Phillies need him at some point. Pitchers Andrew Carpenter, Scott Mathieson, and Mike Zagurski, 1st baseman Andy Tracey, 3rd baseman Cody Ransom, outfielders Mayberry, Chris Duffy, and DeWayne Wise, catcher Paul Hoover, and infielder Wilson Valdez all have the type of AAA profile that could allow them an in-season promotion to help successfully fill-in the roster due to injuries. And top prospect outfielder Domonic Brown is the next Phillies offensive star-in-waiting, possibly ready by next season to take over a starting slot.

The manager has gone from buffoon to beloved, from a fish-out-of-water country hillbilly hick to a hometown fan favorite. Charlie Manuel was ready to be run out of town by the local radio talk show hosts and the fan base when the team suddenly surged past the slumping New York Mets and won a thrilling division race on the final day of the 2007 season. The club followed that up with just the 2nd World Series championship in it’s history in 2008, and then returned to the Series a year ago, cementing ‘Uncle Charlie’ as a beloved character. Pitching coach Rich Dubee and hitting coach Milt Thompson are both Manuel loyalists and solid baseball men. Add in the maestro of the Phillies strong running game in 1st base coach Davey Lopes, and the Phils get outstanding instruction, leadership, and experience from their management team.

When you factor in everything that is important in putting together a championship baseball team: power, speed, pitching talent, maturity, leadership, strong defense, winning experience, steady management, committed ownership, and a rabid fan base the Phillies have it all. Again, they are the 3-time defending NL East champs, the 2-time defending NL pennant winners, and have been to the World Series in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. There is little that realistically appears to be standing between them and making those numbers read 4-time NL East champs, 3-time NL pennant winners, and 2-time World Series champions, and that is exactly what this fearless prognosticator believes will happen.

MLB 2010: National League

In nearly every major publication and from most every prognosticator you will find that the 3-time defending NL East winning, 2-time defending National League champion, and back-to-back World Series participant Philadelphia Phillies are considered the odds-on favorites to repeat at least where that eastern crown is concerned.

In fact, many have them again winning the NL pennant and advancing back to the Series, some predicting they will win.

An admitted lifelong Phillies fan, this absolutely prejudiced observer is calling it that way. Phillies to win their 4th straight NL East crown, 3rd straight National League pennant, and then a 2nd World Series title in 3 years.

Did you expect anything else from me under the current circumstances? However, it will be a struggle, there will be highs and lows, they will be pushed. I will cover the Phillies specifically in detail in my next article here in the coming days.

In that NL East race, the team that will push the Phillies the most this year will be…the Atlanta Braves. In fact, some might even find a reason to pick Atlanta to Tomahawk Chop their way back to the top of the division and unseat the Fightin’s from their lofty perch.

Atlanta’s rotation of Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson & Kenshin Kawakami is talented and deep. The lineup is led by declining veteran and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and perhaps the best offensive catcher in the NL in Brian McCann.

However, the biggest reason that the Braves will challenge the Phils will be the play of tremendous rookie right fielder Jason Heyward. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you will, and soon. Bobby Cox has a strong bullpen as well, and in his final season as manager he should push for a playoff spot.

The Florida Marlins have a superstar and NL MVP candidate in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a pair of exciting young outfielders in Chris Coghlan and Cameron Maybin, a slugging 2nd baseman in Dan Uggla, and a pair of strong starting pitchers in Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco. But they lack the overall roster depth to beat out either the Phils or the Braves. The New York Mets are not as deep or dangerous as in previous seasons, and are once again battling injury. The starting pitching behind Johan Santana is just not deep or talented enough either. They should be good enough to stay ahead of the Washington Nationals, but maybe just for one more season. Once Nats uber-prospect starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg arrives this summer, he may help vault them past New York.

In the NL Central the safe and sexy pick are the St. Louis Cardinals. The best hitter on the planet, Albert Pujols, will now be joined for a full season by the support of star outfielder Matt Holliday. Those two and the 1-2 rotation punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are formidable, but I don’t think it’s going to all be enough to repeat at the top of the division. I like the Cards to slip to 2nd place behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew will be led by a pair of genuine MVP candidates of their own in Ryan Braun (pictured) and Prince Fielder. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf will give them a strong 1-2 rotation punch. I’m calling this a very close race, with an MVP season from Braun providing the difference for the Brewers.

Behind those two top central dogs, I’ll call the order: Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh. The Reds, like their AL Central and Ohio brothers in Cleveland, have ‘dark horse’ contender written all over them. If their rotation stays healthy, and if young bats Joey Votto and Jay Bruce produce to their potential, the Reds could surprise and push the top two. The Cubs look like aging underachievers to me, though ace Carlos Zambrano appears to be in shape and motivated. The Astros have talent, especially in it’s lineup with Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn, but it is fragile. The Pirates are still just too young, though outfielder Andrew McCutchen will prove one of baseball’s most exciting players.

In the NL West, I am looking at perhaps the closest 1-3 race in the league. The Rockies, Dodgers, and Giants (I’ll call the finish in that order, since I have to make a prediction) can all win the division here with the right answers to their respective questions. For Colorado, are the young bats at the top of the order in Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler for real? For the LA Dodgers, can Manny Ramirez still be a Hall of Fame offensive force in the middle of the order? In San Fran, can they manufacture enough offense to support what is perhaps the best pitching in the division? In fact, the Arizona Diamondbacks have the roster talent to join this group and make it a 4-team race, but only if they can get ace Brandon Webb healthy early and keep him healthy all year.

I think that the Rockies kids are indeed for real, and that the club will find enough pitching led by starter Ubaldo Jimenez to win the division. The Dodgers will find that Mannywood is shutting down, and that the star slugger will both decline in production and prove to be a disruptive presence in the clubhouse. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Brian Wilson lead a strong and deep Giants’ staff, but the ‘Kung Fu Panda’, Pablo Sandoval, will not have enough offensive help for the team to push past the top two clubs.

The health issue will prove to much for Arizona, despite the presence of one of the game’s emerging superstars in outfielder Justin Upton. The San Diego Padres will pull up the rear out west, with the biggest item there all season being when, to where, and for what will they trade stud 1st baseman and pending free agent Adrian Gonzalez.

In the playoffs, I think that the Phillies and Brewers will advance to meet one another in the NLCS, repeating their matchup from the 2008 Divisional playoff round which the Phils won by a 3 games to 1 count. I think that the Phils offense will wear down and overwhelm the Brewers pitching, putting Philly into the World Series for the 3rd consecutive season. This would mark the first time since the Stan Musial-led St. Louis Cardinals of 1942-44 that a team from the Senior Curcuit went to 3 straight World Series appearances.

In that World Series, I am going to pick, oh, I don’t know, how about those Phillies to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in a rematch of their 2008 battle. This one could be much closer. The Rays starting pitching is better now, but so is the Phillies. The Rays offense is more experienced now, but then so are the Phillies players. I am  going to give the World Series nod to the combination of Ray Halladay and Cole Hamels, with the Phillies taking it in the full 7-game limit. Another parade down Broad Street for the Fightin’ Phils and their fans in early November of 2010.

Picks for the National League award winners are Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers outfield stud, as the NL Most Valuable Player. The Cy Young Award will go to the Phillies big acquisition, ace righthander Roy Halladay. I will pick outfielder Jason Heyward of the Braves to begin a long and storied career with a Rookie of the Year Award in 2010. However, Heyward will be seriously pushed for that award by starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, taking the honor only because Strasburg will start out with a few weeks in the  minor leagues.

Torii Hunter Plays the Race Card

If you don’t know him very well, let me clue you in on Torii Hunter. He is the centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels in Major League Baseball. He is one of the most outgoing, engaging, personable players that I have ever seen interviewed in the game. Oh, and he is African-American.

That last part normally wouldn’t matter a hill of beans to me. By the time that I was growing up in the 1970’s, the civil rights battles fought over the previous few decades had left me a sporting landscape to accept as normal and to view and enjoy as a young fan that included players of every race, ethnic background, and nationality.

But in an interview conducted a few weeks ago and released by USA Today on Wednesday as part of a series on the state of baseball today, Hunter revealed a lack of his own understanding on racial issues that is surprising considering his obvious intelligence and his usually keen insight.

In Part III of what is a 5-part ongoing series of articles this week titled “Efforts to develop black talent in USA insufficient”, Hunter opines that the public looks out at black faces playing in the game and incorrectly assumes that they are African-American when in fact they are Latino players. In his words “They’re not us, they’re imposters.”

Hunter then goes on to attempt to make his point by referencing a particular star player. Speaking of his former star teammate Vlad Guerrero, Hunter states “Is he a black player? I say “Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.”

Folks, on this particular issue, Torii Hunter is simply wrong in his thinking and view point. Have you ever seen Vlad Guerrero? The man’s skin color is as dark as the night sky. There is nothing at all wrong with that, of course. But let’s not trivialize this discussion by pointing out who is and is not ‘black’ when the issue is obvious.

Would Torii Hunter then accept an argument, following along with his line of thinking, that I am not ‘white’, but that I am Irish because the majority of my familial heritage is from that country? You mean to tell me that Dominicans can’t also be black? Does Hunter even know what ‘race’ is?

But it’s not just that Hunter makes one slight off-the-cuff remark that might be blown out of proportion. He goes on to explain in detail that he, and in his words the majority of African-American players, believe that baseball intentionally tries to use Latino players as an “imitator and pass them off as us.”

“It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper.” In making comments such as this, and in actually thinking like this, Torii Hunter and any other player or fan who cares about the game who buys into this line of thinking is only doing the genuine issue a disservice.

The genuine issue is an apparent dearth of African-American players at the Major League level in today’s game. It has been noted by everyone involved in the game, from baseball writers to fans to team management to the Commissioner’s office that the percentage of African-American players has been in steady decline since the 1970’s.

When I was growing up, I was able to enjoy a large number of outstanding African-American players. Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Vida Blue, Fergie Jenkins, Lee Smith, Bill Madlock, Billy Williams, Dusty Baker, Gary Matthews, Dick Allen, George Foster, Dave Parker and many more. Heck, I was even lucky enough to get to watch Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey play, albeit at the tail end of their lengthy careers.

But to look around today, you almost need a microscope to find an African-American player on your home team active roster in most towns. Here in Philadelphia, we have been blessed with a rarity in having two starting, star-caliber African-American players in the lineup for the past few seasons in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.

When the Major Leagues first overcame the ‘color barrier’ with the arrival of Jackie Robinson, a wave of ex-Negro Leaguers and emerging African-American talent swelled their representative ranks to the point where, by 1983, a little more than 1 in every 4 Major Leaguers was African-American. By 2006, that number had slipped from more than 25% to just 8.4% of players at the highest level.

Now that is certainly a number that, on it’s face, would seem to indicate that something alarming has taken place. But has it really? Is Torii Hunter correct in his belief that baseball has a prejudice against African-American players? Hardly, and any fair examination of the issue would reveal that the problem is not as bad as it seems.

First of all, let’s see where those jobs have gone. A small percentage have gone to Asian players. The fact is that there was almost no Asian presence in Major League Baseball 2-3 decades ago and earlier. Today with the opening and expanding of international competition, approximately 2.5% of players are of Asian racial origins.

The actual percentage of ‘white’ players has stayed pretty much the same, even gone down slightly. The majority of the jobs lost to African-American players have gone to ethnically Latino players. But while Hunter’s accusation is that Major League Baseball has gone for the Latino players from other nations “because you can get them cheaper“, the fact is that is simply not the case.

In South American nations such as those he highlights in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic as well as in other Caribbean nations such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, baseball is king and it is played year round. Kids are born and raised on baseball diamonds of the genuine and makeshift variety. They talk, eat, and dream baseball. And again, they play it all year long thanks to the continuous warm weather.

Here in America it is a fact that among the vast majority of African-American youth, baseball is a distant third to basketball and football in popularity. In his commentary, Hunter states “Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have (agent) Scott Boras represent him, and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?”

Well, Torii, for one thing, you can’t find that kid from the South Side of Chicago playing baseball. Not for the most part. He is running the basketball courts indoors for the 9 months out of the year that Chicago is experiencing it’s non-baseball friendly cold weather. The rare player that is talented enough and is interested enough in the game to be good enough to attract pro baseball attention does attract that attention.

Black Americans make up approximately 13% of the population in our country today. If you want everything to be exactly proportional to race, then you need to increase the Major League Baseball talent level of their numbers by just a few percentage points. That is hardly alarming when one considers that white players of any ethnic background make up just about 30% of NBA players and an even lower percentage of NFL players.

There is no rule, and it should not be expected, that every single sport is going to have an exact proportional number of players to the overall population. There are tons of factors, from the better weather in the Caribbean to cultural traditions here in America to expanded scouting in those places and in places such as Japan and Korea that the African-American population in MLB has dropped.

Baseball has not ignored this drop in numbers, however. In fact, it has specifically targeted the African-American community with it’s founding of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities) program, a program that it markets aggressively in it’s television advertising.

Just last year, The Institute For Diversity And Ethics In Sport released a report titled “The 2009 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball” in which it gave MLB a grade of ‘A’ for ‘Race’ and ‘B’ for ‘Gender’ as categories. The report noted that in 2009 the African-American player percentage increased for the first time since 1995.

The IDES report also stated that MLB began the 2009 season with 10 ‘managers of color’ at the helm of their on-field operations. The report stated that, led by Commissioner Bud Selig’s efforts, “MLB continues to have an outstanding record for Diversity Initiatives which include the third annual Civil Rights Game, Jackie Robinson Day and Roberto Clemente Day.”

The statistics do not lie. The percentage of African-American players in MLB is admittedly down over the past few decades. But people like Torii Hunter who resort to typical race-baiting comments whenever there is any appearance that black Americans might be getting slighted in some way do nothing but harm.

In fact, Torii Hunter and every single major African-American today who wants to see their racial population increase in the game would be better served in not pointing fingers elsewhere, but instead in getting out there on a regular basis in their community, directly inspiring with their presence and investing in that effort with a portion of the tens of millions of dollars that they are earning.

Major League Baseball and every other professional sport have one responsibility. That is to put the best, most entertaining product on the field, court, pitch, rink, or diamond that it possibly can. To suggest that any of them would ignore a source of potential talent is ludicrous. But then it has always been easier to point ones finger at others than to roll up your own sleeves and get to work, or to write your own check.

Sorry, Torii Hunter. You’re a good guy, and you’re usually a great ambassador for the sport of baseball. But this time you’re simply wrong. Leave the race-baiting comments to the Al Sharpton’s of the country, and get yourself and your fellow African-American players more directly involved in an organized, aggressive way within your communities if you want to have a real, positive impact.

Hall Welcomes the Hawk

On September 11th, 1976, the Montreal Expos were winding down the final weeks of both that ’76 season in Major League Baseball and their final season at Jarry Park. The following season they would move into the new Olympic Stadium, built for the Summer Olympics which the city had hosted that summer.

On that particular night, however, the team was on the road in Pittsburgh, and the 4-3 loss suffered at the hands of the perennial N.L. East power Pirates was the Expos 90th of the season. The night would be lost in memory but for one small tidbit. Starting in right field for the Expos on this night would be a rookie prospect by the name of Andre Dawson.

Dawson had been an 11th round draft pick of the Expos just a year earlier, the 250th player selected overall in that draft. Dawson would go 0-2 in that night’s game and would be lifted for pinch-hitter Jose Morales in the top of the 7th inning as the Expos rallied from a 4-1 deficit to cut the lead to 4-3. It would be one of the only times that Andre Dawson would be removed from any kind of Montreal rally for the next decade.

Dawson thus began to get his feet wet in the Majors that September with 85 mostly uneventful at-bats for a last place team. His batting average was just .235, and he hit no homeruns. In 1977, however, it was a different story. Dawson was a starter right from spring training, and ended up as the National League Rookie of the Year after posting a .282 average with 19 homeruns and 21 stolen bases.

Those Expos of ’77 improved by 20 wins over the previous year, and Dawson’s bat and centerfield play was only one of the reasons for the fans of the franchise to finally feel as if a winner might soon be coming to MLB’s only Canadian franchise. The franchise also had a 23-year old catcher named Gary Carter and 23-year old outfielder Ellis Valentine on board to build around.

This group of players would lead the team to it’s initial glory years, finishing with the franchise’ first-ever winning record by posting 95 victories in 1979 in what was the first of five consecutive winning seasons. That run was highlighted by the 1981 season in which the Expos made the playoffs for the only time in their history before losing the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Andre Dawson was one of the main reasons that the Expos experienced so much success into the early 1980’s. He regularly would hit .300 and was a consistent power/speed combination offensively while his strong glove and arm developed to the point that he led the NL in putouts for three straight years from 1981-83 and became a regular Gold Glove winner.

After a decade of mostly success in Montreal, Dawson became a free agent following the 1986 season. His knees had taken a pounding on the Olympic Stadium turf, forcing a move from centerfield to right field and taking a physical toll on him. One of the key requirements as he sorted through his free agent suitors was getting to play his home games on grass. For this reason he campaigned to sign with the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs general manager at the time was Dallas Green, who believed that Dawson was on the decline and did not want to sign him. Dawson and his agent presented Green with a contract offer that included a blank salary which the team could fill in itself at any figure that it deemed appropriate. Green took the challenge and filled the contract in at $500,000 with another $250,000 in incentives, a healthy pay cut from Dawson’s final Montreal season.

At 32 years of age and with his knees mostly shot, Dawson’s days as a centerfielder and speed threat were mostly over. But he had slid over to right field where his strong arm and excellent range allowed him to remain a Gold Glover. At the plate, Dawson exploded with the Cubs as one of the greatest power hitters in the game, and would end up being rewarded with a 5-year contract extension to stay in the Windy City.

In his very first season at Wrigley Field, Andre Dawson showed the Cubbies and Green that he was worth a full contract by putting up a season for the ages that resulted in his winning the National League Most Valuable Player award. He bashed 49 homeruns and knocked in 137 runs for a team that Phillies fans might find interesting included a 24-year old, 2nd year pitcher named Jamie Moyer.

In 1989, Dawson battled injuries to help lead the Cubs into the NLCS where they were beaten by the San Francisco Giants. He continued to put up consistently strong years for the Cubs, including a 1991 season in which he bashed 31 homers and drove in 14 runs. He would wind his career down with two seasons each playing for the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, with his final game coming with the Fish on September 29th, 1996.

During his 20-year MLB career Andre Dawson had been an 8-time All-Star, including the winner of the 1987 Home Run Derby. He was a 4-time winner of the Silver Slugger for hitting excellence at his position. It wasn’t nearly all about offense for the all-around Dawson, however. He was also an 8-time Gold Glove Award winner. All of this to go along with the ’77 NL Rookie of the Year and ’87 NL MVP awards.

Finally, Andre Dawson was one of only 3 players in MLB history to finish his career in the 400/300 Club (at least 400 homeruns and 300 stolen bases) with the others being Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. After waiting the requisite five years, Dawson received just over 45% of a needed 75% vote in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

In 2003, Dawson, who was nicknamed ‘The Hawk’ during his playing career, received his only World Series ring as a member of the Florida Marlins front office, and he currently serves that team as a special assistant to the team president. He had his #10 retired by the Expos before the franchise moved to Washington. It was announced just yesterday that he was finally elected to full enshrinement as a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I watched Andre Dawson all throughout the 1980’s and into the early 90’s as one of the most dominant all-around players in the game during that pre-steroid era. In the first half of his career he had it all: power, speed, arm, defense. Later in his career he remained a consistent middle-of-the-order power threat. He won major awards, including an MVP for a last place team. In my opinion, Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall is a long overdue honor.

MLB 2009 Playoff Predictions

Anyone can tell you after the fact why something happened, and say that they knew it would happen that way and could have told you before hand. Well me, I’m actually going to tell you before hand how one educated baseball fan – me – thinks that the 2009 MLB post-season will play out.

Let’s start closest to home, with the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and the National League playoffs. In the NL Division Series, the East Division champion Phillies host the Wildcard Colorado Rockies and the West Division champion Los Angeles Dodgers will play host to the Saint Louis Cardinals.

Back in 2007, the Phillies had completed a furious late-season rally to overtake the New York Mets and win their first division crown in 14 years. That team was quite obviously just happy to be there, and they were steam-rolled by a red-hot Rockies club in three straight Division Series games.

This year will be different for a number of reasons. First, the Phillies are a better team today than they were two years ago in both the starting lineup and in the starting rotation. The additions of Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, and rookie J.A. Happ provide that improved talent.

Perhaps more importantly, the club’s home grown nucleus is not only more experienced, but the quality of that experience of winning a world championship cannot be understated. The confidence gained by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, et al will prove invaluable.

The Rockies have a good team and finished strong, making a late run at the Dodgers in the west. They have some excellent players in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Brad Hawpe, and closer Huston Street. They have outstanding young talents in outfielder Dexter Fowler and infielder Ian Stewart, as well as pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa (lost for the series due to injury). And they also have their iconic 1st baseman Todd Helton.

The Phillies supplement their big three of Howard-Utley-Rollins with perhaps the most potent attack in the National League. Outfielders Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino were both deserved All-Stars and join Ibanez and 3rd baseman Pedro Feliz in providing the Phils with legitimate weapons through the first 7 hitters in the batting order.

The Phillies depth and overall talent will combine with the fact that they are the best defensive team in the game to be the difference here. Unlike some other pundits who like to give every team it’s ‘props’ by at least assuming they will win one game, I’m not going that route. I see no reason why the Fightin’ Phils can’t sweep this series, and so I am going to call it a 3-0 series win for the defending champs.

The Cardinals have become the popular pick for many in the other NL series. They have marquee talents in newcomer Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols, perhaps the best hitter in baseball. With a pair of legitimate aces at the top in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the Cards have a definite advantage. But it’s not as if these Dodgers come into the series with nothing. There is a reason they won 95 games and compiled the best record in the league.

The Dodgers come at you with a balanced attack led by emerging star outfielder Matt Kemp and clutch-hitting outfielder Andre Ethier, and including 1st sacker James Loney, catcher Russ Martin, and future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez. The Dodgers also have an excellent trio of middle infielders in 2nd basemen Orlando Hudson and Rafael Belliard and shortstop Rafael Furcal. I think that the LA pitchers will find a way to keep the club close enough in enough games to give the Dodgers a tight 3-2 series win.

Over in the AL, the East Division champion New York Yankees are clearly the class of the league. Their Division Series opponents, the Minnesota Twins, last night won one of the greatest games in recent baseball history, defeating the Detroit Tigers in 12 innings to win the Central Division title. I have to believe that the Twins left it all on the field in that game, and I predict the Yanks will storm to a 3-0 sweep here.

In the other AL series, the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim?) will face the Boston Red Sox. The Bosox have made a habit of knocking the Angels out in the opening round of the playoffs, but this year it is going to be different. These Angels have the talent and experience. They just need to win a key game early in the series and gain some confidence, which I believe they will in what should be a hard-fought 3-1 series win for the Angels.

In the ALCS, the Yankees have too much firepower for the Angels, and I see the Yankes taking it by a 4-1 margin. In the NLCS, the Phillies proved last year that they are better than the Dodgers. Nothing much has changed other than that the Phils have gotten better while the Dodgers are arguably the same team. I see the Phils taking the series by a 4-1 margin as well.

This would set up a fascinating World Series between what I believe are clearly the two best overall teams in baseball. A star-studded affair featuring names like Howard, ARod, Jeter, Utley, Teixeira, Werth, Victorino, Damon, Ibanez and a number of other talented hitters and defenders. Pitching battles featuring C.C. Sabathia trying to overcome the horrible defeat he suffered in the playoffs a year ago at the Phils hands while a member of the Milwaukee Brewers rotation.

Here it comes, the absolutely complete and utter ‘homer’ call: Philadelphia Phillies in six memorable, exciting games over the New York Yankees and a repeat parade down Broad Street for the first back-to-back MLB champs in a decade. But it’s not a complete homer call. The Phillies have the talent to do it again. At some point in the playoffs the bullpen will have to overcome it’s struggles. But I believe the previous post-season experience will be enough to carry the club through to glory.