The Yankees and the Red Sox are battling to stay out of the cellar, the Nationals are number one in their division, and Josh Hamilton hit four home runs in a game.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), discuss the MLB season so far.
Between the NBA playoffs, the NHL playoffs, and once-in-a-lifetime endings in English Premier League soccer, the start of the baseball season has largely been off the radar (four-homerun games notwithstanding, more on that in a minute). But there's been enough wackiness so far to fill an entire season.
Where to start? How about the up-to-date MLB standings? Texas and St. Louis, last year's World Series participants, are holding serve at the top of the AL West and NL Central, respectively. But the other four divisions all have surprises at the top, none more so than the AL East, where the Baltimore Orioles are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for first place while the Yankees and Red Sox fight to avoid the cellar. The Orioles are the latest example of Buck Showalter's magic touch—the veteran manager previously brought the Yankees and Diamondbacks from the doldrums to the brink of a World Series title. Tragically, Buck left the Yanks and D-Backs a year before they won the World Series, so I guess Baltimore owner Peter Angelos' plan is to give Buck a couple more years to prime the team for a postseason run before bringing in a managerial closer.
In other divisions, the Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals, and Los Angeles Dodgers hold the top spot. The Dodgers have raced out to the best record in the National League behind the sizzling start of outfielder Matt Kemp, who finished second in the MVP race last year to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun. Through Monday, Kemp was posting .359/.446/.726 splits (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 12 home runs and 28 RBIs. Barring a midseason swoon, Kemp will have a chance at the elusive Triple Crown, which no NL player has won since the Cardinals' Joe "Ducky" Medwick in 1937.
Amazingly, Kemp is not having the best season in the bigs so far this year. That's because Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton has become the second coming of Barry Bonds (hopefully without the steroids). On May 8, Hamilton became just the 16th player in MLB history to hit four home runs in one game, and his 18 total bases in the game were an all-time AL record. Hamilton's story is an inspiring one, from drug and alcohol abuse that derailed his career from 2001-2006 to his 2010 AL MVP season for Texas to his multiple public relapses. Currently, Hamilton is hitting .404/.458/.838 with 18 homers and 45 RBIs, which puts him on pace for 81 homers and 198 RBIs. It's a safe bet that Hamilton won't reach those lofty numbers, both of which would be MLB single-season records. But 60 longballs and 160 RBIs is not out of the question.
What's caught your eye so far this season, Hampton?
Jake, when you love a losing team like the Royals, baseball season is a schizophrenic experience. After a first week beyond anyone's wildest expectations, the club swooned at home, then swooned more on the road for massively deflating 12-game losing streak. They've since gone 13-6 and clawed back to near-respectability at 15-21. We even took two from the Rangers. Yay. But these are the Royals of David Glass, after all, an owner who would rather win by losing, Pittsburgh-style. Losing so much for so long changes you, changes how you approach the game. Like the revocation of my irrevocable rule about never leaving before the final out. When you get used to seeing the hometown team down 5-0 in the 1st inning, principled baseball fandom gets chucked out the window.
That's why MLB is so schizophrenic. On one hand is my passionate love of baseball—the great national game that consumes the summer. That love takes all the typical forms: considering the fantasy replacements for Matt Kemp. Taking joy in yet another Josh Hamilton resurrection. Watching the Yankees bullpen fall apart. Mulling the destruction of Wrigley Field. In that world, I'm loving Mike Moustakas. He's been as advertised and more, hitting .310 with five homers and one of the game's silkiest swings. I'm human, so I'm hopeful and dream of the playoffs. Or, at least, of staying in contention past June. But it's the self-delusional dream of the Hollywood actress getting married for the fifth time and trying to convince herself that this one is going to be the one that lasts.
Separate from that world is my eternal but quixotic love for the Royals. KC isn't as bad as Chicago. Cubs fans have been down so long that they've gone all Stockholm Syndrome and now sympathize with their tormentors. There's nothing "lovable " about losing. Ever. Royals fans do share a lot with the Wrigley faithful, though. Namely, fans go to games for the experiences of the ballpark, not the team. You go for other players—because the Angels are in town and you want to see Mike Trout. You go for fireworks on Friday nights, for t-shirt giveaways and Pine-Tar Mini Bat Day. Fans of good teams might be pumped for a big series with division-leading Cleveland. Me? I'm more excited for July 21, when the team salutes the Negro Leagues by giving away Buck O'Neil bobbleheads.
Oh, also, the All-Star Game is at Kauffman Stadium. That'll be fun. In a way, it'll be the perfect expression of life with the Royals-under-Glass. Fans will pack the park, but they'll do it to because of great players on other teams. They'll do it for the fireworks, the SWAG, the crowd and pageantry. The winner of the game itself? That's pretty much besides the point.
Funny you should mention the All-Star Game. In 2009, taxpayers pumped $225 million into renovating the sixth-oldest ballpark in the major leagues—with the Royals themselves generously contributing 1/10th of that amount—and three years later, shazam! Home Run Derby for everyone!
Note: this is not a coincidence.
Much like the NFL's Super Bowl, the All-Star Game long has been the long orange vegetable in MLB's carrot-and-stick approach to public stadium financing: Empty your civic coffers, and the Lords of Baseball will bless you with the only baseball game that can end in tie. Fail to do so, and your beloved club will be moved to Washington, D.C. Only guess what? Montreal balked, the Expos bolted for the District, the nation's capital coughed up $611 million for a ballpark that opened in 2008, and we still haven't hosted the freaking All-Star Game. (In fact, the New York Mets were just awarded the 2013 contest).
Dear baseball: are you trying to lose your Congressional antitrust exemption?
Fortunately for Washington sports fans—and there's a phrase you don't hear very often—we finally, mercifully don't need the National and American League's best competing in an exhibition game that kinda-sorta matters in order to witness good baseball. Despite a slew of injuries, the Nationals are legitimate playoff contenders. Better yet, they seem positioned to enjoy an Atlanta Braves-like run of sustained success. The organization's once-barren farm system has been restocked. The big league club is loaded with good, young pitching, the key element of consistent competitiveness. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, much-hyped Stephen Strasburg looks a bonafide ace, a better, craftier pitcher than the fireballing phenom who struck out 14 in his Nationals debut.
Oh, and speaking of hype: Bryce Harper. The one-time Sports Illustrated coverboy—remarkable because Harper was, in fact, a boy when he appeared on the magazine's cover—has been called up ahead of schedule, and is actually playing better in the bigs than he did in the minors. Harper has a cannon arm. He plays with Pete Rose hustle. He steals home. He gives himself stitches. He's a little brash, a lot charismatic and all of 19 years old. He just might be baseball's Next Big Thing—and in a town that traditionally makes a mockery of promising newcomers and hard-charging insurgents, both athletic (pretty much any Washington Redskins free agent) and political (pretty much every elected official), a little hope and change that actually sticks would be a welcome development.