My birthday is next week -- Tuesday -- positioned right at the very dawn of the baseball season where it always falls. I love having a birthday in February. I'm from Illinois, where you know we like our Lincoln, and Lincoln's birthday is in February too. I like the whole Leap Year thing -- I was this close to being a Leap Day kid, I was born in '80. Everything about February says Mark T.R. Donohue to me, no more so than pitchers and catchers reporting. Yet somehow this year I'm less into it than usual. I haven't been watching WGN news on cable every night waiting to see the hysterical dispatches from Cubs camp. I've stopped visiting the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News sports pages, because they're terribly written and on the off-chance the Rockies even did anything worthwhile this offseason, none of our crappy local reporters was going to break the story.
I suppose part of this surprising disinterest springs from the fact that that's very little chance that the Rockies are going to improve on last season. I think they have a better team, but last year's National League regular season illustrated quite clearly that in a league with about 10 average-to-mediocre teams and 6 awful ones luck and scheduling will play the biggest part in deciding the postseason. Going into last season you could certainly argue that the Rockies deserved a break, but last September, they got one. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the Rockies were a .500 team that got hot late last year -- they were about as good as their record. It seems to me that while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have improved way more than Colorado, both of them were rather worse than the Rockies last season. San Diego, about whom fewer people are talking, was actually substantially better than Arizona or Los Angeles last year, and they should be around the same this season.
The NL West has four teams that should all win between 85 and 91 games. If San Diego ends up being the team with 91, then it proves it: pitching beats all. If Arizona wins 91, Josh Byrnes is a genius for trading for Danny Haren. If it's the Dodgers, Joe Torre will get the credit. If it's the Rockies, well, we should have known all along -- they were the NL champs and should have been the favorites all along. That will be the popular acclaim, anyway. But in all four cases, there probably isn't any one offseason acquisition that is genuinely enough to push them ahead of the other three. Barring a major midseason trade, the team that wins the NL West is going to do so mostly through good fortune.
Does that apply to the Rockies last year? Of course it does! I know they got lucky! I was there! They had like the eighth-best record in the league in mid-September when I half-jokingly sent in my playoff deposit, then I had to scramble around canceling checks and calling in favors when they suddenly starting not losing and put me on the hook for $700 worth of postseason tickets. After last year, I have a new appreciation for the universe's bizarre sense of order. Born into a colossal family of intense Boston Irish sports fans, I found myself watching the Red Sox celebrate a World Series title in person -- and choking back tears of disappointment. The world is weird.
Well, in addition to starting out with a new age on Tuesday (which if past experience is any guide it will only take me about four months to adjust to), on Monday I meet another new challenge: unemployment! Of course unlike being 28 this is an area in which I have plenty of experience. My record collection is going to suffer, but you the readers will benefit, because I'm going to have way too much time on my hands, and I'm going to try -- I'm not promising, but I'm going to try -- to do all the teams in my Hastily Assembled Previews this year.
I should probably just stop writing about the NBA right now, since apparently I don't know anything about it, but I can't help myself -- this is the best NBA season since the Bulls dynasty ended. So many good teams! So much on the line in the regular season! All the trades! The Trail Blazers and the Warriors are two of the most exciting teams in the league and both of them could end up missing the playoffs through no fault of their own. The Western Conference is that superpowered, making MLB's AL/NL split seem hardly an issue at all. (Although if the rising Brewers and hopeless Royals switch leagues, that wouldn't help perceptions any.) Personally, I think all of the player movement notwithstanding, San Antonio is the team to beat -- they've been resting their stars all year, and Manu Ginobili is making a case for MVP as a sixth man. I also have to castigate my hometown Nuggets for not making any moves -- as I suspected would happen, Allen Iverson has been a ghastly influence on Carmelo Anthony, and the iso-happy, 1-on-5 defense Nuggets are the ugliest winning team in the West by a wide margin. I kind of hope they miss the playoffs, because people around here are very unclear on how far away from being championship contenders Denver is.
The team I still pull for, the Bulls, made a classic postmodern NBA trade yesterday, with eleven guys going to three teams and everyone kind of ending up not that much better or worse than they were already. I'm glad Chicago was able to dispose of Ben Wallace, who was never a good fit, and I like the way that Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden diversify their rotation. Hughes and Gooden aren't better players than the ones the Bulls gave up (Joe Smith, their best player this season, went to Cleveland too) but they have skills that aren't well-represented on the Bulls' roster otherwise. Gooden at least gives you a guy you have to cover in the low post, and Hughes is a bigger guard who can play solid defense on the other team's star perimeter player. I understand the common sentiment in the Chicago papers today that Wallace was a goldbricking thief, but not the one that the acquisition of Hughes necessarily means the departure of Ben Gordon. The Bulls did not trade for Hughes because they really wanted to get better at off-guard. They traded for him because his massive cumbersome contract and Wallace's massive cumbersome contract balanced each other out and made the trade possible. Now they have Hughes so they'll play him, but he definitely wasn't sought out as Gordon's replacement. They're deeply different players, anyway -- Gordon is short, terrible on defense, better at spot-up shooting than scoring with the ball in his hands and Hughes is 6'5" and a good drive-and-dish guy who should shoot from outside as seldom as possible and plays very good man-on-man and help defense.
I think the Cavs have the same problem from this trade as the Suns do after dealing Shawn Marion -- who covers Kobe, or T-Mac, or Vince Carter, or Dwyane Wade on their team now? Shaq's big debut for the Suns the other night, while a hugely satisfying regular season game, ended up being more about the Suns' helplessness to defend Kobe Bryant than Shaq's contributions, although he did come on strong in the fourth quarter and was hustling for offensive boards and loose balls throughout.
The NBA is way too interesting to ignore right now, and as I wrongheaded as some of my ideas about it might be (when I savaged the Jason Kidd trade for the Nets I was unaware that Devin Harris is, like, the best guard at taking charges in the whole league, although I still think he's too short to play 2 and not a good enough passer to play the point, and it's silly to make a bench player the centerpiece of your deal sending away a superstar) I'm not going to stop writing about it. You can just not read what I write, if you like.