December 15, 2003

Beasts in the East

I have a theory that I have voiced on many occasions, which is that anyone who lives in Minnesota past the age of about 23 is completely insane. I use 23 as the magic number because that's the point at which most people should be able to actually make decisions on where they want to live.

The theory is especially true for those people who were not born and raised in Minnesota, because they have come here by choice and they aren't simply staying here out of habit or because the rest of their family is also here and also insane.

Don't get me wrong, Minnesota is a beautiful place to live for about half the year. In the spring and summer the weather is great, while not ridiculously hot. Then comes winter, a season that lasts about five months, and things start to look like this...

To be honest, the picture above isn't even a big deal. It was 25 degrees outside when I took that picture yesterday afternoon and I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, with no jacket. 25 degrees in the middle of December qualifies as a heat wave in Minnesota. My dog thought it was so nice out that she decided she wanted to just sit in a big pile of snow for about 10 minutes.

At some point in the next month or so, there will be twice that much snow on the ground and the temperature outside will be negative something. You won't be able to go outside if you have wet hair, because it will freeze to the point that you can snap it off. People will avoid doing things they enjoy because they are afraid to drive on the roads. And those who do venture out into the world will find themselves slipping and sliding around, always just a second away from a huge accident.

The poor souls who must park on the street, either at home or at work, will come out of wherever they have been to find a car that has vanished underneath a heavy coat of white. They will dig themselves out and then have to chop the ice off the front window, just so they can see where they're going.

If you live here and you are old enough and mentally capable enough to make your own decisions regarding where you live, you are, without a doubt, completely insane. Don't be offended, I include myself in that group. I remind myself everyday just how nuts I am, while I walk to class with the wind burning my face and my breath as visible as cigarette smoke.

Yet, despite all of that, I found myself extremely happy to be a Minnesotan yesterday afternoon. Why? Well, as with most things in my life, it has everything to do with baseball.

You see, the Twins will be going for their third straight division title this year. They'll be fighting against Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland and Detroit. The Twins have lost quite a few valuable players this off-season and the team is in a major state of flux right now. Even with that, I think they have to be considered the favorites for the AL Central division in 2004.

Meanwhile, in the American League East, all hell has broken loose. New York and Boston, the two best teams in the league last year, have gotten even better (and the Red Sox may yet make a trade for the best player in the league).

At the same time, the Blue Jays, who had an incredible offense and a mediocre pitching-staff on their way to 86 wins and third-place in the division last year, have made several moves that will significantly improve their pitching. All signs point to them winning 90+ games in 2004.

As if that weren't enough, the latest news is that the Baltimore Orioles, a team that has finished in fourth-place in each of the last six seasons, have signed Miguel Tejada and are on the verge of also signing Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero.

Three players does not a team make, obviously, but adding those three players would have a massive impact. Guerrero, Tejada and Rodriguez are all among the top 3-5 players at their position in all of baseball. They don't do anything to solve Baltimore's problem of not having any pitching, but they would immediately make Baltimore's offense (which finished 10th in the AL in scoring last year) among the best in the league.

Suddenly guys like Melvin Mora and Jay Gibbons aren't the "stars" of the team, and are instead simply secondary players. And suddenly the Orioles could put the following lineup on the field:

 C   Ivan Rodriguez

1B Jay Gibbons
2B Brian Roberts
SS Miguel Tejada
3B Melvin Mora
LF Larry Bigbie
CF Luis Matos
RF Vladimir Guerrero
DH B.J. Surhoff/Jack Cust

That lineup will score a lot of runs.

It is still early in the off-season and I am sure there are several big moves yet to come from various American League teams, but I think, at this point, there is a very good chance that New York, Boston, Toronto and Baltimore could be four of the best five or six teams in the American League (assuming Baltimore ends up with Guerrero and Rodriguez, in addition to Tejada). It is shaping up to be an incredibly strong division.

I am really starting to feel sorry for Tampa Bay. They have some nice prospects in their system and they have been trying to make some little moves over the last year or two that they hope will help them make baby steps towards respectability. At the very least, they were looking like they would have been able to possibly get out of the AL East basement at some point in the next two years. And now...not so much.

I also feel sort of bad for Toronto. The Blue Jays have become one of my favorite teams over the last two years. They have an intelligent, well-run front office and they have made major strides at both the major league and minor league levels. J.P. Ricciardi and company are setting up a team that is going to be very good over the next decade or so and will be able to make a serious run right around 2005 or 2006.

At the same time, no matter what they do, there is a very good chance they will have to settle for being the third-best team in their own division. Those are just the facts of life when you are playing with the two big boys in the AL, New York and Boston. Now, as if that weren't enough, the Orioles appear ready to wake up from their six-year slumber as a franchise and they will definitely give Toronto a fight for third-place.

If my team, the Minnesota Twins, were in the AL East, I think the prospect of dealing with those four teams over the next several seasons would be even more depressing than the weather here in Minnesota. There's a very real chance that either Toronto or Baltimore could win over 90 games next season and not even come particularly close to the playoffs, let alone first-place.

To be honest, Toronto was probably a playoff-caliber team last year, or at least as much of one as the Twins were. The Twins won 90 games last season, while Toronto won 86.

Toronto played in a division with a team that won 101 games and a team that won 95 games. Beyond Toronto, the other four AL East teams had a combined record of 330-318 (a .509 winning percentage). The Twins played in a division where the second-place team won 86 games and the combined record of the four non-Minnesota teams was 280-368 (a .432 winning percentage).

If things had been reversed last year, if Minnesota had been in the East and Toronto had been in the Central, I think the Blue Jays would have been in the playoffs and the Twins would have been in third-place.

Taking out the games they each played against the four teams in their own division, here is how the Twins and Blue Jays did last year:

                W      L     Win%

Toronto 49 37 .570
Minnesota 47 39 .546

Sometimes just being in the right place is pretty important. Both teams won right around the same number of games outside of their division, but then the Twins got to beat up on four teams with a combined winning percentage of .432 for 76 games, while the Blue Jays had to play the two best teams in the league 19 teams apiece.

Sometimes in the morning, when I'm still half-asleep and remembering how warm I was under my covers, I open up the door to go out into the world and am hit by a giant gust of ice-cold wind. My eyes shoot open and I find myself staring at a sea of snow. While I walk to class in that environment, I think about just how horrible it is and just how insane I must be to live here. Or at least I used to.

Instead, now I'm going to think about how wonderful it is to be in Minnesota. Because as bad as the weather is, it's a walk in the park compared to the prospect of fighting against New York, Boston, Toronto and Baltimore for two playoff spots. I'd rather freeze my ass off and play the Tigers.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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