Your inaugural Power Rankings

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The only thing sillier than predictions about who wins each division several months before the season ends is judging which team is the best before any games are played.  But hey, that’s never stopped me before, so let’s have a Power Ranking, shall we?

And yeah, there is that big of a gap between the AL and the NL. It’s just astounding how much better the top teams in the junior circuit are.

1. Yankees: A 97-win team with rotation problems adds a couple of really good starters. Yeah, I think that plays.

2. Rangers: The two-time defending AL champs lose their top starting pitcher but add another one who, in my view anyway, will be better.  That plays too.

3. Angels: Huge additions in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, obviously, but they also had ten games to make up from the Rangers.

4. Tigers: Fielder and Cabrera are gonna be awesome to see. But there are holes in the lineup and, while still awesome, Justin Verlander can’t match 2011’s numbers again because, really, no one can do that. Right?

5. Rays: The deepest rotation in baseball means that if they have any problems — say Luke Scott is a bust and the bullpen falters — they have the chips to make some deals.

6. Red Sox: Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got somethin’ to say, but nothin’ comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish, and motherf***ers act like they forgot about how good this team was until September last year.

7. Phillies: Infielders on this team have a worse life expectancy than the drummer for Spinal Tap. But having Halladay, Hamels and Lee hanging around makes up for a lot of stuff. The 1990s-early 2000s Braves won division after division with dudes like Mark Lemke and Keith Lockhart in the infield. I think  the Phillies will be fine.

8. Diamondbacks: Will Ian Kennedy have a repeat year? Exceedingly doubtful. But Trevor Cahill has joined up, I’m curious about an entire year of Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton is still awesome and I don’t think the Giants will be substantially better than they were last year. Ergo, the Dbacks.

9. Braves: If Freddie Freeman’s spring training is any indication of how he’ll do this year the perpetual offensive problems this team has will be somewhat mitigated.

10. Giants: Whether you think this team will return to 2010 form has a lot to do with whether you think Melky Cabrera’s 2011 season was indicative of some new normal for him and that he’ll repeat it in AT&T Park. I kinda think it was a fluke.

11. Cardinals: I’m feeling kinda shaky about this given the Carpenter and Furcal injuries, but man, I JUST picked them to win the Central an hour ago, so I have to stick with this a bit longer, no? UPDATE: I have no idea why I thought Rafael Furcal was hurt. I haven’t slept a lot lately.

12. Brewers: Prince Fielder gone, but Aramis Ramirez in (and Casey McGehee out) is pretty decent compensation.

13. Blue Jays: The rotation is kind of a mess and the lineup is depending on a handful of bounceback years. But I could see this team competing and even winning the NL West or Central. Unfortunately, they play in the AL East.

14. Marlins: A bigger deal than all of their offseason additions is the return of a healthy Josh Johnson.  But more than this team’s prospects, I’m curious to see if Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen can avoid their particular brand of performance art this season.

15. Reds:  I’d feel better if not for the bullpen injuries, but the Reds are going to be pesky and, if things break right — or wrong for St. Louis and Milwaukee — they could take the division.

16. Nationals: Still a year away, methinks, but they’re not that far behind Atlanta and Florida. Injuries to those two teams could push Washington toward second place.

17. Indians: They’re gonna do what they always do: surprise for a nice long stretch, disappoint for a nice long stretch and finish fairly far back of the Tigers. Then next winter we’ll all talk about how they’re underrated again.

18. Rockies: Jamie Moyer is a great story, but it is telling that a 49 year-old soft-tosser made this rotation.

19. Royals: So many people’s sexy, breakout pick. Still a year — and a couple of starters – away in my view. Especially in light of the Soria and Perez injuries.

20. Pirates:  A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard and James McDonald could — if they all hit the top end of their potential — make this team a potentially dangerous one. Still, the most realistic goal here is breaking the streak of sub-.500 finishes, not going to the playoffs.

21. Dodgers: Kershaw and Kemp, then a whole lot of nothing, all mitigated by optimism about the new owners.

22. Twins: If Mauer and Morneau are both really back this will look like a really low ranking in hindsight. But they gotta show me first.

23. Athletics: It’s probably going to be more fun to watch the farm system this year — which is stocked — than the big club.

24. Padres: Same here, really. They got a lot of talent back in the Mat Latos deal.

25. Cubs: The future is pretty darn far from now. How long will Theo and Jed’s honeymoon last?

26. White Sox: On the early stages of a rebuild. There will not be any sneaky contention here.

27. Mets: The legal cloud over the team has lifted. Johan Santana appears to be healthy again. Beyond that, I’m kind of at a loss as to where to find optimism here.

28. Mariners: They’ll score more runs this year. But that’s not saying much. They should still have one of the worst offenses in baseball, even with some dramatic offensive improvement.

29. Orioles: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: how they do will depend on young pitching taking a step forward.

30.  Astros: I think they’re gonna settle in this position for the long haul.

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.