By Eric Neel
Page 2

We all love talking baseball in the springtime. Even better when you're talkin' with your friends. Page 2's Eric Neel discusses the season so far with his buddy, Page 3 contributor Andy Behrens.

Eric Neel: Hey Andy,

Your White Sox are 16-6. How you feeling?

I know how you're feeling. You're sick.

Ozzie Guillen
Ozzie Guillen's got his White Sox fired up so far this season.

Because you know it's all going to come crashing down. You know they sport a team on-base percentage about as low as the dusty underside of a sidewinder (forgive me, I was inhabited by the spirit of Dan Rather there for a second). And you realize, after Mark Buehrle (3.89 ERA/1.03 WHIP), their pitching staff just ain't anywhere near this good.

I was going to try to cheer you up with some rah-rah talk about "SmartBall" and the fire in Ozzie Guillen's belly, but we've known each other a long time and I don't want to insult you.

Instead I'll go the other way: You're doomed, brother. This ship may be at full sail now, but it's sinking soon.

My over/under on games won: 79.

Am I wrong about you? About your boys?

Andy Behrens: Dude, who cares if the ship is sinking? It's a damn fun ship.

The Sox have Carl Everett, A.J. Pierzynski and a profane manager who's obsessed with an injured Tiger. If there's a more entertaining team in baseball, you just let me know. I'll watch them, too. Am I on the ship? No. But I'm a curious onlooker.

You know who else interests me? The Nationals.

You just can't get Brad Wilkerson out. Same goes for Jose Vidro. And if the season ended today, John Patterson and his 0.98 ERA would win the NL Cy Young Award. As I write these words, Esteban Loaiza is carrying a one-hitter into the eighth against the Phillies. (I'm not talking about the way Rex Hudler used to carry one-hitters, either. I mean that Loaiza has only surrendered one hit to Phillies batters. Just so we're clear.)

So are the Nats for real? That is, are they really a better-than-.500 team?

Neel: Ignoring, for the moment, your weeeeeeeeak "curious onlooker" stance, here are five reasons the Nationals are not for real:

1. They are (and a lot of folks seem to forget this) really just the Expos. And worse than that, they're freakin' Expos without Youppi!, whose Value Over Replacement Mascot (VORM) is, like, 53.7.

2. Frank Robinson is, literally, asleep at the wheel.

3. They're 21st in the league in runs scored right now, and I expect that trend to curve downward in the coming weeks.

4. They're renting out a football stadium. The last team to have any success doing that was the '59 Dodgers, and these ain't the '59 Dodgers.

5. Ask Brian Cashman about promising looks from Esteban Loaiza.

All right, now this: Last night on the Dodgers' broadcast, Vin Scully said Frank Robinson was the most aggressive, go-hard baserunner he ever saw (which could explain why he's so tired now). Who makes your active-player short list of the most bulldog players in the game?

Behrens: First of all, Youppi! is really the Tim Raines of mascots. When he was active, we all thought he was OK. Not great, not special. Just OK. But as soon as he left the game, all the sabermetric guys started raving about him.

"Oh, look at Youppi!'s VORM, his Win Shares, his park factor, his quality-of-mascots-faced ..."

It's crap. The bottom line is this: He was no San Diego Chicken. He was no Philly Phanatic. He was strictly second-tier, like Ribbie or Rhubarb. Or the Pirate Parrot. Or Fernando Valenzuela.

My list of bulldog players? It's a very simple list:

1. Craig Biggio. That's it. Lots of guys play hard. And as soon as they get hit by pitches 259 times like Biggio, they'll make my list, too. He's already got three HBP this season, and he's about to take over the all-time lead. That's the only hard-nosed guy we need to discuss.

Now answer me this: Will Brian Roberts become the first member of the 60/60 club? 'Cause that's very nearly the pace he's on. Give me a list of guys riding early-season streaks, good and bad, who can't possibly sustain them.

Neel: Not that you'd care, because your heart has clearly turned to stone since I saw you last, but that Fernando comment, that gets you cut from the Neel family Christmas card list.

Brandon Lyon
Bet Brandon Lyon wasn't at the top of your fantasy draft wish list.

Anyway, my favorite streak so far is Brandon Lyon's 10-for-10 saves streak, in part because every big-name closer you want to name has been about as convincing as Ashlee Simpson on "SNL" – and here comes this Boston retread eating folks up like he's auditioning for a Japanese monster movie. Partly, it's because he looks the part of a closer: A little disheveled, a little jowl, a little poorly chosen facial hair. He's a throwback, a living tribute to the Sutter era.

All right, two questions: Answer both in 25 words or less, bonus points if you write them in blank verse: Who is your favorite major leaguer under 25 and why? (Demerits if any part of your answer has to do with your fantasy baseball roster.) And who was your favorite major leaguer 25 years ago and why?

Behrens: Do I get double bonus points for haiku? Let's hope so. My favorite player under 25 is easy:

Did Zambrano throw
at Kearns? Oh, no. At Edmonds?
OK, maybe once.

But my favorite player back in the day? That's tricky. In Chicago we had Chet Lemon, Claudell Washington, Dave Kingman and Sutter. But I'm going elsewhere:

You can bake fish, cake,
ham, Shrinky Dinks, or pie. But
you can't Bake McBride.

One more, just to get myself back on the Neel family's Christmas list:

Otsuka looks in.
He is thinking to himself,
"Wow, that's a big Choi!"

A little NL West haiku for you there. You don't have to try it. It's not for everyone. But I like the 25-words-or-less approach. Now that we've seen a little baseball, give me a short, lyrical synopsis of the 2005 World Series. If you can try to do it in three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables, that'd be cool ...

Neel:

No more Sox I prayed.
And the gods sent B Roberts
And Bruce Chen as well.

And for those e.e. cummings fans in the audience, a wacky lyrical modernist glimpse of late October (when, if you will, a leaf falls) ...

O(D
on
tr
el
le

Gi
ve
s

Up
Gr
an
n
y)r

io
le
s

Wi
n!

All this pretty poetry talk has me thinking of ugliness (I'm weird like that, a little cloud floating over my head like I'm an Edward Gorey character or something). The ugliest moment I've seen so far this season came the other night when Dusty Baker put Chad Fox (his new closer) in to pitch in a blowout game and left him in there for 30 pitches until his arm literally fell off. You live in Chicago – how long until the locals march on Captain Toothpick's house and demand Fox's arm back? And maybe Robb Nen's while they're at it?

And speaking of righting wrongs, who among the Yankees, Padres and Phillies are you least worried about in the long run?

Behrens: Man, I was at the Cubs' home opener – when LaTroy Hawkins blew the first save that led to Chad Fox's two-day promotion, which led to Fox's inevitable falling apart, which may yet lead to the triumphant return of Joe Borowski – and it's not pretty. Definitely not the carefree Wrigley crowd you like to imagine. They're still booing. And those "In Dusty We Trusty" shirts you used to see? Not so popular. Sox fans are buying those up. And they're thinking about buying those "We Got Wood!" shirts, too, just to add "... and he's got bursitis!"

You know I'm not jumping off the Padres wagon, just because they've started nine-and-whatever. They're chasing the Diamondbacks, and they have about 140 games left. Hope is not lost.

Speaking of hope, you know how geeked I am for "Episode III," right? (I just read Kevin Smith's online review. His first line: "'Revenge of the Sith' is, quite simply, [expletive] awesome." So that's promising.) In the truest spirit of the "Star Wars" franchise, give me two managers who you'd like to see engage in a lengthy light-saber battle that ends with one of them – no need to specify who – badly wounded, horribly disfigured, bitterly vengeful and in need of an intimidating metallic life-support suit.

Neel: Still trying to wrap my mind around the sentence: "The triumphant return of Joe Borowski." I'm repeating it out loud, walking the house. I'm like Dave's dad in "Breaking Away": "Refund?! Refund?!" What you've said just does not compute.

Clint Hurdle
Clint looks ready to handle a lighsaber, doesn't he?

Anyway, two managers with light sabers and a score to settle?

Well, given the last week's worth of beanball fun, it's hard to imagine a better duel than Francona vs. Piniella (which Lou finally wins by throwing down his light saber and bowling Terry over in a high-speed collision at home plate). But give me the fiery Clint Hurdle and the volatile Tony Pena, please. Both men have crazy, nothing-to-lose-energy lurking just beneath the surface. I saw Pena pacing the dugout last night watching Royals "closer" Mike MacDougal (a rail-thin kid who looks like he's growing a strawberry-orange beard just to prove he's old enough to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie) walk yet another leadoff batter, and I swear Pena was ready to cut the guy's head clean off right there and carry it around in a bowling bag.

And Hurdle? His Rockies got snowed out Wednesday night, and now he's got to sit through a 40-something-degree doubleheader Thursday. You know he's ready to let off some steam. Plus he's battling the flu these days, so there's the added possibility that he could do an "Exorcist" sort of spewing in the middle of the fight. That'd be a bonus. Could be grisly. Could be great fun.

All right, time for the beneath-the-radar question, by which I do not mean to reference the lovable teddy bear smushed under Radar O'Reilly on a cot outside Colonel Potter's office (by the way, do you know that Gary Burghoff is traveling the country peddling pretty bad nature art, appearing in excruciating local television news spots and discussing his love of mallard ducks and such? You want to talk grisly?). Rather, I mean some player whose feats of greatness have escaped the notice of most average fans and national writers. My candidate is Detroit's Carlos Guillen, who was a legit MVP candidate last season (.318/.372/.542 at a crucial defensive position) and is off to a scorching start again this year (.406/.468/.565). Who's yours?

Behrens: I'll take Texas journeyman outfielder/DH David Dellucci. Improbably, he's carrying the Rangers' offense. The guy lives on first base. He leads the AL in walks, he's hitting .298/.492/.660, and no one's noticed. Honorable mention goes to Brandon Inge, Luis Matos and David DeJesus.

I think Gary Burghoff has earned a "M*A*S*H" indulgence, by the way. If he wants to paint pictures of ducks, that's cool. Hell, if he wants to train them to fight like roosters, that's cool, too.

Now, if I can answer my own question about managers dueling with light sabers – which I've given a lot of thought to over the years – I'll take Buck Showalter and Ozzie Guillen. Remember their tiff last year, which began when Buck questioned Ozzie's knowledge of the rule book? Loved that. Ozzie finished Buck off with this: "When the best manager in the history of baseball talks about you, that means you're on somebody's mind. And when you're beating the crap out of the best manager in baseball, and we beat the [expletive] out of them, it makes me feel a lot better."

Clearly, Buck is the Sith in this battle, right? And Ozzie is the brash not-quite-ready-for-a-council-seat Jedi. And Ozzie leaves Buck limbless, mangled and defeated. But Buck returns years later to manage the Yankees. Or something.

Is it any coincidence that the Rangers and White Sox conclude their first series of the season on the night that "Episode III" opens? No, indeed it is not.

Neel: I knew you'd find a way to bring this back around to the White Sox.

"Curious onlooker" my eye.

Until next time, Curious George. ..

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. Andy Behrens is a regular contributor to Page 3.


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