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Monday, July 22
 
Baker's Dozen: The week in preview

By Jim Baker
Special to ESPN.com

1: Best Matchup of the Week
Anaheim at Seattle: Friday through Sunday

I'm sure you watched the Angels hosting these very same Mariners Sunday night on ESPN. It was a good game and the return series scheduled next weekend promises to be just as invigorating. What you didn't see last night was the Baker's Dozen Blimp, which I hired on the advice of my publicist to circle over the stadium throughout the game.

"Nothing like a little national exposure to bring in the readers," he reasoned -- and with good cause. Unfortunately, the blimp pilot got into the helium before the game and began amusing himself with how silly the stuff made his voice sound. Before long, he had sucked a sufficient amount out of the craft that rendered it all but flightless. He barely got it 15 feet off the ground before being entangled in some high-tension wires. The problem was exacerbated when his calls of "Mayday! Mayday!" were thought to be a prank by authorities because they seemed to be coming from someone imitating a Smurf.

We'll have to try it again some other Sunday night.

2: The Worst Matchup of the Week
Kansas City at Detroit: Monday through Wednesday

There is simply no explanation for what Raul "Guitar Man" Ibanez (musicians will dig my reference, the rest of you are just too "square") has been up to in the last three weeks. None. It's just crazy and I can't accept it as part of my reality construct. I had him slotted into my mind as a player barely talented enough to take up a major-league roster spot. And look at him now: in the last three weeks he's been driving in runs like he's Lou Gehrig -- 33 in his last 22 games!

Which means the Royals should trade him right now for a passel of young arms to a contending team that might need help at first base or in the outfield. Ibanez will never be more valuable to the organization than he is this morning. Do it, Allard Baird! Or live life in a state of perpetual regret and self-loathing.

The Royals can really bury the Tigers with a good showing in this series, by the way. They have managed to climb well over .400 in the recent past and can kiss their last-place worries goodbye with a sweep.

3: The This Should Have Meant Something Matchup of the Week
Minnesota at Chicago White Sox: Monday through Wednesday

Never trust the White Sox when they're supposed to do something good. They never get it right. What they will do, though, is fall off everybody's radar and then roar back to grab the division title next year.

You heard it here first. (And, to my benefit, if it doesn't come to pass, who will remember what I said on this day?)

4: The Old School Matchup of the Week
Detroit at Cleveland: Friday through Sunday

It has been a long time since these two teams played a late-season game that mattered to both clubs. This is their 98th season together playing in the same cities, same league and same division (they were torn asunder by the switch to three divisions in 1994 but were reunited in the Central in 1998).

The Tigers have finished in first place 11 times. In these seasons, Cleveland has finished an average of 15.5 games back.

Cleveland has finished in first nine times, three of which were in the years of separation. In the other six, Detroit finished an average of 29 games back, never being closer than 18.5 out. That was in 1948, the only year Cleveland came in first and Detroit even managed a .500 record.

In fact, it's been since 1986 that both of these teams registered .500 records in the same season. They've only done it three times since the advent of division play in 1969, the other two coming in 1979 and 1981.

So, in all these years of cohabitation, how many pennant races have the Tigers and Indians been in together? Just three, really: 1908, 1940 and 1950. Two of those, '08 and '40, are among the most famous in history.

First, 1950. The Tigers finished three games behind the Yankees and the Indians were just three more games behind them in fourth as half the league (the third-place Red Sox included) was at .597 or better. There was no dramatic climax that year, however, as there was over in the National League where the Phillies nipped the Dodgers in the 10th inning on the last day of the season.

Here's a question: How much talk in baseball was there of "team chemistry" prior to 1940? It was in that year that the Indians players had their fill of manager Ossie Vitt and petitioned ownership to get rid of him. They refused and the team went on to finish a scant game behind the Tigers. Do we owe this notion of chemistry to the Cry Baby Indians, or was talk of it common before then?

Don't let them fool you, 1998 was not baseball's greatest season. In fact, in about 10 years, nobody is even going to remember why it was called that in the first place. In my estimation, in order for a season to be classified as great, there has to be at least one truly fantastic pennant race. 1908 had two and these teams were in the midst of the American League's entry. Detroit won out over Chicago on the last day of the season but Cleveland held on to the next-to-last day and ended up in second. Sadly, Detroit was not made to make up a rain out and finished just a half-game ahead. For the final weeks of the season this was a running three-team battle that included the single-most clutch pitching duel ever when the Indians Addie Joss threw a perfect game to beat the White Sox and 40-game winner Ed Walsh, who himself tossed a 4-hitter and struck out 15.

5: The Biggest Mismatchup of the Week
New York Yankees at Tampa Bay: Friday through Sunday

Do you find it odd that the New York Police Department allows its members to grow certain kinds of facial hair but the New York Yankees do not? The latter has honored the former many times since September 11 and yet, the message hasn't sunk in: men can do great things even when burdened with a mustache.

6: The We Were Supposed to be You But You Turned Out to Be What We Were Supposed to Be Which Was You in the First Place Matchup of the Week
Atlanta at Florida: Monday through Thursday

In spring training, a lot of people were excited about the Marlins' young starting rotation. It seemed to have the potential to be a one-through-five juggernaut of young arms, reminiscent of the Atlanta Braves pitching staffs of the early to mid-1990s. Well, the Braves now have the best ERA in the league at 2.99 and the Marlins are much closer to the bottom than the top with a count of 4.56.

Leaving us, once more, with this conclusion: there are two things in sports that are positively certain to be uncertain: electric football and the fate of groups of pitchers.

7: The It's Now or Never Matchup of the Week
Milwaukee at Houston: Monday through Wednesday

So named because if Houston is ever to get off the mat and shoot a move, it had pretty much be this week. First to visit them is the worst team in the National League. It is imperative that they sweep this series. (Not to put any undue pressure on them or anything.)

8: The It's Now or Never Matchup of the Week, Part II
Pittsburgh at Houston: Thursday through Sunday

Then, after they sweep Milwaukee, it is imperative that they take three of four from the Pirates, a team that has played above its station for most of the season. Here are the current odds to win the pennant, courtesy of one of those gambling houses that operates on an Argentinean navy surplus submarine just off the coast of Jersey in international waters:

St. Louis: 4 to 1
Cincinnati: 15 to 1
Houston: 22 to 1
Chicago: 35 to 1
Pittsburgh: 75 to 1
Milwaukee: 250 to 1

That's some good bulletin board fodder for the Pirates right there. The Cubs have a worse record but better odds. That oughta fire up the Buccos! Of course, the lines are set to entice folks to bet, not necessarily as actual predictions of what will occur. There are far more Cubs fans in the world than Pirates rooters, so they had to set the line to make the bet more palatable to them. Or, perhaps it really is a predictive line and they think what most people have thought all along: the Pirates have been playing above their station for all of 2002.

9: The Respite for Red Sox Nation Matchup of the Week
Tampa Bay at Boston: Tuesday through Thursday

Something occurred to me while visiting Fenway Park recently. After one of their three losses to the Braves a few weeks back, the inevitable cadre of dealers were outside the stadium selling "Yankees Suck" T-shirts of every possible permutation. The Yankees have become the scapegoats for everything bad that has ever happened to the Red Sox and their fans and it is beginning to border on obsession.

Is there anything to that? How much of the misery of Red Sox Nation can be traced to the New York baseball team? Can we assign a percentage to it?

What percentage of the Boston fan's misery can we assign to the existence of the Yankees? 10 percent? 25? 50? 90?

If it's anything over 50, then, frankly, those bootleg T-shirts shouldn't read "Yankees Suck." They should read:

MY LIFE SUCKS BECAUSE THE YANKEES ARE GREAT

Two more thoughts on the Yankees Suck T-shirts: are sales brisker after a Red Sox loss than after a victory? Logic would dictate that they would be, if the scapegoating theory is a solid one. And, as you know, Monday is the tribute to Ted Williams. Will there be any dealers selling a special T-shirt for the occasion that reads:

R.I.P.:
TEDDY BALLGAME
P.S.: YANKEES SUCK

10: The Back to the Present Matchup of the Week
Texas at Seattle: Tuesday through Thursday

The Rangers spent the weekend in Oakland, dressed as their forebearers, the Washington Senators, although they played more like the Washington Generals until Sunday's extra-inning triumph broke their eight-game losing streak. It was part of a Turn Back the Clock Weekend featuring the championship Oakland teams. The A's were in their tres cool early '70s get-ups where the coaches had different colored hats than the players. That was a neat twist which, in this age where some teams have 131 different uniform combos for a 162-game schedule, has not been resurrected. The best thing about the Rangers' Washington mufti was that you could see their socks. Don't you miss that? As for the long pants look, I've never been a fan. I will say this in their favor: when it comes time to do Turn Back the Clock nights 30 years from now, the look of the late '90s and early '00s will be easy to capture by outfitting all the players with dumpy-looking long pants.

Now trivia question writers can craft nasty queries like this:

"Who was the best shortstop ever to play in a Washington uniform?"

or

"Who was the best catcher ever to play in a Washington uniform?"

That's right, Alex and Ivan Rodriguez respectively. Won't you be a barroom favorite with that line of questioning.

11: The History Isn't Made at Night Matchup of the Week
Philadelphia at Chicago Cubs: Monday through Thursday

Call it an intuition, call it a hunch, call it a strange feeling in my gut or call it the desperate longing of one who wishes to be at Wrigley Field on a beautiful July afternoon, but I think something interesting is going to happen in this series. It may not be historically significant but it will be cool. It's going to take place while most of us are at work, alas, as all four games have afternoon start times.

Envy the students who can watch weekday baseball whenever they so choose. Envy them, but know that they too will soon be ground into paste by the work world as many of you have been and take solace from that.

12: The Now That's More Like It Matchup of the Week
Montreal at New York Mets: Monday through Wednesday

I gave up rotisserie baseball a long time ago on the advice of my physician. "You stress too much about it," he said. "That's not good for you. Why not take up smoking instead. That will help take the edge off."

Such was life at the Winston-Salem Free Clinic. While I was still playing, one year I drafted what I thought was going to be a great team. I had All-Stars at seemingly every position and was shocked when they got out of the gate and sank directly to the bottom. Then they just sat there for a while, taking up space. I counseled patience to myself, reasoning that they couldn't possibly get worse and that -- at some point -- they would have to move toward the norm.

Finally, they did. Most of them broke out and took me from last to second, allowing me to finish in the money. I took my winnings and invested them in a little company called "World Com," so at least the story has a happy ending.

Which brings me to the Mets. Like my roto team of long ago, they Mets were chosen basically at random off the rosters of other teams. And, when Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Mo Vaughn began playing far below their established career levels it didn't seem quite possible. How could all four men tank simultaneously, as if choreographed to do so? Certainly one of them would start playing up to his level?

Now they are, mostly. But it's far too late to do them any good. Or is it? If this quartet compensates for their first-half shortcomings, is the Wild Card (I capitalize it as I would the name of a religious deity I love it so much) out of the question?

13: The Shortest Matchup of the Week
New York Yankees at Cleveland: Tuesday and Wednesday

Check out ESPN Insider for the details on how the Yankees once pulled off a great cheat.

Jim Baker's 'Baker's Dozen' column appears on Mondays during the baseball season. He also writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider.






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