Let’s play ball

Ah yes, Opening Day has arrived and it couldn’t have come soon enough. In the era of big spenders and overpriced players, the Anaheim Angels captured last year’s World Series title with well-played baseball and hard-working players. The Angels’ $62-million payroll ranked No. 16 out of 30 teams in 2002, making the title even more of a relative rarity. In the process, they helped restore the mystique and awe that baseball had been sorely lacking the past decade.

Many players jumped ship during the off-season, including headliners Jim Thome and Tom Glavine, to the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets respectively. The New York Yankees went international this year and spent big, signing Japanese sensation Hideki Matsui to a $21-million deal and Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras to a $34-million contract. The Bronx Bombers’ payroll for 2003? A staggering $165 million, about $149 million more than the lowest paid team for 2003, the $16-million payroll of your hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Players weren’t the only ones to don new uniforms. Managers got into the act, with 10 new managers filling out the lineup cards on Opening Day. Dusty Baker left the cozy confines of San Francisco to try to lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908, while hothead Lou Piniella left Seattle after 10 years to lead Tampa Bay, a team that hasn’t won more than 69 games in its history and has never finished better than last. Art Howe left his successful Oakland Athletics team for the New York Mets, while Felipe Alou jumped back into the game to lead San Francisco.

All in all, it was a frenzied off-season for baseball. But what does this all mean? Who will be the unheralded team to win it all in October? Will the Yankees destroy the American League and win their 27th title? Here are my predictions for 2003.

First off, Ken Griffey Jr. will hit more than 50 home runs. Plagued by injuries in his three years at Cincinnati, Griffey worked out like a man possessed during the off-season, and it showed during spring training. That silky smooth lefty swing of his was back in full force, and he was cranking balls out of the park with ease. After Reds fans littered him with boos in the outfield, Griffey is set to prove them wrong.

The Philadelphia Phillies will take the Atlanta Braves’ grip off the National League’s East division. The Phillies signed Thome and frontline starter Kevin Millwood, while the Braves, who have won the past 11 division titles, are just getting old. With the middle of the lineup that includes, Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu, look to the Phillies as a team to be reckoned with.

Matsui will falter underneath the intense media spotlight. If he thought the Japanese were bad, wait until New York gets on him. This guy is going to burn out by August.

Baker will work his magic with the Cubbies and have them in the playoffs come September. Players want to play for him, and the Cubs will respond with their first playoff appearance since 1998.

Fearless predictions indeed, but I’ve been known to be wrong. I picked the Cleveland Indians to win it all last year. Their final record? 74-88, good for 3rd place in the Central division.

My bet for the World Series champs? I’m picking the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game series.

I guess we’ll see come October.