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Baseball Notebook: A September primer for all you Martians

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Maybe you heard. It was in all the heavens. Mars passed as close to Earth this week as it has in 60,000 years. Knowing what The Guy In The Stands does about science and sound waves, that means teletype emissions originally sent out in 1918 hailing the Red Sox's World Series win against the Cubs just reached greater Valles Marineris sometime Thursday afternoon.

Just imagine what the alien nation will think when Mars is next so close in 2237 and they pick up this call:

"... We wait now this beautiful late October night at Fenway as Sauerbeck jogs in from the bullpen to face Randall Simon here in the bottom of the eighth of Game 6. Simon was 3 for 4 off starter Jeff Suppan, including that impossible home run over the Green Monster in which the pitch slipped out of Suppan's hand, bounced twice and was just about to be picked up by the catcher when Simon slapshot it off the Citgo sign to bring home Ramirez and Lofton and tie the score at 3 ..."

Far-fetched? Maybe. After all, even The Great Gazoos know it would be a cold day in sub-equatorial Mars before the Cubs and Red Sox meet in the World Series again. That is, if it weren't already minus-9 trillion degrees there already. But you get the point.

This notion of the Ex-Pirate Factor being the missing tumbler in the celestial formula to defeat the universe's century-old grudge against these two storied franchises is one The Guy hasn't been able to shake in a month. Like the picture he has of Gary Coleman sitting down to discuss California economics with Wolf Blitzer. Think about it. As the heat of September arrives, what could have passed for a Pirates intrasquad game in February has hiccuped into a fall-memory-in-waiting thanks to Dealer Dave.

Simon has hit .344 since his trade to the NL Central/NL wild card-contending Cubs Aug. 16. Ramirez has eight home runs in his first month at Wrigley. Lofton has scored 22 runs and hit .308 in 29 games.

The Boston Chapter of the Pirates Alumni Association has contributed only slightly less to the Red Sox' chances in the AL East and wild card. Suppan has allowed two runs in his past 10 1/3 innings, including a win against Seattle; Sauerbeck hasn't given up an earned run in 11 of his 15 appearances; and to rub it in, Bronson Arroyo pitched three scoreless innings in his Red Sox debut Monday to save a win for Pedro Martinez.

If The Ex-Pirate Factor is still just a bit too raw to enjoy, though, The Guy offers 6 3/4 other reasons why baseball in this final month could be almost as interesting as VH1's "Behind The Music" with the writers of Steelers anthem "Here We Go."

But six-and-three-fourths? Hey. Top 10s are so cliche.

The Guy's Top 6 3/4

1) Cy Pirate: Surprise. Former Pirate Esteban Loaiza didn't disappear after the All-Star break. He is an AL-best 17-6 with a 2.51 ERA after allowing the Yankees just one hit in seven innings in the White Sox' 13-2 win Tuesday and could be setting himself up to win the AL Cy Young. Wouldn't that be a fitting capper to this Pirates season -- their minor-league system produces its first Cy Young winner since Vernon Law in 1960 ... and he wins it for Chicago.

2) Triple crown: All eyes are on St. Louis' Albert Pujols, who stands first in the NL in batting (.362), second in RBIs (109) and third in homers (35) despite missing a week recently with the flu. But what about teammate Brett Tomko? His "triple crown" seems so much more attainable. Through Tuesday, he led the NL in hits allowed (209), runs (106) and is tied for most home runs (31). Yet somehow, he is still 10-8. Go figure.

3) King(man) no more: Many have been the pretender, but with a month to go, Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman (6-18) and Mike Maroth (6-18) appear more than qualified contenders to be the first to lose 20 games since Oakland's Brian Kingman in 1980. Why do we care? Might as well ask yourself why Hollywood continues to make Martin Short movies. It means absolutely nothing. But in a game built on numbers and history, 20 losses has become the Carrot Top of the must-watch list -- a joke that slipped into fan consciousness when no one was looking and just never went away. A loss last night against Chicago would make Maroth the first to lose 19 before Sept. 1 since Roger Craig of the 1963 Mets. What also seems to ensure one or both of their dates with history is that as the House Cats zero in on 120 losses and trivia immortality, Bonderman and Maroth might still be the best of a bad bunch of options in their futile attempt to prevent infamy overload. What will they do? "Take the ball," Maroth said. See ya, Brian.

4) Cheap dates: Red Sox-Yankees makes the AL races in the East and for the wild card sexy for TV. But the fact is, of the Yankees, Red Sox, A's and Mariners, three will make the playoffs. The NL is this year's red light district -- wild and bad, and because of that, so very, very good. Going into Friday, eight teams were within 1 1/2 games of each other vying for two spots -- the Central Division title and the wild card. Muddled? Sure. But potentially thrilling? No doubt. The only thing that would make it more dramatic is if all eight teams were playing well. But the fact is that the Phillies (11-16), Marlins (12-14) and Astros (12-14) had all played sub-.500 ball since Aug. 1, with the Diamondbacks (13-12) barely above. Still, it could open the door for the still better story of ...

5) Les Expos: Major League Baseball has done everything to the Montreal Expos short of making them watch the editor's cut of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" for 24 hours straight. And MLB still might do them in with a schedule that forces them them to play 25 of their final 28 games away from Montreal (where, by the way, they are 36-18). But the fact is, the Expos were one of the five teams tied for the wild-card lead going into the weekend. And it is the Expos (16-11) who own the best mark since Aug. 1 of these many contender. In this summer of "Seabiscuit", maybe there is one more kick left.

6) The Bonds market: The death of his father has only delayed son Barry Bonds' quest for 660. When Bonds returns, the countdown will be at eight to tie Willie Mays for third on the all-time home run list. Don't think he doesn't still have the mind nor will to do it. Remember how he came back from his first bereavement leave two weeks ago, with his father dying, without having played in nearly a week. Smacked walk-off home runs in the first and third games of a series sweep of Atlanta, prompting Manager Felipe Alou to point out that "maybe there might be a league on another planet where he's just another guy." But this ain't it.

And ... No. 3/4ths

An unusual point of demarcation, but fitting, in that it involves our beloved Motor City House Cats. You didn't think The Guy would forget them, did you? Not this team that has given every indication that it can attain the unthinkable by the end of the month and finish the season having lost three-fourths of its games.

Maroth and Bonderman are but the poster children for this group of players hellbent on throwing the trivia books out the window (except they'd probably miss the window). Going into yesterday, Alan Trammell's House Cats (34-99) needed to go 7-22 the rest of the way to break the unbreakable -- the 1962 Mets' mark (40-120) for most losses since 1900. Do they have it in them? Impossible to fall off Olympus, you say? Not for this team. Thus far they have ripped off monthly victory totals of 3, 11, 5, 9 and 6. They have lost a game by shutout 13 times and they have lost a game when their pitcher was throwing a no-hitter as late as the eighth inning. They have six losing streaks of seven or more games. And when all is said and done, they are going to go down as one of the worst offensive teams of all time. They have scored 463 runs -- 119 fewer than the next-to-worst Indians -- which puts them on course to be the first AL team since the 1932 Red Sox to finish last by 100 or more runs.

To make it truly feel like '62, allow former manager Sparky Anderson to cough up a bit of Stengel-ese. Asked for his thoughts on Maroth, the losing, the state of the club and whether the Tigers should immediately be disbanded and sold off piece by piece at Spencer's in the mall, he replied:

"Things have been bad enough. That's like pouring more fire on the gasoline."

Oooh, those legs

Earlier this season, Tampa Bay Manager Lou Piniella told his players he'd dye his hair blond if they won three in a row. They did. And he did. This week, Brewers Manager Ned Yost and his coaches made a promise to their players if they stretched their winning streak to 10. They did ... and so Yost and the coaches departed for their trip to Chicago Thursday evening wearing outfits made famous by waitresses at the Hooters restaurant chain -- midriff-revealing T-shirts and orange hot pants. Somehow, The Guy doubts he got that one out of The Motivational Ploys of John McGraw.

Goof of the week

So you think there's no way a runner can get thrown out advancing on a walk? Think again. Boston's Manny Ramirez was running on a 3-2 pitch vs. Seattle Aug. 23 and lost his helmet going from first to second. After reaching second, he wandered back to retrieve it and was promptly tagged out. Oops! He forgot to call time.

This 'n' that

You can't have the sort of player turnover in Cincinnati that the Reds have had and not expect it to be felt elsewhere, did you? The Louisville Bats, the Reds' top minor-league team, have made 156 transactions [through Aug. 24] since the start of the season and had 67 different players appear in uniform. ... Looking for any edge in a playoff race, Red Sox Manager Grady Little juggled his rotation so ex-Pirate Jeff Suppan could start against the Phillies in an interleague makeup tomorrow. Suppan allowed the Phillies just three hits in six innings way back on April 4. ... Boston's Kevin Millar is probably more surprised than anyone that he's now the owner of two inside-the-park home runs after hitting No. 2 Monday against Seattle. "Inside-the-parkers are weird because something's got to happen. Either a guy has to fall down or, for me, go into a coma." ... And finally, if Jesse Orosco never pitches again, it will mean that in a career that has spanned 24 years and nine teams, his first manager (Joe Torre, Mets, 1979) will also have been his last (Joe Torre, Yankees, 2003). Freaky, huh?

Shot and a jeer

Shot: David Wells must be farther in the Yankees' doghouse than even he's been before for the club to threaten his spot in the rotation with Jeff Weaver.

Jeer: What's the difference between commendable hutzpah and making an ass of yourself? By name, Cardinals outfielder Kerry Robinson Tuesday. After Cubs pitcher Mark Prior gave up only three hits in eight innings against St. Louis, Robinson said: "It's not like he dominated anyone out there. I know he didn't dominate me." OK. Then explain that 0 for 4, Kerry.

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