Streakin’!!!

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One can only be thankful that Joe West, umpiring at second base, didn’t take the appearance of the above streaker as a signal that he too should remove all his clothes and take a jaunt around the field.

Streaking at a sporting event isn’t a new phenomenon and the coverage of the games has made a concerted effort not to publicize this behavior. The one thing that pops into my mind is when Padres’ owner and McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc took to the stadium public address system to berate his team (during the game) as they got blown out of their home opener in 1974. A streaker came running out on the field to which Kroc yelled something to the tune of, “Get that streaker out of here!! Throw him in jail!!”

In terms of being memorable, the St. Louis streaker isn’t going to go down in baseball lore.

What I don’t understand is how he was able to get close enough to the field, remove all of his clothes and jump over the railing before someone—an usher, a security guard, a vendor—saw him and alerted the police of what was clearly about to happen.

One would assume that this incident isn’t going to be used by the Topps company for a baseball card and to create buzz for the new set as they did with the Skip Schumaker/squirrel card.

That said, in our society today and the desperation to sell stuff, who knows?

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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It’s a Squirrel, Not Mickey Mantle

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In their upcoming 2011 series of cards, Topps will be inserting a limited number of the above “Rally Squirrel” card with Skip Schumaker’s foot in the picture under the guise of it being “Schumaker’s” card.

His name’s on it anyway.

Schumaker called the promotion “ridiculous”.

It’s entirely understandable that Topps has chosen to try and generate buzz and sell their products by using a blatant promotion that will appeal to a wide range of people, baseball fans and not. But with the way the sports card market has crashed from what it once was, those who are expecting a Mickey Mantle rookie card or Action Comics number 1 windfall in a few years from having a baseball card with Schumaker’s foot and a squirrel running across home plate are sadly mistaken.

Everyone wanted to get in on the sports memorabilia market when it was at its height and there are still those who buy and sell what was once considered junk to be placed in a box in the garage as if it has a distinct value, but once people start collecting and trading these treasured items for money rather than sentimentality, there’s going to be a saturation in the market and devaluing of the items.

Any item is only worth what someone will pay for it and keeping it to collect dust as an asset only works if it’s eventually sold. If the squirrel card is seen as an investment, it’ll be hot for awhile but it won’t pay off someone’s house if that’s what starry-eyed lottery players are envisioning when they buy boxes of Topps wax packs hoping to hit on the Schumaker-squirrel card.

It’s a faux value because it’s not going to last—a bubble.

The Mantle, Honus Wagner-type cards are worth a lot of money because of their perception and attention they’ve received, how rare the cards are, who the players were and what they represented.

If an individual isn’t willing to pay big money for a product, it’s not going to garner big money.

No one with any logical foresight is looking for cards as a means of accumulating wealth as they were in the 1980s when the boom began and resulted in the aggregate values declining.

If that trend continues, perhaps the prices of the cards will rise again as the interest dies down. But people hoarding these things in the hopes that they’ll eventually be worth thousands will be disappointed.

The Schumaker card is getting Topps in the headlines and will increase sales, but not enough to make it a “collectors item” or return the industry to the overpriced days of 30 years ago.

In the end, it’s just a squirrel. It’s not Mickey Mantle.

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