April 2, 2006 -- Charged-up kids will make diamond sparkle
A HALLOWED record is under assault by a Bay Area native as this baseball season begins, and I say let's cheer the pursuer.
Jimmy Rollins begins 2006 with Joe DiMaggio in his sights and the right attitude. The Phillies shortstop is the anti-Indianapolis Colts, who ran away from 16-0 and the greatness associated with it. Rollins has been respectful of DiMaggio and his record consecutive-games hitting streak, but he also has not hid his ambitions. Rollins wants to hit in 56 straight.
This is my annual prediction column and I know it is not risking much to say Rollins, who takes 36 in a row into tomorrow's opener against NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, will fall short of DiMaggio. But it sure would be great if Rollins could get into the 40s.
So we can stop talking for a bit about that other Bay Area native stalking a record, churlish cheater Barry Bonds. And at a time when the sport of Jackie Robinson is trying to reconnect with black American youth, it sure would do wonders if an inner-city kid with hip-hop on his iPod and a long family history of baseball in his blood became the face of the sport in April 2006, rather than the churlish cheater.
Bonds, full of ego, defiance, talent and who knows what else, will quickly hit the seven homers necessary to pass Babe Ruth. But what public recrimination, Bud Selig, or a conscience cannot do, Father Time will. Bonds is 41, with Namath knees. Unless he can take his clubhouse rocking chair out to left field, Hank Aaron will be safe for 2006 and maybe for much longer than that.
In that way, Bonds will be a symbol of a 2006 season that will be dominated by youth. Amid the steroid brouhaha, it has been mainly forgotten that this is the first year for amphetamine testing. With upper use on the downswing, older bodies will peter out. The Yankees, for one, are playing a dangerous game with their cast of thirtysomethings.
The teams able to re-energize their rosters by employing or trading their minor-league talent will soar. That is why this crystal ball sees the A's beating the Dodgers in the World Series. The members of Oakland's talented core all were born after the 1976 bicentennial. The Dodgers have age, but no club has more attractive farmhands to delve into what I expect to be the most star-filled July trade market ever.
Contenders with aggressive GMs will use established performers from areas of strength to address weaknesses. So watch for the A's moving Barry Zito and the White Sox dealing either Jon Garland or Freddy Garcia from their deep rotations, and the Dodgers moving a closer, either Eric Gagne or Danys Baez. Ken Griffey, Todd Helton and - of course - Manny Ramirez will be dangled, and don't be surprised if the Yankees gamble on Kerry Wood as a reliever. With all the media bashing of the Yankees' rotation, it is the set-up corps to Mariano Rivera that is the worst facet of the team.
The most interesting names on the market will be Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The Marlins will decide it is not worthwhile to pay them a combined $15 million in 2007. Instead, they will conclude their fire sale with an eye on adding to what already is one of the majors' best prospect stockpiles.
The Mets will want in on both players, but face this dilemma: Do they trade Lastings Milledge or play him in right field for the final two months? They decide to play him in right and he becomes part of a young core that helps the Mets take the wild card.
David Wright, the ballast of that young core, wins NL MVP. Cleveland's Grady Sizemore takes it in the AL. What they both have in common is a birth year of 1982.
In 2006, youth will be served.