| It's that time of year again, Slugger. You've been racing to the mailbox every day, eager to see if your special double-issue HoleCity Baseball Preview is waiting for you. Today's the day, Sport.
Remember our first issue, back in '78? Who can forget that cover? A shirtless Gorman Thomas strolling along the Milwaukee beachfront, industrial sunset in the distance. "I'm going upstairs to my room, Mom. Don't bug me for the next...um...five minutes." Wink-wink.
Twenty-five years later and we're still as exciting as ever.
Can you tell we've been reading SI's baseball preview and dozens more? There's a strange halfway-apocalyptic consensus among pundits this year, too: the Cubs are good. Everyone says so. ESPN's Jayson Stark says so. SI's Tom Verducci says so. USA Today's Rod Beaton says so (click on that link and tell us Rod Beaton doesn't look like every high school social studies teacher you ever had. Creepy, eh?)
We have a simple message for anyone predicting that the Cubs will win anything:
What the fuck is the matter with you?
1. The young of certain carnivorous animals, such as the bear, wolf, or lion.
2. A youth, especially one who is inexperienced, awkward, or ill-mannered.
Dusty Baker will be reciting that "inexperienced, awkward" part this June when he's asked to explain how, exactly, his team fell 10 games behind the Astros and Cardinals. The Cubs' starting rotation is the best in the NL, but their bullpen---despite the addition of veteran middle relievers---is among the league's worst. Their 12-fingered man-devil freak of a closer, Antonio Alfonseca (19 saves, 9 blown saves in 2002), is already injured. His likely replacement? Kyle Farnsworth. Remember that soft-toss hitting machine you had in the backyard when you were 11, the one you hit like it was Wil Cordero's wife? That's pretty much Kyle Farnsworth (7.33 ERA, .293 BAA.)
You're wondering who might succeed this season, then, if not the mighty Cubs. Here's our best guess....
NL East. The secret truth about the NL East is this: it's bad. Propaganda would lead you to believe that the Phils, Mets and Braves are all Series contenders. No, no and no. Our prediction for this mess? Philly manager Larry Bowa self-immolates sometime in August, and Atlanta---despite hemorrhaging talent in the offseason---will win the division...and zero playoff games.
NL Central. The Houston Astros have a great young starting staff and a lockdown game's-over-if-they're-ahead-in-the-seventh bullpen. Oh, and a stellar batting order. The Astro front office won't blink if Richard Hidalgo continues the Kal Daniels impression, either. They'll pluck rising star Jason Lane from Triple-A.
NL West. The San Francisco Giants lost Jeff Kent and traded notorious old-man-basher Livan Hernandez, but they got better. Ray Durham, Edgardo Alfonzo and Jose Cruz, Jr. are the latest to benefit from Barry's magnificence. (Sorry, but we just can't say nice things about Arizona. They're all wrong. The purple, the teal, the rat-faced pitchers...please, God...or Selig...someone, make them stop.)
NL Wild Card. Think George Hendrick is breathing a little easier now that whatever was killing all those St. Louis Cardinals and ex-Cardinals in '02 seems to have abated? No weak spots in the '03 batting order, and a respectable pitching staff. Enough to edge the Dodgers for the Wild Card.
AL East. As Orthodox Red Sox fans, our faith actually forbids us from writing the "Y" word. We'll just say that, through an unfortunate sequence of victories, a New Ork franchise will win the East. Again. Let's move on....
AL Central. We like the Chicago White Sox also, and this division is a wasteland. Frank Thomas doesn't need to be the Old Hurt for the Sox to win, he just needs to focus a little and not dive into the dugout like a ninny when he sees an inside pitch. Colon and Beuhrle will start 25 of the Sox first 55 games, so Chicago avoids their characteristic slow start.
AL West. Oakland has the glamorous starting pitchers and Anaheim the relievers, but the Seattle Mariners' Garcia, Pineiro and Sasaki aren't too shabby. The Mariner outfield is the AL's best, too. But let's be honest: you don't watch these late-ass games, do you? When's the last time one of these teams actually won anything?
AL Wild Card. Toronto Blue Jays. Okay, maybe not this year. But it's coming, and soon. Learn these names: Hinske, Halladay, Wells, Phelps, Hendrickson. There's lots more, too, but you'll know them all soon enough. No shit. (And yes, we think we're manufacturing some good Red Sox mojo by not picking Boston to win anything.)
World Series. Houston vs. New Ork. Astros win in six games, Oswalt is the Series MVP, and our crazy-paranoid Cub fan brother-in-law blames it all on a Bush-Cheney Texas oil industry conspiracy. And, of course, he's right.
Big Foam Finger