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Three guys walk into a liquor store…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

The life of a transplanted baseball fan can be interesting, especially if transplanted to a city without a Major League team. The Austin, Texas area has plenty of Rangers and Astros fans, but because so many people continue to move here from other areas it’s not uncommon to see many different teams represented while walking down a busy street. Still, looks of confusion, bewilderment, or even contempt come my way from time to time when I’m representing the Cardinals in public.

This afternoon while out running errands I stopped in a local hooch parlor to pick up a beverage for this evening’s writing adventures. The store had a half dozen or so people milling about, but my mind was made up before I opened the door. I grabbed a bottle of 8 year Haitian Rum and headed to the register. A guy paying was counting out bills, one was behind him on a cell phone, and a third guy kept walking up to the counter to set down three bottles and then walking away to grab more. The cash counter completed his transaction and left right when cell phone guy ended his conversation, so I waved cell phone guy to go ahead of me.

Cell phone guy apparently has a credit card that pays homage to his favorite team, because when he handed it over the cashier said, “Oh, wow, you a Pirates fan? That’s cool, I respect them. I’m a Cubs fan.”

They had a quick exchange about how excited they both are that their respective teams are doing so well. I said nothing…I just waited for the right moment. As Cell Phone Pirates Fan finished his transaction and turned to leave, Cubs Fan Cashier said, “Yeah, man, good luck to your team. I have no hate for the Pirates. But I’d give you a hard time if you were a fan of the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or…”

I figured this was the perfect time to interject. But I said nothing—I simply took out my own credit card, emblazoned with the Birds on the Bat of course, and set it on the counter with a shit-eating grin on my face. Cubs Fan Cashier stopped mid-sentence and said, “Whoa…you a Cardinals fan?”

Cell Phone Pirates Fan, who was halfway out the door, whipped around with eyes as big as saucers. “No way! Are you really?”

Why yes…yes I am.

“Man, this weekend is going to be some series, huh?” Cell Phone Pirates Fan continued. “Or, at least, I hope it is, if you guys manage to lose a game or two!”

I replied, “I think they definitely lose one, but probably not two.” He chuckled and left.

I turned back to Cubs Fan Cashier just in time for him to hand me my receipt. I signed it and said, “So…how about that game last night?”

His smile faded. Mine broadened.

This rum is really good.

–CCR

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January UCB Project: Top 5 Cardinal Headlines in 2011

It’s United Cardinal Bloggers project time again. This month, we put on our prognosticator hats and try to come up with what we believe will be the top five headlines Cardinal fans will see in 2011. I decided to play this one straight, because I think the Cards could be at a bit of a crossroads this season…Albert Pujols hasn’t been signed yet, David Freese is coming back from inury, Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman are new kids on the block, and Chris Carpenter is in the last guaranteed year of his contract. So without further ado…

1. St. Louis Cardinals Sign Albert Pujols to Record Contract – No, not a recording contract; we’re talking Guinness-type stuff here. I’m not sure if the total value of Pujols’ next deal will be the highest ever, but he will make more per season than any player ever has…and he will make it wearing the Birds on the Bat.

2. Punto Named Opening Day Starter; Freese to Report to Extended Spring Training – All this offseason, I have advocated the Cards signing a “true” third baseman to back up Freese in case he isn’t ready for Opening Day. Now that they have signed Nick Punto, I believe this is the ultimate sign that the Cards know they needed this insurance because Freese could need more time before he is 100%. I put Freese’s Cardinal debut sometime in the month of May.

3. Yankees Confirm Interest in Chris Carpenter – Carp still has an option for 2012 left on his current contract, but it is a pricey one: $15 million. If the Cards re-sign Pujols, I have no idea how they can afford that. Now if the team is in contention and Carp is pitching well, I can foresee the Cardinals declining that option and extending Carpenter for a couple more years at less per year. But if the Cards tank in the first half of 2011 for whatever reason, expect the Carpenter trade rumors to start flying. Regardless, the New York Yankees figure to be in the market for a big acquisition because they didn’t make one in the offseason and the Boston Red Sox made some serious upgrades this winter. Carpenter will almost certainly be one of their targets because of his contract situation. The Cards’ response will depend on if they are winning or not.

4. Albert Pujols Collects Hit #2000 – This one is a slam dunk, barring a catastrophic injury–Pujols currently sits on 1900. But it brings up a good point: Pujols will get his 2000th hit sometime in his 11th season in the big leagues. If his season hits totals continue to average somewhere in the mid 180s, he should get to 3000 in about six years, and he probably would still have at least three or four good seasons ahead of him. That puts Stan Musial’s 3630 within reach. And if that number really is that likely to be passed again, I want it to be done by another Cardinal.

5. Cardinals Clinch Playoff Berth – Notice I didn’t say “Division Crown.” The truth is, the NL Central will be a much better division overall this season. Everything hinges on player health, of course. But no team in the division has the 1-2 punch of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina is still the best catcher in the league in terms of defense and calling a game, and there’s only one Albert Pujols. That gives the Cardinals an edge, even if it is only a slight edge. But the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago Cubs cannot be counted out. Could the Wild Card team come from the Central? With all the pitching upgrades, why not? I see the Cards making the playoffs this year but I’m not ready to go all in with a division championship prediction. It could be a knock-down, drag-out year in the NL Central this year.

What do you think…how many of these headlines do you expect to see in 2011? Do you expect to see some I haven’t listed here? Comment away!

-Chris

2009 Guessology: The Division Series

Now that the AL Central Division has finally been clinched, the playoff matchups are set. That means it’s time for some wild (but somewhat educated) guesses as to who will survive to play in the League Championship Series!

ALDS

Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees: The Twins won a thrilling game to take the AL Central Division crown Tuesday night. Momentum may be on their side initially, but the Yankees are a juggernaut. They have superior pitching, superior hitting, and at least equal ALDS2009.jpgdefense to the Twins. They also have home field advantage and a day of rest that the Twins will eventually wish they had. The Metrodome gets no more than a two-game stay of  execution, and even that may be generous. Yankees in three.

Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels: Again? These two teams seem to make a postseason meeting mandatory, and the Red Sox always seem to have the Angels’ number. But all good things must come to an end. The Angels have a very solid team top to bottom. Their defense will be the difference in this series, and it won’t be easy, but I think the Angels have more of a sense of purpose than the Red Sox this year. Angels in five.

NLDS

Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies: This series could set a record for most runs scored in a five-gamer. The thin air in Colorado; the cozy confines in Philly…and both teams have a ton of offense. The pitching? Well, the Rockies’ rotation is suspect with the injury to Jorge De La Rosa, and the Phillies’ bullpen is terrible. In the end, I think the Phillies have more NLDS2009.jpgfirepower…and if they put up a ton of runs the closer issues will be moot. Phillies in five.

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: The two most storied franchises in the NL hook up for only the third time in playoff history. Neither team was great down the stretch. The Dodgers can do some damage on the basepaths, and manager Joe Torre isn’t afraid to play smallball…but these situations can be countered with (if not nullified by) catcher Yadier Molina and the Cardinals solid if unspectacular infield. The Dodgers have the superior closer, but he’s useless if they can’t get a lead for him. Pujols. Carpenter. Wainwright. LaRussa. It’s all too much for LA. Cardinals in four.

Stay tuned…we’re just getting started, baby!

2009 Guessology: The American League

This week I’ll be giving my best guesses as to who will win their respective divisions this year, then I’ll roll out a postseason prediction. But since baseball is a game of emotion as much as it is of logic, I’ll explore both. First, that other league: the AL

The AL West is the red-headed stepchild of Major League Baseball. Four Teams? And one of them is in Texas? That’s almost as ridiculous as the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds being in the NL West for a quarter century. What’s worse is that only two of the four teams really appear to be trying: the Oakland A’s and the LA Angels. The Seattle Mariners aren’t going to be much better than last year’s debacle, and the Texas Rangers just can’t seem to find the pitching to complement a usually powerful offense. The A’s were not a bad team last year; the Angels were just really good. That may change this year, though.

I’d love to see Seattle back in the playoff hunt because of one guy: Ken Griffey, Jr. No one deserves a World Series appearance like this guy, and to have it happen as a member of the Mariners would make it a story that writes itself.

BUT…

What I think will happen:

1. A’s – I think GM Billy Beane has once again made just the right moves to put this team back on top. Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi should boost the offense, and Orlando Cabrera will help stabilize the defense. They have a young rotation once again, but in a weak division it may not matter.

2. Angels – They’re going to miss Mark Texiera and Francisco Rodriguez, but now it looks like top-end starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana may have injury concerns as well. That could be enough to keep a third straight division title out of reach. 

3. Mariners – May see dividends from the intangibles expected with the return of Ken Griffey, Jr.–large home crowds, mentoring for young players, etc.–but even .500 might be a stretch.

4. Rangers – Need a miracle. And a pitching staff.

—–

The AL Central is probably going to be the most balanced division in baseball this season. No team is a clear favorite, and no team looks like a sure-fire dud either. The Detroit Tigers can’t possibly be as bad as they were last year. The Kansas City Royals may finally have a rebuild worth seeing to completion, and the Cleveland Indians might have the best pitching staff in the division. The Minnesota Twins are a sure bet to be in the mix like always, and if the Chicago White Sox can get big contributions from their youngsters they could surprise everyone in this tight race.

I’d love to see the White Sox pull this one out again. They might need to make a move to get a little younger and a little faster for it to happen, though. Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, and AJ Pierzynski can swing the lumber, but they’re not exactly OBP machines. And, in a division where all the teams could be bunched up at or above .500, you need to play the whole game to be able to win.

BUT…

What I think will happen:

1. Indians – Pitching wins championships, and Cleveland has a ton of it. Of course, everyone has to stay healthy, but that’s true of all teams. Big contributions from Anthony Reyes, Carl Pavano, and Kerry Wood are essential to the Indians’ success.

2. Tigers – A lot of people (including myself) picked Detroit to run away with this division last season, and they ended up dead last. It wasn’t the coaching…manager Jim Leyland is one of the best in the business. So that leaves one of two things: talent or attitude. Well, they had a lot of talented guys last season, a lot of whom are back for 2009, so…yeah. Get it together, boys.

3. White Sox – To go along with their aforementioned offensive issues, the South Siders have questions in their rotation. Mark Buerhle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd should be OK; beyond that things get dicey. But GM Kenny Williams has proven himself a pretty smart guy, and I can’t count out a team managed by Ozzie Guillen. The White Sox are my dark horse pick to come out on top.

4. Twins – Dark horse pick 1-A to win. Minnesota simply cannot be counted out of this race. The glaring problems they have is with the backs of two guys named Joe. Star catcher Joe Mauer has a back injury that will have him starting the season on the DL, and new third baseman Joe Crede has a history of back injuries. Those are big holes to fill if these two can’t stay healthy.

5. Royals – From the Starting To Come Around file, the Royals can sniff .500 if their rotation holds up, Joakim Soria closes like a stud again, and the offense is steady. In a division with such parity, they just have to concentrate on winning series and they’ll be pesky.

—–

The AL East is a ridiculous juggernaut flush with just as much money as talent. I expect two playoff teams and the AL World Series representative to come out of this division. The New York Yankees reloaded with several top free agents but somehow trimmed payroll. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays will have legitimate shots at winning this division as well; the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles will not. It would not surprise me at all to have three teams within five games of the division lead most of the year. Which means the division championship is pretty much up for grabs.

I would love to see the Tampa Bay Rays win the AL East again. Last season made it easy for Rays fans to forget the previous 10 years of terrible, terrible baseball. The team earned their success; they didn’t buy it or luck into it. How can you not root for a team like that?

BUT…

What I think will happen:

1. Yankees – Sabathia, Burnett, Wang…that competes with the top three of any rotation in baseball, but injury concerns are there. Riviera…the closer of the decade, but injury concerns are there. Texiera, Damon, Rodriguez, Jeter, Posada…a steady (if not borderline explosive) lineup, but injury concerns are there. On paper and sans injuries, the Yankees have one of the best teams in the league…

2. Red Sox – …but so do the Red Sox. And what they might have going for them over the Yankees is their youth. With that said, the Sox also need big, healthy years from veterans Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, and JD Drew if they’re going to overtake the Yankees and…

3. Rays – …this team, who added some veteran presence in Pat Burrell and Jason Isringhausen (once he’s rehabbed from offseason surgery) to go with their young core. They’ll pitch well, they’ll hit, they’ll run, and they’ll play defense. This team proved last year they can beat their big purse rivals to the north, and they’re likely do it again this year.

4. Orioles – Baltimore will do one thing well this season: play defense. Cesar Izturis and Brian Roberts are among the best middle infield combos in baseball. Unfortunately, they won’t have enough offense or pitching to compete with the big dogs in this division. But .500 isn’t out of the question.

5. Blue Jays – Toronto is going the wrong way. This year, the only thing they’ll be competing for is the #1 draft pick in 2010…which means they should probably trade Roy Halladay to try to get another 1st round pick and maybe a high-level prospect or two.

Agree? Disagree? Indifferent because you feel the National League is superior? Let’s hear it!