Hope for have-nots as season opens

NEW YORK, Reuters

Seven different teams have won the World Series over the last seven seasons, giving hope to the have-nots of Major League Baseball (MLB), which opens its 2007 season on Sunday with the St Louis Cardinals hosting the New York Mets. The opener is a rematch of the National League Championship Series for the title-holding Cards, who squeezed into the playoffs with just 83 wins before taking charge and going on to beat the Detroit Tigers in the Fall Classic. Several teams have gambled heavily to get in position for a championship run, ranging from the bold Boston Red Sox, who invested US$103 million to secure Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, to the lowly Chicago Cubs, who committed US$300 million in contracts in a quest for their first Series crown in 99 years. The six-month marathon of a 162-game schedule will test the blueprints of all 30 teams in a season expected to produce one of baseball’s most controversial milestone moments. Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants outfielder under a cloud of suspicion over his connection to the BALCO probe into steroid use, needs 22 homers to reach 756 and surpass Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time career leader. Questions persist over how the breaking of one of baseball’s most cherished records will be commemorated, since Commissioner Bud Selig, a close friend of Aaron, has been noncommittal about whether he would personally be on hand. Anger over the steroid allegations poses the possibility that should Bonds, 42, break the record while playing on the road the seven-times Most Valuable Player could hear boos. Cheers will certainly rock Busch Stadium when the Cardinals hoist their championship banner on Sunday, but St Louis face an uphill climb to repeat their success after losing two starting pitchers from last year in Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan. The Mets, nine games better than the next best National League team during the 2006 season with 97 wins, again boast the league’s best lineup with speedy Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Carlos Delgado leading the way in support of a questionable starting pitching staff. Striving to join the ranks of contenders are the Cubs, a National League-worst 66-96 last year. They paid US$136 million to sign Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal, signed free agent starters Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and brought Lou Piniella out of retirement to manage and bring excitement to Wrigley Field. The Giants lost Jason Schmidt, who signed a US$47-million deal to join the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, but lavished US$126 million on left-hander Barry Zito from their American League Bay Area neighbours the Oakland Athletics. Houston spent US$100 million to add slugger Carlos Lee, but will have to wait to see whether seven-times Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, 44, will join the team. “The Rocket”, still throwing at a premier level, pitched parts of the last three seasons for his hometown Astros but says he has not decided whether he will continue in 2007. Should Clemens return in mid-season, it is believed he will pitch for Houston, Boston or the New York Yankees. Boston bolstered their staff by signing Matsuzaka, the MVP of last year’s World Baseball Classic won by Japan, who has earned rave reviews in spring training, and padded their lineup by spending US$70 million on outfielder J.D. Drew. The buying binge narrowed the budget gap between Boston and the rival Yankees, who last year began the season with about US$75 million more in payroll, according to the New York Times. Based on projected opening day rosters, the top-spending Yanks will start the season at US$182.6 million and the Red Sox at US$145.7 million, a gap of US$36.9 million, the paper said. The East Division foes need to improve to catch the American League champion Detroit Tigers, who won last year behind a hard-throwing young pitching staff and who have added former Yankees slugger Gary Sheffield to their batting order.