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Orioles Sputter To The End of July As All Division Races Tighten

In this strange but always absorbing baseball season, it seems that uneasy lies the head of all division leaders. I follow the Orioles the most closely, of course, and their AL East lead is down to two games in the AILC . This stands for All-Important Lost Column meaning that a game lost can never be made up but a game not played could still be a win.

A three-game series in Toronto against the second place Blue Jays this weekend should clarify a few things. I am hoping that Chris Davis's bat awakens in his favorite ballpark the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Skydome in Toronto's championship years of 1992-93.)

The Red Sox are on the road for two weeks and have lost some tough games recently. Yet they are only two back of the Birds in the AILC and the resurgent Yankees only six.

Leaders in baseball's other divisions are having hard times, too. In the AL West the Texas Rangers are having starting pitching woes and have lost slugger Prince Fielder for probably the rest of the season with recurring neck issues.

Last year's surprise team the Houston Astros is hot on the Rangers trail and they are eager to face Texas again after losing all but one of their first match ups this year. Don't count out the occasionally explosive Seattle Mariners who have their ace Felix Hernandez back from injury.

In the AL Central, Cleveland's 14-game winning streak opened a big lead but they are losing luster, obviously needing another bat in the lineup and some help in the bullpen. The Detroit Tigers are hanging in and like the Astros they hope to avenge a pounding by the Indians in their earlier games this year.

The chances for defending World Series champion Kansas City to repeat in AL Central look meager now. So too for the Mets in the NL East. The Nationals have ruled the roost for much of this year but are not invincible. Yet the Mets have fallen behind even the Miami Marlins in the race for the divisional crown.

Perhaps the biggest slump of division leaders is occurring in the NL West where the SF Giants are plummeting. Their defense and hitting looked very suspect when they lost the series at Yankee Stadium last weekend. It was nice though for an old New York Giant fan like myself to see such a spirited band of Giant fans hold their own cheering on the road.

Another thrilling pennant chase between the Giants and Dodgers looms. Only in the NL Central does the race seem over with the Cubs holding a commanding lead despite playing barely .500 ball since they raced out to a 25-6 start. The Pirates and now the onrushing Cardinals are still very alive in the wild card race.

Though I wish the season were shortened to 154 games or fewer, there is one great rule in effect. The team that wins the division title is assured at least one playoff series.
The two also-rans with the best records must play the Wild Card winner-take-all game.

So expect some dramatic baseball ahead. It's what we addicted fans live for.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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Hot Stove League Off to Eventful Pre-Thanksgiving Start + Farewell to Michael Weiner

Say what you want about free agency in pro sports, it certainly keeps the game in headlines all year round. The confetti from the Red Sox victory parade had barely been swept up when the Detroit Tigers announced a blockbuster trade of first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler's trade was not a surprise because the power-hitting speedy second baseman was deemed expendable with homegrown super-prospect Jurickson Profar needing a place in the Rangers' everyday lineup. With Elvis Andrus signed for eight years at shortstop Profar likely will play second for Texas in 2014 though he did put in some time at left field in his rookie season.

Fielder's departure from Detroit after just two years of his nine-year contract shocked most of baseball. Yet one thing the trade of Fielder proves and that of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett by the Red Sox in the summer of 2012: If a player doesn't have a no-trade clause in his contract, no long-term deal provides security.

Fielder's failures to hit in the post-season two years in a row doomed him in Detroit. He evidently let a divorce affect his play this year. No speedster or defensive whiz - Prince Fielder was no prince of a fielder! - his regular seasonal offensive numbers were decent but when the chips were down in the post-season his productivity disappeared.

On the free agent front, the biggest news so far is that the Yankees have signed the Braves' Brian McCann to a whopping contract that could amount to $100 million over 6 years.
I am wary of citing as absolute fact the raw figures casually thrown about in the press, but certainly the signing indicates that the Yankees are prepared once again to thrown their vast economic weight into the free agent marketplace.

It will be very interesting to see how high they are willing to go to keep second baseman Robinson Cano. He has a novice agent in rap singer-entrepreneur Jay-Z and his people.
Right now sides are far apart but we'll see what happens in the last weeks of 2013 and maybe beyond.

The saddest news on the baseball scene was the passing of Major League Baseball Players Association leader Michael Weiner, 51, after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. He earned the praise of everyone in the industry for his staunch representation of the players and his ability to achieve working agreements with ownership and management.

It is no accident that labor peace came to baseball and has been sustained with Weiner at the helm and Rob Manfred as his counterpart on management's side. There is a chance that Manfred will succeed Bud Selig as commissioner when Selig steps down at the end of 2014.
IF Selig really retires this time and the drug charges against Alex Rodriguez are upheld for the most part by baseball's impartial arbitrator.

My most vivid memory of Weiner came at a forum hosted by the NYU Sports Management program during the 2011 season, the year Albert Pujols was heading for free agency.
Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who was ousted by the owners in the lead-up to the 1994 strike, was the major speaker with the NY Times' onetime leading baseball labor expert Murray Chass, ESPN's Mike Greenberg, and Weiner on a panel.

Vincent, a former movie executive, suggested that the Cardinals take a page from the film business and offer Pujols a slice of the team. But owners cannot be trusted, Chass commented and Vincent agreed.

The last word of the evening went to Weiner who quipped: "Let it be put on the record that the head of the players union was the only panelist tonight who didn't call the owners crooks."

The eloquent Tony Clark, the former Tigers first baseman who also played for the Yankees and the Mets, has huge shoes to fill as Weiner's replacement. But with baseball awash in television lucre and both sides now understanding that shutting down the industry or threatening to shut down the industry every few years is not wise business policy,
baseball's labor peace might continue indefinitely. Maybe.

Happy Thanksgiving! And back to you next time with appraisals of three new books to warm your hot stove league fires: Jamie Moyer and Larry Pratt's "Just Tell Me I Can't"; Ken Korach's homage to his late Oakland broadcast partner "Holy Toledo: Lessons from Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic," and the reissue and expanded edition of Kevin Kerrane's classic book on scouting, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle".  Read More 
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