Friday, March 1, 2013


                What are the elements of a successful marriage? I can’t say generally, but I can offer the example of myself and Susie, my dear wife of 32 years.  She likes it warm and I like it cool. She’s a pack rat and I can’t wait to throw things away. I think all food is created equal and she’s happiest nibbling on carrots and lettuce.

               Our twains diverge further when it comes to sports. In baseball she’s been flighty as a gnat, at one time or another being a devoted fan of the Detroit Tigers, L.A. Dodgers, Chicago White Sox and, now, the Arizona Diamondbacks. I’m as constant as the moon, rooting for the same Chicago teams as I did at age seven, despite also having lived in a number of other cities.  

                We’ve been Arizonans for 15 years, and I like the place fine, so my attitude toward the Phoenix pro teams puzzles even me. The only local club I’ve had any enthusiasm for was the basketball Suns during Steve Nash’s heyday, but while I enjoyed watching them play it didn’t bother me much when they lost.

                More seasons than not I’ve been downright hostile to the D’backs, failing to cheer their successes and gloating over their failures. I confess that that attitude stems in part from envy over their winning a World Series title in only their fourth year of existence in 2001, something my team, the Chicago Cubs, hadn’t done for 93 years to that point, and 104 years now. But I think it’s also been a reaction against the inattentive people who make up a large part of the Arizona fan base, folks who rarely rouse themselves to cheer the team on the field unless prompted to do so by the electronic scoreboard at Chase Field.

                Lots of times Susie and I have settled into our favorite upper-deck (cheap) seats at Chase, with empty seats fore and aft, only to have locals plop down in the row in front of us and hinder our view. We’ve learned not to bother moving because more often than not they’ll leave after a couple of innings, never to return.  Where they go I have no idea. A better question is why they came in the first place.

                Over the last few years, however, the D’backs have done a few things I’ve liked, and have turned my antipathy into neutrality. Lacking a “C” on their jerseys they’ll never supplant the Cubs or White Sox in my affections, but I can foresee a time when I’ll be at least a little pleased when they do well.  As Susie can attest, that’s big.

                The person who’s turned me around is Kevin Towers, the D’backs’ general manager since September, 2010. He’s not only savvy baseballwise but is a standup guy as well, one of the few MLB execs who’d frankly discuss steroids use in the game during the 1990-2005 HITS Era (for Heads In The Sand), when juiced players were jacking juiced balls out of parks at a mockery-making rate and the official word on the subject was mum. The fallout from that span will always stain the sport, stamping a permanent asterisk on the records of the period.

                Towers made his bones generally managing the San Diego Padres, achieving four divisional titles and a World Series appearance (in 1998) in a city that’s as indifferent toward baseball as is Phoenix. In one of his first moves here he captured my attention, trading away Mark Reynolds, then the team’s posterboy.

                What made that deal wasn’t the guy Arizona got (David Hernandez, a useful relief pitcher) but the guy it got rid of. Reynolds best exemplified the D’backs of the new century’s first decade, a dumb slugger who hacked for the fences each time up but connected mostly with air. His 223 strikeouts in 2009 was a Major League record, breaking his own mark (204) of the year before. 

                More offputing yet was the attitude behind all those Ks; when asked about his propensity to whiff Reynolds always answered “that’s my style,” as if baseball were an individual game.  His negligent play at third base rounded out his zero persona.

                Although Towers got little credit for it hereabouts, he accomplished a small miracle in 2011, building a bullpen from scratch and turning a 65-97 team into one that went 94-68 and won a divisional crown.  A lot of luck went into that record, and it wasn’t repeated during last year’s 81-81 finish that more accurately reflected the team’s talent level.  Towers recognized this and completed the housecleaning that he’d begun two years earlier, sweeping out center-fielder Chris Young and right-fielder Justin Upton, two more players cut in the Reynolds mold.    

                The dumping of Upton was especially controversial; the team had made the young man the first choice in the 2005 draft and he’d intermittently flashed superstar gifts, sending drives into the darkest recesses of industrial-looking Chase. Mostly, though, he looked distracted, and Towers reasoned that it no longer was useful betting big money that he’d shape up.

                The players Towers has added—mainly second-baseman Aaron Hill; third-baseman Martin Prado, who came from Atlanta in the Upton trade; and right-fielder Cody Ross-- aren’t light-up-the-sky types. One writer for the Arizona Republic called them “white hot” competitors fanatical about winning, but that was silly because baseball is a game of adjustment and reaction and any player who burned white would quickly turn into a cinder. But they do look like adult pros who’ll show up to play every day, a welcome change in these parts.

                I don’t know how Arizona will do this season. They share a division with the San Francisco Giants, who’ve won two of the last three World Series, and the refinanced Dodgers and their $200 million payroll.  Baseball is mostly about pitching and the D’backs’ is iffy, especially the starters.  They should be out there trying, though, and I could get behind that.

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