If you squint and tilt your head just right, you can see how this team used to have a pretty good game once. Duncan's knee is the size of a knee again, as opposed to that of a grapefruit, and his power and confidence at the plate is back. Aaron Miles is still doing his best impersonation of a major league hitter. Yadier Molina is back and gunning down baserunners. Newcomer Mike Maroth opened his National League career with a flourish, shutting down the Mets on national TV, and turning the head of many female fans in the process with his sandy-haired, blueeyed, aw-shucks charm.
But as we look through our city's metaphoric gateway toward the setting sun, we see that the game is changing before our eyes – or rather, not the game itself, but the generation of stars who will be taking it over. In consecutive home stands, we will be visited by the NL West's youngest team (average age of the Arizona lineup: 26.7), and its oldest (average age of the San Francisco lineup: 33.1). And while the tour bus of old folks is running dead last in the division as they trot their home-run pony show around the country, the youngbloods are engaging in a high-flying aerial duel for the top of the division.
The Diamondbacks reached the favored plateau – 10 games above .500 – on June 1, and have been dogfighting with the Dodgers and Padres at that level for the last 30 days. In that time, they have lost only one series to a National League team – a recent four-game set against the Dodgers that briefly knocked them from first place down into third.
And the scary part is that they're winning with many of their young players struggling to reach not only their full potential, but even the bar they themselves had set a year ago.
Staff ace and reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb (28) has 8 wins and a fine 3.05 ERA, but has also taken 5 losses and struggled uncharacteristically with his command.
First baseman Conor Jackson (25) seemed ready to make a leap after hitting 15 home runs in nearly a full season's work last year – he has five to this point, and has lost 20 points off his batting average to boot.
Outfielder Carlos Quentin (24) has struggled all year long at the plate, with a .220 average and only 5 homers, after slugging 25 extra-base hits in his 57- game debut last season.
Shortstop Stephen Drew (24) has also been in a year-long funk, hitting a mere .236/.302/.351 after posting a sparkling line of .316/.357/.517 in his 59- game debut last season.
While Quentin remains one of the better outfield prospects in the majors, some whispers are beginning to emerge that the potential of Drew the younger was perhaps a tad overrated to begin with. (Having watched his elder brother, "the next Mickey Mantle," pull himself from the lineup with little more than a mild sunburn in the name of protecting the good name of his own potential, we can't believe that the reputation of a member of this august family of baseball dynamos is being so viciously degraded.)
Moreover, Arizona has some very good prospects in the pipeline that are near major-league ready, if not already here and contributing, such as center fielder Chris Young, starting pitcher Micah Owings, and power-hitting third baseman Mark Reynolds.
Yes, the Cardinals have the hardware in their cabinet (10 trophies is a lot better than one), and more importantly the Cards have the still-faithful support of generations of fans across a huge and fertile swath of Midwestern soil, ensuring that our team's front office will have the resources to field a competitive team most every year.
But in terms of having the talent to contend for the next three to five years already in the fold, forgive us if we envy the young Diamondbacks.
Trying to grow "the right way"
Thanks to new expansion-drafting rules, favorable division realignment, and a massive pile of borrowed money, the Arizona baseball team turned the whole notion of baseball hierarchy upside down.
Excepting for a moment the Florida Marlins, every baseball expansion story starts out with several chapters of woe.
The Houston Astros, nee Colt .45s, had only their architectural sideshow of a ballpark (which not only introduced "Astroturf" but also the animated, exploding scoreboard to the baseball lexicon) to keep fans entertained with for decades. It took them 18 years to finish higher than third in their division, and more than 40 years to make a World Series appearance. As we all know, they're still waiting for their first win.
The New York Mets opened their doors in the shadows of the baseball immortals, and tread on the graves of the departed Giants and Dodgers. As such, they and their fans were punished with terrible talent and worse luck, losing 100 games in six of their first seven years, becoming an instant punchline for legions of late night jokes. A New Yorker could lose his job to a robot and his wife to his no-good bum of a best friend, but hey, could be woise. How ‘bout them Mets?
The Milwaukee Brewers' first year as the ridiculously inept Seattle Pilots was famously chronicled in "Ball Four." Then, as a postscript, the team was declared bankrupt, and then bought by a used car salesman named Bud and given a new home and a new name with less than a week before 1970's opening day. In a non-extreme makeover, players wore their old uniforms with hastily -stitched logos on their caps and sleeves. They finished no higher than fifth for the next eight years.
Of course, back in those days a few million bucks and a firm handshake could have fetched you a team, at least on paper. The real price to pay was the years of competitive imbalance. By the time Arizona's owners, Jerry Colangelo and company, jumped into the game, the price tag of a "franchise fee" had jumped up to $130 million, and that's before any payroll or stadium building enters into the picture. And while Phoenix had exploded with population, most were retirees and/or transplants who carried their own baseball loyalties with them. And thus, while continuing to trumpet "competitive balance," our man Bud – now graduated from hapless owner to "Acting" Commissioner of the game – helped tweak the expansion draft rules to flow more talent to its newest teams.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were in the pledge class of 1998 as well, and this ruling should have benefited both expansion teams equally. However, Bud's pal Colangelo got the extra benefit of being welcomed into the newlyreconstituted National League West, heretofore a cushy four-team division that featured another recent expansion franchise, and two teams – the aforementioned Giants and Dodgers – whose last days as true contenders were a decade to the winds. Meanwhile, the team in South Florida named after bottom-feeding flat fish were thrust into the ravenous jaws of the American League East, where they helped the Yankees continue their run of four World Series titles in five years.
Of course, such an advantage would be nothing if the Diamondbacks hadn't made the most of it. Colangelo mortgaged and second-mortgaged the future to add the free agents necessary to compete right away, The team won its division in only its second year of existence – a record – and won the championship in year 4 – also a record. That their title came against the Yankees is a pleasant irony to everyone not from Tampa.
Eventually, though, all those bills came due, forcing a mad selloff that began four years ago with the dealing of its staff co-aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. And finally, after an improbable run from worst to first to world champs in less time than it takes to graduate high school, the Diamondbacks are going back to the old fashioned blueprint, paying their dues with a couple of losing seasons, adeptly drafting and dealing for young talent, and rebuilding the franchise from the ground up.
Some of the old faces from that World Series run are here now: Randy Johnson is back from a hellish stay in the Bronx, and Luis Gonzalez never left. But this is a much different Arizona team finding ways to win baseball games these days. And perhaps in a few years, it will be a much stronger one as well.