By Eric Neel
Page 2

We're nearing September. Which means we're starting to watch things more closely, and we're starting to care more about how they turn out. At times like these, I like to set the emotional compass, get my hopes and wishes in order for the stretch drive.

And so I ask myself some questions. I think about hypotheticals. Such as ...

Would you rather see Chris Carpenter or Roger Clemens win the Cy Young Award?

Clemens has, what, 17 of these things? He's so bronzed-up the good folks at Coppertone are planning shots of him in a bikini with a terrier yapping at his butt for their new ad campaign.

Chris Carpenter
Clemens is tough competition, but Chris Carpenter is certainly deserving of a Cy Young so far.

Clemens is worthy, but I want to see Carpenter get the love this time around. His ERA (2.25) is tremendous, the strikeout/walk ratio (4.33) is terrific, and the WHIP (.98) is a wee little thing shrunk up in the cold water of a lake swim. He's legit.

But that's not why I want him to win it. I want him to win it because it'll mean more to him than it possibly could to Clemens.

Carpenter had two shoulder surgeries (in 2002 and 2003) and some nasty nerve irritation late last year (which caused him to miss the stretch drive and the postseason). He's having the year of his life at a time when his club (at various times without Rolen, Walker, Edmonds and Sanders) needed him to do nothing less. Six complete games? Four shutouts? This is Chris Carpenter's magic year. He has no claims on history and no shot at a Hall pass, but he has this season, right here, when he was supernaturally great for a team primed for a World Series run.

As freaky good as Clemens has been, there'd be nothing discernibly different about his appearance with the Cy trophy at the end-of-the-year news conference. The pictures and quotes would be familiar. But if Carpenter's up there, shedding off eight years of anonymity, bathing in the weird brilliance of this totally unforeseeable moment ... that'd be something to see.

Would you rather see the Yankees aced out of the wild-card spot or see the Yankees get in and then get BoSoxed out for the second year in a row?

Out altogether.

They're just not that good. Michael Kay's hilarious all-Riveras-look-alike commentary notwithstanding, they make for painful TV. Seventy errors and 17th in the league in fielding percentage? Twenty-first in team ERA? Nasty. This team plays Tony Womack for god's sakes. A lot (308 excruciating at-bats so far). The Yankees' pitching staff, after Mo (who ought to be the AL Cy Young just for keeping them in the conversation), is to batted balls as Swiss cheese is to a toddler's tongue. Which is to say, inviting, and just about to become a mess all over the ground.

In 2003 and 2004, Red Sox-Yankees felt like Ali-Frazier. In '05, it'd be more like Ali-Holmes.

I can do without the "Requiem for a Heavyweight" rendition, thanks.

Would you rather see the Astros, Phillies or Nationals win the NL wild card?

Houston all the way.

First, the euphoric "it's so great to have baseball back in the nation's capital" stuff has got to stop. The very thought of Tucker Carlson in a Nationals cap on my television makes me break out in hives. Some suffering is in order. These are, after all, the Expos, and this is, after all, the seat of a government whose domestic policy prominently features the idea that hard times are a requisite Horatio Alger prelude to making something of yourself.

Second, I just can't seem to get excited for the moment when Joe Buck says, "And with the series on the line, tonight the Phillies turn to their ace, Brett Myers." Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the five home runs surrendered in the last two starts. Who can say?

And third, there's the Biggio-Bagwell swan song, there's the chance (not all that remote) that Clemens and Oswalt go all Schilling and Johnson on us in some big game, when one or the other comes in for two innings of "I'm naming my baby after the man" relief, and maybe most importantly of all, there's the chance that Morgan Ensberg, with a few well-timed home runs, might continue his steady march (past Tracy Morgan and Morgan Fairchild) up the list of all-time Morgans in American popular culture. For those scoring at home, Ensberg's got Stanley Morgan and Morgan Stanley in his sights now, but is, of course, not even within dreaming distance of either Joe Morgan or Morgan Freeman.

Curt Schilling
Getty Images
Are you used to Curt Schilling in the closer's role yet?

Would you rather have Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke come trotting out of the bullpen to finish a game that matters?

What do you think the odds are Terry Francona has Oil Can Boyd's cell number in his Treo right now? I put them at about 8-1. Unlikely, but not out of the question.

Anyway, Schilling looks wrong to me. And while we can't be sure that Foulke looks right, at least, since absence makes the eye less jaundiced, he comes with a sliver of hope now.

So give me Foulke, an airsickness bag, and, if you please, Big Papi warming up in the pen.

Seriously. I believe in Big Papi the way big-haired, pastel jumpsuit-wearing damsels in distress believed in MacGyver. I think he can improvise whatever is needed with whatever's around. I have faith that he can get his club out of any jam any time. I know in my heart that with the home runs and the RBI and such, we've only just scratched the surface of Big Papiness.

Would you rather have the Royals break the streak or break the record?

I'm rooting for the record.

Look, the 1988 Orioles had some actual players on the team. Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Fred Lynn -- these guys deserve better. They deserve, in fact, to have a club whose best player, whose only truly good baseball player (Mike Sweeney), is a bad back waiting to happen, break their AL record of 21 straight losses and take on the weight of shame and ridicule from now on.

And the Royals, for their part, should embrace the possibility. This is their shot at immortality. Lose 18 in a row and then win a game and you're nobody. You're just bad. Lose 22, 23 straight, lose maybe the entire rest of the slate, and people won't be able to stop talking about you. You're epically bad.

That's something to shoot for. In fact, now's the time to bring Tony Pena back. The club needs a motivator. They Royals have 43 games left. They're probably thinking they have no shot at losing all of them. But Tony gets in that locker room, and he jumps up on a tabletop, and he starts chanting: "Nosotros creemos. Nosotros creemos. Nosotros creemos!" After a thing like that, who knows what they might be capable of.

Would you rather see the White Sox win or lose the World Series?

No offense to my friends on the South Side, but I honestly don't care. Just so long as it's decided by Scott Podsednik stealing, or trying to steal, home, I'm good.

Would you rather see your team miss the playoffs by only one game or have them win the World Series and then have two star players test positive for steroids in spring training the following year?

The question is absurd, right?

I mean, there's no way the Dodgers will either miss the playoffs by only one game or win the World Series.

But seriously, if I get a choice (and I know I don't), and presuming the tests were accurate, and presuming they demonstrated (as Rafael Palmeiro's use of stanozolol seemed to) that the use of the steroid was deliberate, there's no way I'd want the ring.

It's not that I think the drugs are morally reprehensible, or that I can't understand why someone might try them or use them, and it's not that I think we have any definitive sense of how exactly they affect performance.

It's just that certainty, resolution, the unencumbered sureness of a claim (we won, you lost), if only for a day or a night or a season, is ultimately what they play for, and what we root for.

I can live with the fact that such a thing is complicated and sometimes undermined, but it would be crazy to knowingly give it up.

Would you rather have Barry sit tight or suit up in September?

What, and risk losing him as an author?

Would you rather have Kerry Wood in the rotation or coming out of the bullpen?

No offense to my friends on the North Side, but it honestly isn't going to matter. Even a little. Just as long as I know that somewhere Derek Bell is looking silly, I'm good.

Would you rather see the Braves win another division title or put a sharp stick in your eye?

Is there something charming, something that echoes like a loon's call off the hills surrounding some Southern lake, about Leo rocking to the Chop every single day, from Bream to Langerhans and back again?

Not really.

Stick, please.



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