Moreover, Anaheim had won only 75 games the previous season while finishing 41 games out of first place. The Grinch suddenly had nothing to say. Competitive balance? The baseball world turns over faster than ever these days. Consider:
?Six different National League teams reached the World Series in the past six years, the first time that's happened since 1986 through '91.
?Each of the last two world champions (the Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks) had never won a World Series, the first time that's happened in back-to-back seasons since 1923 ( Yankees) and '24 ( Washington Nationals).
?Ten of the last 30 teams to reach the World Series did so after finishing the previous year with a losing record.
?Six of the last 15 world champions won the Series the year after a losing season. In the first 83 World Series only seven teams fashioned that kind of turnaround.
That's why even the Cubs, winners of only 67 games last year, can see October all the way from Arizona. The commissioner should have sounded more like Updike than Seuss: "Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them." That's why fans in Detroit could practically use their newspaper to melt the ice on their front steps, so warm was this recent boldface greeting: TIGERS START CLIMB TO RESPECTABILITY. Only a cynic would remind you that the Tigers lost 106 games last season, then shed their best hitter, their only All-Star, their closer and their best starting pitcher.
Is there a better place to dream than in the light and color of Florida and Arizona in February and March? Into the brightness in Fort Myers, Fla., for instance, lobster-faced faithful fresh from New England's winter gloom quite literally have to squint to see their Red Sox. They are essentially Cubs fans without the sense of humor, but it is damned hard to be a Calvinist when you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt and have a paper umbrella in your drink.
Spring training is the perfect place for renewal. Only Washington, D.C., the capital of our nation and of reinventing oneself, has more plastic surgeons per capita than Florida. ( Arizona ranks ninth in the nip-and-tuck battle.) Four hundred and ninety years after Ponce de L�on reported to Florida, 40-year-old retired pitcher David Cone did so, too, last week—and in search of the very same thing. He is in the New York Mets' camp, one of many nonroster elders looking for one last shot. Doug Jennings, a 38-year-old outfielder who's played in Mexico, Japan, Long Island and Omaha since he last appeared in the big leagues 10 years ago, worked out with the Florida Marlins last week. Phil Hiatt, a 33-year-old third baseman, is in camp with the Cubs, his ninth organization in nine years.
They keep coming, these snowbirds in spikes, because, as Updike knows, every once in a while one of these dreams comes true. It was in Florida, after all, that a scattershot lefthanded pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers decided one day six years into his career to stop trying to throw every pitch with all of his might. It was a split-squad road game in Orlando, without the major league coaching staff on hand, when he figured he had nothing to lose. "Take the grunt out of it," is how he later described his epiphany. The Twins batters couldn't touch him. Sandy Koufax, the great Koufax of the Hall of Fame, was born on that day in 1961. "I came back," he once wrote of that trip, "a different pitcher."
Forty-one years later, a 20-year-old righthander from Venezuela pitched in a split-squad game for the Angels in Arizona. The major league coaches weren't there, either. But the minor league instructors who were came back talking breathlessly about the kid the way a tourist would the Grand Canyon. It was one of only three spring games in which he pitched. Six months later, when Francisco Rodriguez was called up to the big leagues, his teammates couldn't even recall his being in camp. The Angels know, however, that they wouldn't have won the World Series without him.