The Nub

Political and Ball-Players Facing Tests With Lots at Stake

(Posted: 2/24/12; e-mail update 2/25)

On MLB-TV the other night, ambulance the talk was of teams with four players who insure their playoff-contending status: the Tigers, salve with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jose Valverde and Justin Verlander; the Phillies, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Papelbom, the Giants, with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Buster Posey. Missing among highly-rated teams: the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Angels, and most interestingly (to us), the Rangers.

The Rangers stand out as the team whose success this season depends – most believe – on a newcomer, their touted Japanese-Iranian righthander Yu Darvish. The 25-year-old Darvish is expected to vie right away to become the team’s ace. Of the 750 players who will start the season on 30 rosters, he will be the most scrutinized as he is tested to meet that expectation.

If Darvish has a counterpart on the political field the next few days, it is Rick Santorum, running to become Team GOP skipper in the presidential race. The pressbox consensus is that Santorum’s crucial test – his shaky debate performance in Arizona notwithstanding – will come in the Michigan primary this Tuesday; it’s a test he must pass (with a victory) to stay in the contest with Mitt Romney. Santorum’s quixotic chances are assessed in this scouting report by the National Journal’s clear-eyed birddog, Ron Brownstein:

“Many analysts have assumed (Santorum) would run well among the growing ranks of non-college white voters in the Republican electorate…, Santorum stresses his determination to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing capacity and laments the decline of upward mobility for working-class Americans in language rare among Republicans…, Santorum highlights his years growing up in Western Pennsylvania steel country…he also projects a regular-guy aura that contrasts with rival Mitt Romney’s vast wealth. Yet so far these assets have not translated into blue-collar success for Santorum…Nor has he demonstrated any particular appeal to Catholics despite his strong Catholic faith….Romney’s weakness with downscale voters suggests Santorum will…emerge more clearly as the alternative to the dethroned front-runner; after all, the voters resisting the former Massachusetts governor must vote for someone… If Santorum is ever to succeed at demonstrating that his mix of economic nationalism and cultural conservatism can galvanize the GOP’s burgeoning working-class wing, he couldn’t pick a better time than (now).”

 Team GOP has made clear that whether Santorum or Romney wins the nomination will not change the primary goal of its game: to defeat Skipper Obama, whatever it takes. And the team has the support of well-heeled fans to make it competitive, whoever the candidate turns out to be. What that backdrop says about the big game is this: the way swing voters take their cuts will be decisive.

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Speaking of Testing…When Ryan Braun’s successful appeal of his failing a testosterone drug test was announced, Eric Byrnes, on MLB-TV, said the average player was going to believe stars like Braun benefit from a double-standard. “We should not sugar-coat this,” he said, that will be the “perception.” Fellow panelists Dan Plesac and Harold Reynolds, seemingly semi-stunned, sought to talk instead of how the decision helps the Brewers pennant chances. Host Ahmed Fareed, to his credit, concurred with Byrnes’ assessment. “This won’t go away,” he said, “there will be dark clouds for some time.”

 P.S. Somebody at the network obviously lectured the refreshingly uninhibited Byrnes during a commercial break. Eric felt constrained to sum up, saying that, as a result of the unprecedented winning appeal, “Everybody wins – Braun, the players union, baseball, the Brewers, the fans…” The clear loser: MLB-TV.

 After Darvish: Some others on whom first-tier teams are heavily dependent: Adam Wainwright (Cardinals), Jason Heyward (Braves), Josh Johnson (Marlins), Daniel Bard (Red Sox). Perhaps more than the players, the Cardinals will rise or fall on how well new manager Mike Matheny and new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist perform as replacements to Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. That may be the biggest challenge of all.

An A.J. Revival? “In joining the Pirates, (A.J. Burnett) escapes both the DH league and the stacked American League East, and will instead get to face opposing pitchers at the plate and pitch in a largely de-fanged division that just lost Fielder and Pujols… and includes an Astros team that is fielding a Triple-A lineup. The opportunity is there for Burnett to salvage his career as a starter.” – Cliff Corcoran, SI

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments to dickstar@aol.com are welcome, and only they can be addressed by the skipper. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

About Richard Starkey

Dick Starkey handled media for former NY Governor Mario Cuomo, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and many other office-holders and candidates. He was sports editor of the Paris-based Herald Tribune. Perfect Pitch partner Robert Sullivan was the first to adapt focus groups to politics and has been called by Cuomo and others one of the "best" pollsters in the country.