If you don’t root for a particular team, there is pretty much no way the 2012 baseball season could have disappointed you. The drama, in fact, began before the first pitch was thrown. Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League MVP, tested positive for use of a performance-enhancing drug (PED), and was exonerated by the collector’s bumbling—he thought FedEx was closed over the weekend and took home the allegedly incriminating urine sample, storing it in his refrigerator for two days. That break from protocol was enough to cast doubt on the sample being tainted. Braun’s 50-game suspension was overturned by an arbitrator. First time ever.
Five players didn’t have Braun’s good fortune, showing the “steroid era” was hardly over. The following were suspended during the 2012 season for PED use: Guillermo Mota (Giants; suspended 100 games); Freddy Galvis (Phillies; 50 games); Marlon Byrd (free agent; 50 games); Bartolo Colon (A’s; 50 games) and most notably Melky Cabrera, whose first year with the Giants saw him surge to lead the National League in batting average. In an honorable move, after several bumbling attempts to explain a positive test result for testosterone, Cabrera took himself out of the batting title race.
In preseason moves, Albert Pujols left the Cardinals and joined the Angels for the magnificent sum of $254 million over 10 years. Pujols looked to need something to enhance his April performance (a cigar?) that saw him go homerless in April, batting .217. Prince Fielder left the Brewers to take a pittance of $214 million for nine years and make Miguel Cabrera move to third base. Both Pujols and Fielder ended up making their usual numbers of 30-plus home runs and 100 or more RBI, but Pujols’s slow start contributed to the Angels not making the playoffs this year, though much of the responsibility can also be heaped on the pitching staff. Newly acquired C.J. Wilson, from the Rangers, actually started off strongly, but faded in the middle of the year.
Everyone thought it was going to be all about Bryce Harper, the highly-charged, 19-year old outfielder for the Washington Nationals, but Angels Stadium soon became the scene of the most exciting introduction in baseball this season. Mike Trout, the 20-year-old starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the halos, came up from the minors on April 27. He played in only 139 games and became the first major leaguer to hit at least 30 homers, steal 45 bases (he had 49) and score 125 runs (Trout had 129). He also had 182 hits. In 139 games! That put Trout on a pace with Derek Jeter (215 hits in 158 games) of about 1.3 hits per game. Trout, a star on defense as well, is a reasonable choice for MVP and certainly right there with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, in my view. I would add Jeter to that mix.
Anytime a player wins a Triple Crown, that’s the offensive accomplishment of the year. For the first time since 1967, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers has done it. Cabrera hit .330, had 44 home runs and 139 RBI. Done. MVP? Hard to say no.
Other highlights this year included Jeter getting more than 200 hits at the age of 38. There were seven no-hitters thrown this year, three of them perfect games by Phillip Humber of the White Sox, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, and Matt Cain of the Giants. The Mariners pitched another no-hitter, using six pitchers to blank the Dodgers after starter Kevin Millwood left with an injured groin after six innings. Fernando Rodney, the Rays closer, set the record for lowest ERA, 0.60, in a year for a reliever. He beat Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 from 1990. On defense, there were too many great plays to mention here.
Of course, as for the “I Forgot Where I Am” award, that goes to Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie, the manager of the Marlins, a team that has its home games in Little Havana, praised Fidel Castro. What else need be said?
Let’s not forget the increasingly difficult task faced by umpires in making correct close calls in a game that is faster every season. Let me be gentle here. The so-called “human element” did not acquit itself well and elevated the cry for instant replay, even of using technology for calling balls and strikes. I approve this message.
The Pirates, despite Andrew McCutchen’s best efforts, took another dive towards the last third and extended their streak of losing seasons to 20. The Mets. Nice park, but oy vey! The dis-Astros are moving to the American League next year. The only question is, really? You want to be in the same division with the Rangers? But the team that takes the cake: Da Cubs. Okay, maybe the Red Sox. Certainly, the Red Sox former manager, Bobby Valentine, had a really bad year and then accused his coaching staff of undermining him. What a class act.
In perhaps the most widely over-discussed happening, Stephen Strasburg, pitching phenom of the Nationals, got shut down to protect his repaired arm (Tommy John surgery) from needing possible further repair.
The Dodgers have new owners (about time) and new star players from the Red Sox, Marlins and Phillies. Despite Clayton Kershaw following up his Cy Young year with another superb season, no playoffs for you, boys in blue. Or for the Phillies and Tampa Bay.
Omar Vizquel is retiring after 24 seasons, 11 Gold Gloves and more than 2, 700 hits. Ben Sheets came back to pitch for the Braves, helped them, and now has retired for good after throwing one inning in the year’s final regular season game.
Perhaps the event that stands out among those most worth noticing is that this was the last season to be played by Chipper Jones, the Braves third baseman who will be in the Hall of Fame in five years. Jones is to the Braves what Jeter is to the Yankees. No one ever questioned Jones’s work ethic, effort, desire or talent. (The haircut? That’s another thing.) The Braves, fittingly, are the NL wild card in the playoffs.
Ah, the playoffs. So, in a move that seems to put Major League Baseball on the path to a National Hockey League playoff system in which 16 of the 30 teams make the post-season, baseball added a second wild card qualifier in each league this year. That certainly extended the hopes of fans in cities like Oakland, St. Louis, Anaheim, Tampa-St. Petersburg and even Milwaukee that their teams might sneak in for the right to play one game against the first wild card team to see if they could then ACTUALLY get into a playoff series. The possible permutations this created seemed infinite. One the last Monday of the season, the possibility existed, though it didn’t happen, that three teams in the AL could have ended up with the same records, requiring a two-game play-in to become the second wild card qualifier.
Take your pick. The most surprising, successful team of 2012 was:
a. Washington Nationals
b. Oakland A’s
c. Baltimore Orioles
All three of these teams delighted and astounded the baseball world this year, but perhaps none more than the A’s.
The A’s surged in the second half of the year and thumped the Texas Rangers by sweeping them in Oakland the last three games of the season to take the AL west. Since July 1, the A’s went 57-26, for a .687 winning percentage. Fourteen of those wins were walk-offs. The A’s had 119 home runs, second only to the Yankees. Not exactly Moneyball, but definitely money. The Rangers played like it was the sixth game of the 2011 World Series, showing shoddy defense to let the A’s win game 162 by a score of 12-5. The Rangers, who led the division pretty much all year, became a wild card team by losing a one-time 13 game lead.
Maybe the O’s were more stunning. With help from the Yankees, the O’s went into the last three games of the season tied with the Bombers atop the AL East, putting together a winning season and clinching a playoff berth for the first time in 15 years.
No, no, it was the Nats, a perennial loser that ended up clinching the NL East, withstanding a late challenge from the Braves.
Like I said. Take your pick.
THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
In addition to the Nats, congratulations to the Cincinnati Reds, a team with one of the most interesting closers, Aroldis Chapman, in the game. He throws up to about 103 mph and mixes in a slider that breaks so much it sometimes hits a right-handed batter’s back foot after the ball crosses the plate. Kudos to the San Francisco Giants for withstanding two steroid suspensions and for picking up Hunter Pence from the Phillies, but more importantly, it turns out, for acquiring Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Both helped Buster Posey, a NL MVP front-runner take the Giants to the top of the west.
The Braves will play the reigning world champion St. Louis Cardinals in a one-game playoff for the wild card berth. I am picking the Braves in this one. In a departure from previous years, the wild card team will play the winner of its division, the Nationals. The series would start the first two games in Atlanta. Really dumb. Still, I think the Nats win this series.
If you’ve not gotten the sense that I think that while the excitement this new deal created for more teams was good, the one-game play-in is really dumb. The Braves had six more wins than the Cards. Bud Selig (MLB commissioner), call Gary Bettman (NHL commissioner) for advice on how to make the regular season almost meaningless.
I like the Reds against the Giants, but this is the toughest series to call. If the Giants pitchers—all of them—pitch the way they are capable of doing, they can shut down the potent offense of the Reds. The Reds have Johnny Cueto leading a decent starting rotation.
In the NL championship, the Reds beat the Nats.
THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
Yeah, yeah, the Yankees are in. Can they hit enough homers in a short series? Probably. Can they pitch well enough? Big question with no Mariano Rivera. The O’s have to keep their magic going. They ended the season without starting rightfielder Nick Markakis only to see his fill-in, Chris Davis, hit a bunch of dingers to carry the Birds. We’ve talked about the A’s, but what about “La Potencia” (“The Power”) otherwise known as Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban who has found asylum in the Oracle Stadium outfield. (That park still sucks.) The A’s kiddie-corps pitching staff continues to impress.
Detroit finally took the lead over a surprising White Sox team that saw Adam Dunn come back and pound the ball with his usual fervor. The Tigers probably should have been on top wire-to-wire, but, you know, it’s not where you start, it’s blah, blah, blah.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, your Texas Rangers. What can you say about this team? It’s great except when it comes to closing things out. Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young. They batter the ball. They pitch well. Fielding might be more than a little suspect. I’m thinking the Rangers could make the World Series again, but they’re going to have to play better than they did in September, or in Oakland, to win in October.
In the wild card play-in game, the Rangers likely beat the Orioles, but this is a dangerous pick because the mindset of the Rangers is hard to gauge right now. The winner of that game plays the Yankees. The Yanks beat the Rangers. The A’s beat Detroit. The Yankees beat the A’s.
Yankees lose to the Reds.
Where to Smoke in the Playoff Cities
Okay, this is the important part. Please call each place you plan on visiting to confirm their hours. If you know of better places, or more, let us know.
American League Cities
Perfecto Cigar Shop & Lounge (extended hours on game days)
306 Lincoln Square (close to the stadium)
Bobby’s Jazz Club & Cigar Bar (closest to Camden Yards; smoking allowed on patio)
1140 S. Paca St.
Wednesday to Saturday: 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
Closed Sunday to Tuesday
Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Inner Harbor (smoke on the patio)
1 E Pratt St
Detroit, Michigan/Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Camacho Cigar Bar (in the stadium, but you need a pass from a Camacho Cigar retailer unless you’re in a suite)
2100 Woodward Avenue
La Casa del Habano (smoke on the patio)
358 Ouellette Ave.
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
The Carnegie Club
156 West 56th St
Cigar Inn/Cigar Aficionado Lounge
1016 2nd Avenue
26 E. 63rd Street
New York Market Center Building
230 Fifth Avenue, 20th Floor, PH
17 Glen Ave
Open daily until 6 p.m., Fridays until 7
The Buckhead Cigar Lounge
3400 Around Lenox Drive
3115 Piedmont Road
Highland Cigar Co.
245 N. Highland Ave.
56 East Andrews Drive
Cosmo's - Home of Fitzgerald's Cigar Bar (1.72 miles away, across the Ohio River)
604 Main St.
The Beer Sellar
301 Riverboat Row
San Francisco, California
Occidental Cigar Club
471 Pine Street
(between Montgomery and Kearny)
The Cigar Bar & Grill (formerly 850 Cigar Bar & Grill)
(Smoking only in the courtyard)
850 Montgomery St.
St. Louis, Missouri
Ritz-Carlton Cigar Bar & Lounge (private club with day passes available)
100 Carondelet Plaza
Charles P. Stanley Cigar Co. & Lounge (closer to the stadium)
1000 Washington Avenue
Shelly’s Back Room
1331 F St NW
1813 M St NW