Notebook > Sports

Spring surprises

Sports | A-Rod and Hamilton shine in the regular season's first weeks

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

They say you can't win the pennant in April. Even hot-starting teams come back to earth. At the beginning of baseball's fourth week, with no team even threatening to run away with the division, scribes and baseball fans turned elsewhere for storylines. Three weeks in, a triumvirate of surprises kept baseball's opening month interesting.

A-Rod sizzles

Tragic thought for Yankees fans: Who will they boo now? Fans of the Bronx Bombers made the often-maligned third baseman the target of nearly season-long mockery in 2006. This season seemed like it might be more of the same with questions swirling about whether the former Seattle and Texas star would actually opt out of his $25.2 million per year contract to escape the scorn and pressure of New York.

But Alex Rodriguez's bat forced fans and sportswriters alike to lay that question aside. Instead the question became, would A-Rod tie the April home run record of 14? He did-on April 23 with a full week left in the month. So torrid was Rodriguez's start that Yankees fans were actually forced to give him curtain calls. Then came two walk-off home runs.

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It's no surprise that Rodriguez has started the season off with a bang. It's the magnitude of the explosion that has caught most off guard. With a week left in April, Rodriguez added a .400 batting average to his record-tying 14 home runs. Even Yankees captain and perceived Rodriguez nemesis Derek Jeter tipped his cap. "I haven't seen anything like it before. It's like everything he hits is a home run," Jeter said. "I can't relate because I can't do it. It's one of the waves you hope you can ride for a long time."

Hamilton sticks

When WORLD first wrote about Cincinnati outfielder Josh Hamilton ("Second chance," March 17), the phenom-turned-drug-addict-turned-Christian was making good on his spring training comeback attempt with the Reds. Few actually expected Hamilton to make it out of spring. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 1999 draft fell far away from baseball after a car wreck and drug addiction ruined his talent.

During the midst of a long-term layoff due to injury and suspension (he hadn't played in a professional game since 2002), Hamilton hit rock bottom then turned to Jesus. Fully healed, Hamilton tried without success to make a roster last year after his drug suspension was finally lifted. This year in spring training he gave it one more shot.

Not only has Hamilton made the Reds roster, he's played his way into a regular spot in the lineup, showing much of the potential that originally made him the nation's top prospect coming out of high school. Through three weeks, Hamilton had managed a .289 average and even five home runs, leading the Reds in both homers and RBIs.

Cubs flounder

Now is the time for sticker shock for the Chicago Cubs potential buyers. Perhaps in an attempt to raise the team's profile before putting the team on the market, Chicago guaranteed contract payouts worth more than $200 million. The product on the field has already left a bad taste in the mouths of Cubs fans. Chicago's 7-12 record through three weeks dragged the Cubs five games behind division leader Milwaukee (the Brewers!).

The Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to a $136 million deal and pitchers Ted Lilly to a $40 million deal and Jason Marquis to a $21 million deal. The club also added utility player Mark DeRosa with a $13 million deal and slugging outfielder Cliff Floyd with a deal worth up to $17.5 million depending on performance. Now with performance flagging and the club's operating cost drastically higher, the Tribune company hopes the team's value hasn't taken too much of a hit.

Around the Horn

NBA: After just one playoff game, Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa managed to justify his newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Award for outstanding play off the bench. Nicknamed the "Brazilian Blur," Barbosa came off the Suns' pine for 26 points to lead a comeback against the rival Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA's opening round of the playoffs. How to stop Barbosa? "Give him a soccer ball," the Lakers' Kobe Bryant said. "Tell him Brazilians should be playing soccer, not basketball."

BASKETBALL: Ending months-not weeks-of speculation, two of the nation's standout freshman phenoms elected to enter the NBA draft rather than return to play college basketball for their sophomore years. First Texas forward Kevin Durant declared he was leaving school. And despite sweeping the national Player of the Year awards as a freshman, Durant likely won't even be the top pick. That honor goes to Ohio State center Greg Oden, whose size, strength, and polish have become ultra-rare in the modern NBA.

BASEBALL: New York City baseball will soon be au natural. Overriding mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto, the New York City Council voted to outlaw metal bats from local high schools and area little leagues, saying a batted ball comes off of them too quickly and thus creates a health risk. Opponents of the ban announced plans to file for a federal injunction.

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