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SportsMonday: Baseball's Back

After a few weeks of soccer, the primary pastime demands attention and this space is ready to give it up (this space also touted the prospect of South America dominating the World Cup, a prospect that blew up like an M80 during last week's quarterfinals - another reason to switch sports).

Baseball is still the only big-time summer game in this country after all. I see little kids running around at soccer camps in Chicago in the June-July heat and I want to grab an organizer and shake him. I don't care that Major League Soccer (still such a misnomer) rolls through most of its season in the summer. In the places where futbol matters most - Europe, primarily - the professional teams start their seasons in the fall, play all through the winter and finally wrap things up in the spring. The only time they take an extended break is during the dog days.

This isn't complicated - when the weather is scorching, does a game featuring athletes running hither-and-yon for 90 minutes make the most sense? Or is it baseball, with its unique combination of standing around in the field for a while followed by sitting around in the dugout, that works best in these conditions?

Of course it is baseball.

(Could one possibly invent a game in which kids get less exercise? No wonder baseball has bounced back of late - it is the perfect game for fat-assed America.)

So let's catch up with some recent baseball developments and then evaluate the latest from the locals.

* Dusty Baker leading the Reds back into contention after years of second-division status certainly should give Cubs fans who believe the solution to everything is firing Lou Piniella plenty of pause.

Though there are still plenty of people in Cincinnati and beyond who think Dusty is a complete incompetent despite the Reds' rise, the fact is he is managing the National League team that is the furthest ahead of expectations so far.

He still may not understand how important on-base percentage is but he is getting a great deal out of his club. And of late the Reds haven't just been competing with the Cardinals atop the NL Central, they've been building a lead.

* By the way, while I was conducting Google searches on the man/manager in the past 24 hours, I came across several rip jobs that continue to blame Dusty, and Dusty alone, for the demise of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. I beg to differ, though I do acknowledge that in hindsight, the manager clearly should have done some things differently.

The beginning of the end for Wood was when he fell in love with the slurve during his record-setting rookie year, despite baseball people continually telling him to stop throwing the pitch.

A slurve is a combination of a curve and a slider that results in the ball breaking down (like a classic curve) and to the side and Wood used the pitch to pile up the strikeouts (including the ludicrous 20 in one game barely a month into his big league career).

But that pitch takes a terrible toll on an arm and sure enough it wasn't long before his elbow broke down.

Prior may have been overworked early in his Cubs career, but there were plenty of reasons to believe he could handle it. He was such a physical specimen, seemingly possessing the perfect 6-foot, 5-inch physique to power through a long and accomplished career.

But after an amazing rookie year, Prior started spiraling downward and never could muster the intestinal fortitude to bounce back. Prior threw a lot of pitches early in his career but so had so many successful pitchers before him.

* Back to Baker's effect on Cubs fans. Four years ago, just about everyone, including me, was certain Dusty had to go.

The little quirks that had seemed charming in his first year, when he just missed leading the Cubs to the World Series, had become seriously aggravating.

And the team was losing as much as it had won three years prior.

But given Baker's successful three-year run in Cincinnati, which has culminated in the fielding of an awfully good bunch of Reds, it would appear the final season wasn't Dusty's fault.

Just as it appears this season isn't primarily, or even secondarily, Lou's fault.

Steve Stone took the biggest shot at the manager yet recently, saying that by not playing Tyler Colvin regularly, Piniella was showing again that he didn't know how to handle young players.

On the flip side, Colvin seems to be doing okay, especially after launching two home runs on Saturday.

* Not a good sign when the only notable element of a Cub victory is the fact that it ended a long, Cutie Cubie Lovable Loser run: Monday's 9-4 win over the Diamondbacks marked the first time in a dozen series that the terrible North Siders had managed to win the first game of a series.

It reminded of last year, when the Cubs were in the running for a playoff spot until August. That was when their lay-down coincided so neatly with a Cardinal surge. For almost a full month St. Louis never lost ground in the standings on even one day, not even a half-game when the Cubs were off and the Cardinals lost (that didn't happen and neither did the easy alternative). It was unbelievably bad baseball and it continues apace in 2010.

* As for the White Sox, well, let's just make note of the fact that no matter how many times people say "It's all about the pitching," it is never all about the pitching.

Of course there has to be defense and of course there has to be hitting.

The Sox managed to scramble to a .500 week last week thanks to numerous strong pitching performances but the hitting wasn't there at least half the time.

During Monday's week-opening victory over the Angels, the bats returned to life, led by Carlos Quentin's two homers. If a team is to put together a true streak like the Sox's Shermanesque march through the National League, it has to have contributions from all facets.

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Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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