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Baseball: Some good and bad as baseball heads to break

By Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press
To juice up baseball’s midseason classic next Tuesday all living former presidents will pay homage to the game in a video, and the current president will throw out the opening pitch in St. Louis.
Ratings might be better if they simply played Michael Jackson tribute videos between innings, but the presidents were already booked. You can’t move them to the Home Run Derby the night before, because even they must know that has become unwatchable.
The All-Star game isn’t what it once was either, despite Bud Selig’s effort to make sure it really counts. Yes, home field advantage in the World Series is at stake, but interleague play has taken all the mystery and much of the fun out of the game.
It does, however, signal the traditional middle of what up to now has been an intriguing season ó though not always for the right reasons. Although there’s another half season yet to be played, it’s a good time to look back and find some winners and losers as baseball prepares to take its annual break.
A few highlights, beginning with winners:
– Baseball itself. Faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression the game has managed to survive, if not exactly flourish. Attendance is down in 20 out of 30 markets, but aggressive promotions and pricing have helped trim losses. On an average night nearly a half million people manage to find their way to a major league ballpark to enjoy a game. Despite the aberrations in New York, owners seem to have figured out they need to compete for a shrinking pile of money Americans have set aside for entertainment, something that bodes well for the game in the future.
– Juicers. Yes, Alex Rodriguez was forced to admit to things he didn’t want to admit to. Yes, Manny Ramirez lost more than $7 million for his enforced summer vacation. But the welcome back both superstars got from steroid-weary fans speaks volumes, and there are still 100 or so players who tested positive in 2003 whose names remain secret.
– The Los Angeles Dodgers. They’re the biggest winner on the field so far. Not only did they get through the Ramirez suspension intact, they are probably going to be a better team because of it. The idea of Joe Torre possibly managing in a World Series against the Yankees in New York makes the second half of their season even more tantalizing.
– Albert Pujols. He was already regarded as one of the best in the game. Now we have to start wondering if he is one of the best ever. Entering the All-Star break, Pujols is leading the National League in home runs and RBI and is tied for second in batting average, giving him a legitimate chance to become the first triple crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski did it 42 years ago. Too bad it has to happen in the steroid era, where the accomplishments of every player automatically fall under suspicion.
And some losers:
v- New Yorkers. The new stadium in the Bronx is a bandbox, and the padded $2,500 seats behind home plate an affront to all Americans still lucky enough to be drawing a paycheck. The jury’s still out, meanwhile, on the $243 million given to CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and Yankee fans aren’t going to tolerate A-Rod hitting .246 forever. The Yankees have played well lately, though, unlike the hapless Mets, who seem determined to celebrate the past in their new ballpark by posing as members of the bumbling 1962 team that lost 120 games.
– Juan Pierre. He started in the Dodger outfield before Ramirez arrived and was the best everyday player on the team when he was gone. His reward was a trip back to the bench. His only consolation is that baseball contracts are guaranteed, and he’s making $9 million a year.
– Toronto Blue Jays. Right now they have a winning record and the best pitcher in the American League. Soon they may have neither. Trapped in a division they can’t win, they’re open to offers for Roy Halladay, while fans are showing their displeasure by staying away in large numbers.
– Chicago Cubs. Throwing a lot of money at Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano couldn’t get the team past the first round of the playoffs; now, the Cubs are a mediocre team hamstrung by long-term contracts. Things got worse a few days ago when starter Ryan Dempster broke his toe while jumping out of the dugout to celebrate a win and will be out for a month or so. Do the proposed new owners really know what they’re getting into?
Probably not, but neither do we. Good or bad, baseball has been throwing us curves for a long time now.
The best news right now is we have another half a season to enjoy it.

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