Lucky No. 13? This could be the year
Thirteen is not unlucky anymore.
In fact, baseball players want to be No. 13 these days.
Manny Machado, Starlin Castro, Alex Rodriguez, Brett Lawrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, Alex Avila, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Ackley, Jason Kubel, Drew Pomeranz, Joaquin Arias, Jerry Blevins, Salvador Perez, Chris Denorfia, Matt Carpenter, Jose Constanza and Freddy Galvis are active Major Leaguers who went into the offseason as No. 13 on their respective clubs.
That's 17 Major Leaguers with No. 13 on their roster pages as of right now, and a lot of them impact players. That list does not include Carl Crawford or Zack Greinke. You'll notice on the Dodgers' roster that Crawford's number is not yet assigned, because Ramirez already owns the number Crawford wore with the Rays and Red Sox. Greinke was No. 13 last season with Milwaukee, but because he was just signed as a free agent to play on the same team as Ramirez, he changed to No. 21. Yes, it even has come to this: Competition over the number 13 within the same club, with three guys who might have worn it for a contender.
There was a time when precious few would even think about wearing it. Triskaidekaphobics note that Ralph Branca changed from No. 13 to No. 12 the season after surrendering Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round The World in 1951, before reverting back in 1953.
No Hall of Famers have been No. 13s, although Omar Vizquel, who just retired after 24 seasons, will be a Cooperstown candidate starting in five years, boasting 11 Gold Gloves and 2,877 hits. He and Dave Concepcion make No. 13 a popular choice among current Venezuelan shortstops like Cabrera, and former closer Billy Wagner is among limited No. 13s of note through history.
We've lived in a society that traditionally builds high-rises without a 13 button in elevators, and you can be sure that the next time there is a Friday the 13th, it will be an "angle" to some. But, honestly, it is a sociological vestige that means less and less -- at least around MLB territories.
Ackley wore No. 13 at the University of North Carolina, evidence of preference. Machado pays homage to A-Rod, who chose No. 13 after the Yankees acquired him in 2004, because his familiar No. 3 was retired in honor of a certain George Herman Ruth.
Considering how important superstition remains in baseball -- an institution that always mirrors society -- the fact that no one really sees No. 13 as a dubious distinction in the sport anymore means we can turn the calendar enthusiastically. In fact, it is possible that more fans are fired up about a New Year than ever before. We are lucky.
Think about it.
Stephen Strasburg will have no shutdown count and Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have full years ahead. Los Angeles has dreams of its own World Series with two massively built-up clubs: Josh Hamilton is an Angel and Greinke is a Dodger. The Orioles are after a pennant. The Tigers have Victor Martinez back and they hope Torii Hunter will help them over the title hump. Mariano Rivera expects to be back at Yankee Stadium, and Kevin Youkilis, of all people, would be tossing him the ball after the usual whiparound following a strikeout.
R.A. Dickey and many Marlins are now Blue Jays. Albert Pujols turns 33 this month, and he will join the 500 Home Run Club with just 25 more. The Marlins return to their familiar position of lowered expectations, which is usually when they are most dangerous. Terry Francona is managing again, in Cleveland, and Nick Swisher is among his new talent. Boston has an elite closer again in Joel Hanrahan. His former club in Pittsburgh expects to contend.
Phillies fans see 2012 as an aberration and hope to come back strong, because, hello, they still have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. The Royals have James Shields and Wade Davis in their starting rotation, and the Rays could have another Evan Longoria if Wil Myers meets his huge expectations. Everywhere you look there is the familiar refrain of hope, and even in the seemingly bleakest cases there are so many recent examples to turn to, where unexpected success made preseason prognostications look stupid.
Those new rainbow-hued Houston jerseys are all the rage now as the Astros move to the American League West. After a 107-loss season, it is a new beginning for the Astros in a tough division, where the A's, Angels and Rangers are legit contenders and the Mariners are building. More importantly, in the big picture, 2013 will deliver a balanced schedule, with 15 teams per league, and 19 divisional games per club. The 19 games will be played in six series: three at home and three on the road, and it will mean division races are more balanced and competitive.
Interleague Play is one of the biggest success stories of the modern game, one of the reasons that the eight most-attended seasons in MLB history have been the last eight years. In '13 (yes, it's OK to just say '13), we will see it spread throughout the schedule, with at least one Interleague game each day.
You know what 13 means? It means if the Giants don't win the 109th World Series next fall, we will be at 13 years and running without a repeat champion. In 2012, this became the second-longest repeat drought, passing 1962-73 and 1939-50. The longest such streak was from 1978-93, so if a team other than San Francisco wins it all, we will be just two years away from possibly matching the longest run without a repeat.
The first story of the year is a good time to point out who repeated first. In case you forgot, it was the Cubs of 1907-08. That repeat was so sweet it has been celebrated ever since as the club's last title.
It is unlikely that the long-awaited breakthrough will happen in '13, because the Cubs are coming off a 101-loss season. But it will be interesting to see how the rebuilding project trends under Theo Epstein and Dale Sveum, especially with first baseman Anthony Rizzo playing his first full MLB season. Last year, Rizzo combined for 38 home runs and 110 RBIs in 157 games for the Cubs and Triple-A Iowa.
We're looking forward to a third World Baseball Classic, bigger and better, with Japan hoping to make it 3-for-3 as a 16-team field gets under way in March. We're looking forward to the return of an ESPN Sunday Night opener (teams TBA) and then 12 Opening Day games on Monday, April 1, including the traditional opener in Cincinnati, where Hamilton and the Angels visit.
Hamilton was a center of attention the last time an All-Star Week came to New York in 2008, mesmerizing us with his display in the State Farm Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium (even though Justin Morneau ultimately won). In 2013, the Midsummer Classic comes back to the Big Apple, and you can expect big apples to be a theme with the Mets hosting this one at Citi Field.
The Red Sox will open their season at Yankee Stadium on April 1. The last time they did that, on Opening Day of 2005, the Red Sox had just reversed the Curse of the Bambino. Will there be more perfect games in 2013, after an incomprehensible three in 2012? Will we see the wheels of Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, who stole a pro-ball-record 155 bases last season and then another 10 in the Arizona Fall League?
Soon it will be time to draft fantasy rosters, to watch pitchers and catchers at Spring Training, to fall in love all over again. Yes, it is '13. And we are lucky.