- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The most controversial figure in the game approaching the greatest record in the history of sports. A Japanese star arriving in America and taking New England by storm. The seemingly never-ending steroids saga.

This is what the 2007 major-league season will be about, and this is what fans are talking about on the eve of Opening Day. Here, then, are the top 10 stories of the upcoming season …

1. Bonds goes for 756

We should just retire the top billing every year in this feature to Barry Bonds, who always is the biggest story in baseball. And just when you thought he couldn’t get any bigger (figuratively and literally), Bonds now finds himself on the precipice of history. He has 734 home runs, 21 shy of Hank Aaron’s all-time record.

If Bonds stays healthy (and stays out of trouble with MLB and the feds) he’s going to break the most hallowed record in sports. It appears only to be a matter of when and how. Will he do it in San Francisco in front his home fans (who will surely applaud the feat) or will he do it on the road in front of rabid detractors (who will surely boo the occasion)? And wherever it happens, will Bud Selig be in attendance?

2. Matsuzaka mania

Every year, a new Japanese stud comes to America and takes the sport by storm. And every year, it seems, an even bigger name comes across the Pacific. The latest (and biggest) is Daisuke Matsuzaka, a right-hander who signed with the Boston Red Sox for $52 million. (The Sox also had to pay Matsuzaka’s old Japanese club $51.5 million just to have the right to negotiate with him.)

“Dice-K” arrived at spring training with an entourage of handlers and reporters following his every move, creating a circus in Fort Myers, Fla. But it looks like the hype was legitimate. Matsuzaka pitched incredibly well this spring, and he appears poised to become the ace of a Red Sox staff that already includes Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.

3. Cards’ repeat hopes

No one expected the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series last October, yet manager Tony La Russa’s boys stunned the Detroit Tigers in a mere five games. Now, can the Cards do it again despite having replaced 60 percent of their starting rotation? That seems highly unlikely. Chris Carpenter may be a legitimate ace, but no team with Kip Wells as its No. 2 starter can be considered serious contenders. Still, in a very weak NL Central division, St. Louis figures to be in the hunt. And as we saw last fall, once you’re in, anything can happen.

4. Cubs go for broke

For a team that lost 96 games a year ago, the Chicago Cubs sure drew lot of attention this spring. Maybe that’s because they spent $300 million to revamp the roster with high-priced free agents, headlined by ex-Nat Alfonso Soriano (who got eight years and $136 million).

The spending spree (not to mention the hiring of manager Lou Piniella) has Cubs Nation frothing at the possibilities. But let’s not forget this is a very volatile situation with the potential to come crashing down in awesome fashion. Remember: The only way these guys are ever going to break the curse is with superb pitching. And as long as they’re counting on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood to lead the way, it’ll probably never happen.

5. Battle for the back page

It’s always the story in New York: the Yankees and Mets trying to outdo each other and land the coveted cover of the tabloid sports sections. And after a decade of Yankee dominance, it looks like the Mets are finally the pre-eminent team in the Big Apple.

The Yankees are old, bickering with each other and lagging behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Mets, meanwhile, are younger, are stacked and have a GM (Omar Minaya) who’s willing to do anything to win. There’s a chance only one New York team makes the playoffs this year. The surprise: It could very well be the team from Queens, not the Bronx.

6. The crowded AL Central

A few years ago, this was the worst division in baseball. Now, it’s far and away the best. The Detroit Tigers are the defending AL champs. The Chicago White Sox are two years removed from a World Series title. The Minnesota Twins actually won the division last year. And the Cleveland Indians appear on the verge of becoming serious contenders.

Unfortunately, they can’t all win (and they can’t all play the Kansas City Royals every night) so something’s got to give. Keep a close eye on this division all season, though, because it could provide the most dramatic pennant race in the game.

7. The Unit rides again

Randy Johnson is back in Arizona, determined to prove his disastrous, two-year stint in the Bronx didn’t signal the end of his career. Now 43 years old, the Big Unit hopes to return to his dominant form in the desert, though he’ll open the season on the DL after offseason back surgery.

When he returns, Johnson will find himself in an unusual role: not as the ace of his staff. That honor goes to NL Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb. Johnson will become a secondary figure with the Diamondbacks, not to mention a mentor for the rest of the staff.

8. Is this the year in Philly?

The Philadelphia Phillies have won between 85 and 88 games each of the last four seasons, and each time they came up just short of making the playoffs. That doesn’t exactly sit well with the notoriously fickle fans in the City of Brotherly Love.

This time might be different, though. With the unstoppable Ryan Howard anchoring a stacked lineup and Brett Myers and Cole Hamels anchoring a restocked rotation, the Phillies could be on the verge of something special. They’ll have their work cut out for them in the NL East with the Mets, but if they can keep things together, they might finally get over the hump.

9. Glavine goes for 300

A couple of decades ago, it wasn’t that big a deal when a pitcher approached 300 wins. But in today’s game, it’s a rare treat, and that’s why Tom Glavine’s quest for the pitching milestone deserves our attention.

The crafty left-hander is sitting on 290 wins as the season opens, and on a loaded Mets team, he shouldn’t have much trouble picking up 10 more W’s by midsummer. Savor the moment when Glavine gets there, because you may not see it happen again, if ever. The only other active pitcher within reach is Randy Johnson (280), and the Unit may not make it before retiring.

10. Who gets busted next?

Sadly, our list ends with the subject that has come to define the modern baseball era: performance enhancing drugs. The number of players tied to either steroids or human growth hormone continues to grow, and the list is only going to get longer as more evidence crops up.

One of these days, baseball will have rid itself of drugs, and this will become a thing of the past. But it’s going to take a full generation of clean players coming through the system before that happens. Until then, this story will remain front and center on our minds.

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