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  Thursday, March 26, 2015
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New Generation of Stars (Part 1)
By Paul Noonan

     It comes around every so often in sports.  Eras that you will look back on and ramble on about how they were the ‘glory days.’  You will talk about the stars, the rivalries, the dynasties.  In the eighties hockey saw legends such as Gretzky, Lemieux, Roy, etc. give fans reasons to watch.  In the eighties and nineties, the likes of Jordan, Bird and Magic kept basketball fans on the edge of their seats.  For baseball the late eighties and nineties also saw many legends dominate the scene:  Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan, Clemens, Gwynn, Boggs, just to name a few.  Even football could use a little bit of a boost, believe it or not, as the excitement of the days of Smith, Montana, Elway, Aikman, Rice, etc. are now gone.  Each league has had its share of good years since.  For baseball the home run chase of ’99 had fans watching non- stop.  The ’94 New York Rangers put hockey in the spotlight in the Big Apple for the first time since the seventies.  Basketball has been able to stay in the mix with the Lakers and Kobe Bryant.  Football has had many, but this past year’s dull Super Bowl was a sign of some needed energy.  Now, the lull is over.  Some big name veteran stars are still gracing these sports, Favre, Curtis Martin, Kobe, Shaq, Clemens, Thome, Brodeur, Jagr, so on and so on, but it is the new crops of talent that are rejuvenating them all.  In this first part, I will take a look at baseball, and the new blood that is driving the sport back to respectability.

     It’s over, put it in the past.  Sure some players will still try to pull it off, but in general steroids are a thing of the past, and it’s a good thing because nothing should taint the new stars of baseball.  No longer will a veteran laden New York Yankees win year after year.  The field looks like it is leveling out.  It’s not because the big spenders stopped spending because they still are, but it is because those big spenders aren’t getting players in their prime any more.  They are getting thirty somethings who are oft injured and wearing down.  Their time has past.  A few are still effective enough that they are worth keeping around, but a lot are near the end of the rope.  It is time for some newbies to shine.  You need look no farther than the Detroit Tigers.  There years of misery threatened this great franchise, but instead of panicking they stayed patient and it has paid off.  If this year is a preview, the Tigers’ rotation could bring comparisons to that of the Braves in the mid- 90’s.  Young hurlers Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Zach Miner were worth the wait and have paid big dividends for the surprise Tigers this season.  Reliever Joel Zumaya is also a big reason for their success.  While division rival Minnesota dug itself a deep hole early, their young talent could make the AL Central scene more interesting in the future, and the Tigers and Twins may soon resemble the Sox and Yankees as they battle for the division title every year.  With a new stadium in there future as well, things are looking great for the Twins, if they keep all their talent.  This new group could make the Kirby Puckett lead teams look like amateurs.  Stud catcher Joe Mauer is leading the batting race and could possibly challenge .400.  First baseman Justin Morneau may be the new Jim Thome.  He’s certainly keeping up with his fellow AL Central slugger this season.  Johan Santana used to be the most feared lefty in the game, but now his own teammate, Fransisco Liriano is taking the title.  Liriano’s stuff is electric, and his numbers back it up.  Even though he was only made a starter a month or so into the season, Liriano is leading all starters in ERA, quickly climbing the strike out charts and also has one of the best records.  In Boston, Jonathan Papelbon is bringing hopes of the new Clemens.  In Anaheim, Jered Weaver has quietly been a force.  Boston fans know all too well how dominant Tampa Bay’s Scott Kazmir is.  Michael Young and Ian Kinsler of Texas could be one of the best middle infield combos in the league. 

     The American League isn’t the only league smiling at the crystal ball.  The National League is looking to close the gap as well.  While the NL West may not be the example of excitement, there is some quality young talent out there.  San Diego’s Jake Peavy and Chris Young are strong pitchers.  Former Red Sock, Josh Bard has been a force.  Khalil Greene is a quiet, yet effective shortstop.  Arizona has Brandon Webb helping their fans forget about Schilling and Johnson.  Colorado could soon find itself being seen as a World Series threat with young guns such as Matt Holliday, Jason Jennings and Brad Hawpe.  Another former Red Sock, Freddy Sanchez, has blossomed in Pittsburgh along with Jason Bay, Jose Castillo and Jack Wilson.  Pitchers Zach Duke and Mike Gonzalez are also brining hope that football won’t be the only attraction in SteelTown.  The Mets have David Wright and Jose Reyes.  Florida has one- time Sox prospects Anibel Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez making Sox fans realize why they came at such a high price.  The Cardinals replaced Mark McGwire with an even more impressive slugger, Albert Pujols.  While they are struggling, Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer are rays of hope in Atlanta.  Ryan Howard has made Jim Thome a distant memory in Philly.  Prince Fielder is giving Brewers fans some hope of a better future. 

     It is too early for these up-and-comers to erase our memories of the ones who used to dominate in their place, but they are trying.  Baseball needs something to excite fans again after a few years of controversy.  The Red Sox and White Sox World Series runs helped, but since the Cubs probably won’t be continuing the trend this year, baseball is going to need something else to keep it afloat.  These kids are it.  Joe Mauer challenging Ted Williams at the tender age of 23.  Albert Pujols still a potential triple crown threat despite his injury, and even if not this year, he could challenge the home run record, RBI record and triple crown for the next few years.  It’s a bit of a stretch, but Fransisco Liriano could challenge ERA records and possibly strikeout records as soon as next year if he continues his dominant play.  Papelbon/Liriano matches could be the new Clemens/Pedro.  Slugging first basemen Morneau, Fielder, Howard, Pujols, could be as dominant as the days of McGwire, Thome, Bagwell, etc.  Will this be the best era of baseball?  Right now, I’d say no.  There is the potential this era could go down as one of the greatest, but it is still too early to tell.  Either way, as of right now it’s brought much needed excitement and energy to the diamond again.  And even if not the greatest era in baseball, it might go down as the era that saved it.   

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Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon's star is shining brightly.  Above Sox manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein watch closely.