Surprisingly not surprised

Major League Baseball faced a tough offseason this past winter.

After 2005, in which some of its biggest names were dragged though the mud in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative center (BALCO, to most), MLB had to wonder how its image would appear in the public eye.

In the first month of the first full year of heightened awareness about steroids and their prominence in the game of baseball, nobody really knew what to expect. Would home runs be down? After the BALCO investigation during the 2005 season, the final numbers showed home run totals were the lowest they’d been since 1997. With the 50-game-100-game-lifetime ban rule in effect, the trend was almost expected to continue.

The jury is still out on whether the steroid policy will affect home runs. However, the efforts of some sluggers have kept balls flying out of parks across the nation.

The Cincinnati Reds, led by a Mack truck named Adam Dunn, have already belted 33 home runs. Right behind them are the upstart Detroit Tigers with 31 so far in the young season.

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    But even with questions abound, the Tigers are really what the first month is all about: surprises. Sitting at 12-7, they’re not out to break any world records, but they’ve taken the baseball world by storm, going an impressive 10-2 away from their own yard.

    And the guy at the head of about every offensive category is Chris Shelton. Anybody who said they expected Shelton to hit seven home runs in the Tigers’ first nine games would be lying. The man with 28 career home runs to his name has carried the Tigers to their hot start, and while he’s cooled off from his torrid pace, he’s still among the American League leaders in home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage.

    Fast starts, some surprising and some not, is the name of the game in the first month.

    First, the not-so-surprising starts. Reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols leads everyone with 11 home runs, on pace to hit 99 for the season. Jim Thome is projected to hit 81 for the White Sox. Both would be new records, and both are highly unlikely to actually happen but it’s fun to dream while we can.

    The surprising, though, is a lot more prominent after the first few weeks. And what’s more surprising than two Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the top of the RBI leaderboard? Probably nothing. Jonny Gomes and ex-Met and Pirate Ty Wiggington both have 20 RBI’s to lead the American League. The Devil Rays, even with their two big hitters, are still in last place in the AL East. Surprises can only go so far.

    Another surprise is the emergence of yet another dominant aging pitcher this season. Greg Maddux, who turned 4,000 on April 14, is 4-0 with an ERA below 1.00 in April. Maddux’s last Cy Young Award was in 1995, but the veteran pitcher has the numbers of a man on a mission to win another this season. Last year, Roger Clemens blew away the competition consistently at 42.

    As a whole, opposing pitchers have done their part to surprise baseball fans by holding Barry Bonds down in the early going. Analysts everywhere were predicting nightly when Bonds would hit his first home run of the year. It finally came over the weekend in Colorado, but the homer is his only one so far. Coupled with a .229 batting average and two RBI’s, Bonds is in a full-blown slump.

    But a team full of surprises is the biggest story. The Mets, who have underachieved and haven’t finished higher than third in the NL East since 2000, are on fire in the early part of the season. New acquisitions Carlos Delgado, Xavier Nady and Billy Wagner, along with a locked-in Pedro Martinez and a young-looking Tom Glavine, the Mets finally look ready to overtake the Braves as the beasts of the East.

    It’s a party in New York. And the best parties, as everyone knows, are surprise parties.

    Nathan Grimm is a sophomore in ALS. He can be reached at [email protected].