Philadelphia, PA – With Prince Fielder no closer to finding a home and no other news in sight, Major League Baseball appears to be officially closed for business until 2012. So, of course, there is no better time than now to reflect on the top stories of the past year.
Without further ado and in no particular order, here are the top stories from the past year:
CARDINALS SURPRISE RUN TO A WORLD SERIES TITLE CAPS LA RUSSA'S CAREER
If you told fans in St. Louis back in the beginning of August that their team would be the ones left standing at the end of the season, they'd probably say you were nuts. The Cards found themselves 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in late August only to go 23-8 down the stretch and secured the wild card spot on the final day of the regular season.
From there they took care of the heavily-favored Phillies in five games to move onto the NLCS, where they upended the NL Central-champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Then it was a date with the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
After falling behind 3-2 in that set, the Cards were down to their last strike twice in Game 6, but rallied for an extra-inning win to force a seventh game. The Cardinals didn't need any late-inning heroics in that one, though, as series MVP David Freese's two-run double in the first inning set the stage for the team's second title in six years.
Few people get the chance to go out as a winner, but Cardinals manager Tony La Russa did just that, as he announced his retirement from the game a mere two days after the franchise celebrated its 11th World Series title in team history.
The 67-year-old skipper goes out as the third winningest manager in major league history with 2,728 victories for the White Sox (1979-1986), Athletics (1986-1995) and Cardinals (1996-present). Only Connie Mack has managed more games than the 5,097 La Russa has skippered.
PUJOLS TAKES THE MONEY AND RUNS TO ANAHEIM
As if losing La Russa wasn't enough for the Cardinals, Albert Pujols shocked the baseball world at the conclusion of the Winter Meetings, as he signed a monster 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that will reportedly pay him between $250-260 million. The lucrative deal ended his 11- year run in St. Louis that saw him win three NL MVPs and two World Series titles.
The Angels had been lurking all along in the process, but most assumed that it was a two-team race between the Miami Marlins and Cardinals. Even more felt it was a fait accompli that he would return to St. Louis when Miami refused to give him a no-trade clause through the first five years.
But some people were skeptical of the reports that the Cardinals had, in fact, gone to 10 years. And let's be honest -- if they had, what was all the fuss? If that were the case, the deal should have been locked up a couple of days ago.
Give the Angels credit. They missed out on almost everyone last winter. They weren't going to let that happen again, and made another big move by signing pitcher C.J. Wilson to a deal worth a reported $77.5 million over five years.
As for Pujols? Well, his legacy takes a hit. You always think more of players who stay in one place rather than those who move on, especially those who do it for money. Plus, St. Louis is one of those special franchises where it just means more to stay there your whole career.
He'll never be mentioned alongside Stan Musial again, that's for sure.
You knew coming into the season that New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's run to 3,000 hits was going to get a lot of play. HBO announced along the way that it would be putting out a documentary entailing the Yankee captain's pursuit and that was just the tip of the iceberg of endless coverage that was actually delayed when the 37-year-old was sidelined with a calf injury six hits shy.
Jeter, though, delivered as only he can on July 9, as he became the first Yankee to reach the milestone and did so in grand fashion, with a home run, of course. His big day was part of a five-hit performance that also saw him come up with the go-ahead RBI single in the eighth.
Needless to say when Jim Thome belted career home run No. 600, a club far more exclusive than the one Jeter joined, HBO was nowhere to be found.
JUSTIN VERLANDER'S INCREDIBLE SEASON
One of the more interesting debates late in the season was whether or not a pitcher should win a Most Valuable Player Award. The question was answered on November 21 when Detroit ace Justin Verlander became the first hurler to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1992.
Verlander was sensational this season for the Tigers. as he became the 12th hurler in the last 50 years to win pitching's Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250). He was the first AL pitcher to accomplish the feat since Johan Santana in '06 and the first Tigers hurler to do it since Hal Newhouser in 1945.
The 28-year-old flamethrower's 24 wins were the most in the league since Bob Welch won 27 for the 1990 Athletics. He also led AL pitchers with 251 innings, a .192 opposing batting average and a 0.92 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) ratio.
He pitched more than seven innings 19 times on the year, a stat that 12 teams did not reach.
Verlander, who won his final 12 decisions and was 14-1 within the American League Central for the division champion Tigers, also tossed a no-hitter and came close on several other occasions.
RYAN BRAUN TESTS POSITIVE FOR PED
The National League's MVP went to a position player, but just weeks after Milwaukee's Ryan Braun was named, he delivered yet another black eye to baseball with regards to performance enhancing drugs.
Braun, who could face a 50-game ban next season, apparently had some obscene amounts of testosterone in his system according to a test taken during the playoffs. Recent reports have stated that the high levels may be attributed to some sort of medication.
While a second test requested by Braun supposedly turned up negative, there has never been an MLB player who has ever successfully appealed a drug test.
Braun, the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year, led the league this past season with a .994 OPS and .597 slugging percentage and finished second with a .332 batting average, 336 total bases and 109 runs scored. He also finished fourth with 111 RBI and tied for sixth with 33 home runs for the NL Central Brewers.
MARIANO BECOMES ALL-TIME SAVES LEADER
If there was ever any doubt that Mariano Rivera was the greatest closer of all-time he erased it down the stretch when picked up career save No. 602, moving him past Trevor Hoffman for the most in baseball history.
While the record is nice, Rivera didn't need it to be recognized as the best to ever play the position. He's been the best for a long time and you can argue that Rivera is not only the best closer to ever play the game, but he is best player of this generation period.
Understandably it's hard to justify that for a player who appears, for the most part, one inning a night, 60 times a year. But if you can find me a more dominant or important player in this era than Rivera, go right ahead.
The Boston Red Sox were dubbed the best team ever by some publications before the start of the 2011 season. Well when it was all said and done, the Red Sox were nowhere to be found come playoff time thanks to the biggest collapse in baseball history.
Despite getting off to one of the worst starts in team history, the Red Sox were still nine games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays as late as September 2. The team, though, just went into an incredible freefall, and dropped 20 of their final 27 games before ending it all in the ultimate heartbreaker.
The Red Sox collapse was just a stunning turn of events following an offseason that not only saw them land Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, but one that saw them draw comparisons from within their own city to the 1927 Yankees.
For a fan base that had been tortured so many times before finally winning a pair of World Series titles in 2004 and '07, the events were an awful reminder of what had become common place for so long in Boston.
SPEAKING OF THAT BOSTON COLLAPSE ...
Soon after the end of the season the Red Sox announced that they would be parting ways with manager Terry Francona, who some believed may have lost control of the clubhouse with reports circulating that some of his pitchers would routinely drink and eat fried chicken during games.
Francona wasn't the only one leaving, as general manager Theo Epstein bolted to Chicago, as he will try to help the Cubs end their over 100-year drought without a World Series title. His right hand in Boston, Ben Cherington assumed the position of GM for the Red Sox.
Valentine also managed the Texas Rangers for parts of eight seasons (1985-92) and owns a 1,117-1,072 regular season record in the majors.
Valentine's smug attitude rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I'm sure this move isn't sitting well with a few Boston players. But then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing either.
NO LABOR STOPPAGE FOR BASEBALL ANYTIME SOON
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Perhaps Major League Baseball watched what the National Football League went through this summer, or what the National Basketball Association is going through now, or just maybe they learned from their own mistakes from way back in 1994 when they lost a postseason and part of the next season because of a labor dispute.
Either way, kudos to Commissioner Bud Selig and MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner on agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement, a five- year deal that essentially replaces the one that was set to expire on December 11. And they did so in quite an under the radar matter.
The biggest changes in the new agreement will see the Houston Astros move from the National League Central to the American League West, evening the respective leagues at 15 teams for the start of the 2013 season. As a result, interleague play will go on all season -- like every other sport in North America -- rather than just a select portion of the year.
Instant Replay will also be expanded to include fair/foul and "trapped" ball plays. Again another good move; if there is a way to get the play right, then just get the play right.
Perhaps the most significant item in the new deal is the fact that MLB will begin blood testing for human growth hormone, or HGH, as early as this spring. It will make MLB the first major North American sport to blood test unionized players. Baseball has tested minor league players since 2010 because it didn't need the union's consent.
There are also some changes with regards to internationals free agents and draft compensation.