Jon Heyman
Friday May 8th, 2009

Now that Manny Ramirez can no longer be considered that great feel-good story of the poor, goofy kid who rose from Washington Heights, N.Y., to become one of the greatest hitters of all-time, what are the best remaining feel-good stories in the game? Some might suggest Manny was never an honest-to-goodness feel-good story because he forced his way out of Boston with bad behavior, and there's a point to be made there. Yet most folks still looked at Manny as the happy-go-lucky hitting savant, not the conniving fool he was in Boston in early 2008. Anyway, here are the remaining contenders:

1. Zack Greinke, Royals ace. Overcame an anxiety disorder to become one of the better pitchers in baseball. A great kid by all accounts, and the son of schoolteachers from Orlando, Fla. His 6-0 record and 0.40 ERA makes for one of the better starts in AL history. It was a great job by GM Dayton Moore to lock him up this winter. The $38-million, four-year contract seemed high at the time, but now it doesn't. The entire first-place Royals team is a great story.

2. Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners legend. He isn't what he was (that's normal at his age -- 39), but he has excited the fan base and improved the clubhouse in Seattle during its surprising start. He may still be suffering from the effects of a knee injury he kept hidden last year, or he may be feeling his age (2, 5, .214). It didn't work out in his hometown of Cincinnati. But he's beloved in the Pacific Northwest.

3. Cito Gaston, Blue Jays manager. He was wisely brought back last year after an absurd 10-year absence, and the difference in the Blue Jays was stark from the start. It's nice that he's back in business, leading the injury-ravaged Blue Jays to first place in baseball's best division, the American League East.

4. Johan Santana, Mets ace. A Rule V pick by Minnesota who became arguably the best pitcher in the game. Remarkably he's won 4-of-5 decisions as the Mets have scored a pathetic 13 runs in his six starts. His ERA of 0.91 would be unbelievable if Greinke's wasn't half that.

5. Yankees. Well, it's a feel-good story for Yankee haters, anyway. They cut their highest ticket prices ($2,625) in half but fans are still expecting (but not getting) a top-notch team, even at the discounted $1,250 price.

6. Jon Lester, Red Sox pitcher. The story of overcoming lymphoma is rarely told anymore since he appears fully recovered, but this nice young man has come back to be one of the better pitchers in baseball after suffering the life-threatening illness.

7. Joe Mauer, Twins catcher. Mauer, a tremendous talent, went deep in his first swing back. Why do I still think the Twins are going to rally and take the AL Central?

8. Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, Nos. 3 and 4 hitters for the Rays. Longoria (10, 38, .368) looks like the next big hitting superstar, the kind of player who can field third base like a Gold Glover and hit balls out with the flick of a wrist. Pena (13, 30, .266) was seemingly released by half the American League (it was actually just Detroit, Boston and the Yankees) before finding a home in Tampa. He's having his third straight great season since his career was hanging by a thread.

9. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox second baseman. This guy is small, and I mean small. He's listed as 5-foot-9, and even that seems like a stretch. Yet, he has already been Rookie of the Year, a world champion and MVP (he even beat David Ortiz to that award). He's a real gym rat who just lives and breathes the game. His average is up to .316 from .179 on April 15.

10. Tigers. In perhaps the city and state hardest hit by economic woes, there was a fear that the Tigers would get off to another rough start; instead they have played to their talent level. They look like a threat again in the AL Central.

11. Josh Hamilton, Rangers slugger. If he can only get healthy, we can all enjoy the greatest talent in the game. How he kept all his talent after four years away being a drug addict nobody will probably ever know. His home-run display at the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium was truly remarkable. Just being alive and a contributing member of society was something unforeseen at his lowest moments.

12. Brew Crew. It's nice to see baseball alive and well in Milwaukee. After a rough start, this looks to be their first stretch of three straight winning seasons since 1978-80. Their young nucleus of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks is talented and fun. New owner Mark Attanasio also has shown that he's willing to spend if they're close, as he did last year when GM Doug Melvin acquired CC Sabathia from Cleveland.

13. Chase Utley, David Wright, Ryan Howard, Sabathia and Braun, young stars. They are among the fine young players who have been tested since they broke in to the pros (testing started in the minor leagues). While we're long past the point of declaring anyone clean, the testing that these stars have undergone from the start gives one some faith.

14. Vin Scully, legendary Dodgers announcer. Still the best in the business after all these years (he's listed as 82 on Wikipedia, looks 52 and has been around 60 years). He looks almost as young as ever and remains at the top of his game. Never figured out how he learned every fact and nugget about everyone who's currently playing in the game. He's the real face of the Dodgers -- not Manny.

I like the non-conventional choice of front-office standout A.J. Hinch to manage the Diamondbacks after their rather uninspiring 12-17 beginning followed a 62-72 finish last year. The fired Bob Melvin had some very good years in Arizona (a 26-game improvement in 2005 and an NLCS appearance in 2007) but his message was starting to get lost on his young team.

Diamondbacks people felt their team looked flat and that they should be hitting better; they also wondered why prospects Carlos Quentin and Emilio Bonifacio performed better when they left. Quentin especially improved, was looking like the MVP last year until he broke his hand in a temper tantrum.

The move is the first big one in the regime of new team chairman Derrick Hall, who replaced Jeff Moorad, but the decision was made by GM Josh Byrnes. Hinch, a Stanford man and, like Melvin, a former big-league catcher, always impressed Byrnes. Hinch helped develop all the D-backs fine young players, including Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Quentin.

The Diamondbacks are better than this, and they see an opening with the Manny Fiasco in Los Angeles, so they wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.

• One more positive. At least MLB treats stars like average players. So at least those folks can be trusted. MLB easily could have looked the other way but instead dug into Ramirez's records to find the truth.

• One good thing for Ramirez is that by not challenging the penalty he'll be back for the pennant drive (and the salary drive). He has lost $7 million-plus already, and presumably he'll be somewhat tainted as a free agent. But there's always someone desperate for a big-time hitter.

• The natives are getting restless in New York, but the Yankees have two things going for them: 1) they get Alex Rodriguez back tonight in Baltimore, and 2) they're in Baltimore, which at least isn't New York. But while fans were chanting "We Want Torre,'' in their new stadium -- absolutely the last thing Yankees officials want to hear now -- Joe Girardi appears safe for now. As does highly regarded pitching coach Dave Eiland despite the struggles of the rotation and bullpen. "He's terrific,'' GM Brian Cashman said of Eiland.

• A-Rod's last words to me (said on his press conference day), "Are you the only [writer] who still likes me?''

Joba Chamerblain's rough first innings are what's justifying keeping him in the rotation as the Yankees' bullpen falls apart. That, plus the fact that they need him in the rotation now.

• Meanwhile, fans are laying off the Mets as their play has improved and they beat the nemesis Phillies two straight days. Santana still isn't getting much support but a rainout at least has him facing non-aces now (little good it did him against the Phillies' No. 5 man, Chan Ho Park).

• It was a bad day for all the writers from the Japanese papers (the shimbuns) who came to tail Mets reliever Ken Takahaski (and yes, there are quite a few of them -- apparently Takahashi, now 40, was quite a star in Japan), when his start on Friday night was canceled for top Mets prospect Jon Niese, who has a great curveball and great potential.

• What the heck's going on with Lance Berkman, who's down to .184 after an 0-for-5 game Thursday (including four strikeouts). Astros owner Drayton McLane is unlikely to deal either of his big stars -- Berkman or Roy Oswalt -- considering his personal feelings for them, plus the Astros' recent history of strong finishes.

• More likely to be traded would be Indians ace Cliff Lee, who didn't get an offer this winter off a 22-3 season and Cy Young Award and has a reasonable $8 million option for 2010. His trade value should be fairly high even in a depressed market.

• Dolphin Stadium gets its fifth name since 1987 when it is renamed Landshark Stadium, which I'm told is a beer. Hopefully, this name won't last long, either.

• Condolences to the family of Dom DiMaggio, a real gentleman and a nice man.

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