"Rocky III"'s Clubber Lang was correct in answering "pain" when asked for a pre-fight prediction. Baseball predictions can be painful to sort through, painful to hear and are generally an enormous pain in the neck. Fans look for them, solicit them, overreact to them and, worst of all, horde them like markers later to be claimed at some casino cage of emotional torture and guilt. What is meant to be a harmless exercise somehow gets turned into an angry referendum on imagined media bias or a credibility report card. What fans don't seem to understand is this: Few people dislike predictions more than those who are expected to make them.
I write this as the author of perhaps the worst prediction in recorded history. Yes, I tabbed the Astros to win the NL Central last season, a pick that became to predictions what Disco Demolition Night was to ballpark promotional events. Yeah, I got blown up like a stack of KC & the Sunshine Band records. I wasn't nuts. Actually, I was trying to be a standup guy but like Disco Demolition Night, it blew up in my face. I had written a piece for this website in September of 2010 and felt obligated to remain consistent six months later despite the realization that a moment of bold optimism had deteriorated into a sinking ship. I naively thought, "Well what the heck, it's just a harmless predictions list anyway, right?" BOOM!!!! Here's a link.
In every season since 1995 at least one team that finished with a losing record has made the playoffs the following season, with the lone exception being 2005. You can reserve a bit of fun for yourself and try and nail that long-shot pick or you can treat your annual predictions like the SATs. Either approach is fine and in my book the best landing spot is likely somewhere in between. Yet when the predictions come out fans go after them with the grim determination of Clarence Beeks trying to swipe the crop report on oranges in "Trading Places." I've had discussions with many experts in recent weeks about this and discovered one common complaint: Why do fans take these preseason predictions soooooooo seriously?
"Baseball is the greatest game in the world and anybody who actually thinks he knows what's going to happen before the season starts is delusional," said ESPN's Tim Kurkjian. Kurkjian just spent six sweeks on the road and visited the spring training camps of all 30 teams, meaning he was in camp each day -- all day long -- talking to players, coaches, managers and beat writers. Based on that, he should be the most qualified man in America to make 2012 postseason predictions. Yet Kurkjian admitted these picks are nothing more than pure guesswork.
"When people come to you and say, 'Gosh you got your predictions wrong this year,' listen, I've never apologized for that because when these so-called experts get all of our predictions wrong it speaks again to how great the game is that we didn't have it right," he said. "Nobody has it right and nobody ever gets it right completely. That's why I dislike predictions because people think you're an idiot when you get it wrong but you're not an idiot. It just shows you how great the game is when you get it wrong."
The difficulty in predicting 2012 postseason teams is clear: There are divisions in which teams could finish anywhere from first to fourth. You can make a legitimate case for three different teams to win the AL East. There are four teams expected to contend for the NL East, at least three in the NL Central and if you don't think the AL West is essentially a coin flip between the Rangers and Angels then maybe you're the one who doesn't get it.
It's impossible to know yet whether the Rays will hit enough to outdistance the Red Sox and Yankees or if the Phillies can limp through the first few months of the season without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Will Buster Posey recover and lead the Giants? Did the Cardinals do enough to replace Albert Pujols? Tell me Miami will win 93 games this season and I'll believe you. You could also make a convincing case that the Marlins will win just 72 games again.
Here's the critical part and file it under that "It's not the destination but the journey" concept. This abstract presence of the unfolding baseball season -- the realization that the end result is for now hidden but will gradually reveal itself only in brief but glorious flashes over the course of the next seven months -- is this beautiful game's most graceful commodity. It's the sport that is measured not by a clock but a calendar in our drive-thru, RedZone channel culture and nothing in sports beats it ... nothing. "We actually know what's going to happen in the NBA before it starts," Kurkjian said. "The Bulls, the Heat, they're going to play in the finals in that conference. We never know in baseball."
That's exactly it. Nobody knows and a prediction should never be construed as a claim to know. I talk to players, ex-players, writers, broadcasters and columnists, all bright colleagues for whom I have enormous respect and when I ask, "Who you picking for this division?" I get different answers from all of them, as you'll see with today's annual predictions list release. Here on April 4, there really are almost no wrong answers. Except, maybe the Astros.
Steve Berthiaume hosts Baseball Tonight on ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.