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Waiting ends as the games begin

Waiting ends as the games begin

After watching a different team win every World Series in this decade, after watching the last two champions end a collective 174 years of drought, after watching Johnny Damon cut his hair and leave Boston for the rival Yankees, these probably are the three words said the most by millions of fans:

"I can't wait."

The wait is finally over. The White Sox and Indians formally opened the 2006 Major League Baseball season Sunday night in Chicago, and now it is time for the rollout of Opening Day everywhere else. A record 74 million fans went to the park in 2005, and even more are expected this season. Here are some of the things we can't wait to see:

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Will the Braves extend their pro-sports record of consecutive division titles to 15 years, or is this the year that a power-packed club like the Mets finally steps in? Will the Yankees and Red Sox finish 1-2 atop the AL East for the ninth consecutive year, or might they reverse the order or see a team like Toronto change things? Many people are waiting to see if major acquisitions such as A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan will put the Blue Jays back into their first postseason since they repeated as champs in 1993.

"I think they all know the expectations," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "The last few years that I've been here, you came in just hoping you would improve on the previous year. This year, we made some key additions, and you add that to what we did last year, and there's some optimism."

Optimism always reigns supreme this time of year in Cincinnati, which greeted its first Opening Day in 1876. There was no parade, no hoopla, no sold-out crowd. On Monday, Reds fans celebrate the traditional opener with the usual downtown parade, and there will be something completely different for this opener against the Cubs. For the first time in all of that glorious history as the traditional opener, a sitting president will throw out the first pitch. It's Aaron Harang vs. Carlos Zambrano, with the first pitch thrown by George W. Bush.

It marks the beginning of what Cubs fans hope will be their turn in the new Major League Baseball trend. The Red Sox won in 2004 for the first time in 86 years, and then the White Sox won for the first time in 88 years. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and last reached the Fall Classic in 1945. Is it their turn?

"I told my wife that before I signed here," new Cubs reliever Scott Eyre said. "It's been 80-some years for the Red Sox, they won. It's been 80-some years for the White Sox and they won. It's been what, 98 for us? I'm a baseball history guy. Usually things go in patterns."

Back yet again with the Cubs is Greg Maddux, ready to push his Hall of Fame numbers even further beyond 300 wins. It all started 20 years ago with the same Cubs, and now he is 318-189 with a 3.01 career ERA. The only active pitcher with more wins could be a month away from returning for a chance at his 342nd career win. Roger Clemens is eligible to re-sign with Houston on May 1, and has given no indication yet whether he will do that, or sign with another team ... or retire at age 43. Most people around the game seem to be banking on the first of those scenarios, but it's just a guess on this Opening Day.

Something old and something new
An improving Brewers club has brought back the friendly ball-in-the-glove logo, evoking memories of its 1982 World Series team. But Busch Stadium will not remind you of the place in 1982 where the Cardinals won that Game 7 against the Brewers, because when those two clubs meet in the first game at this Busch Stadium in a week, it will be at a brand-new facility in downtown St. Louis.

It is the latest example in a streak of seasons with new parks (that will end in 2007), and as with all the recently opened parks, it will be interesting to watch what "playing personality" new Busch takes on. The Phillies' new park emerged last year as a power park for hitters, San Diego's park has been more favorable to pitchers, and the only real question with Busch is whether it will be just another comfort zone for Albert Pujols. The Cards' first baseman enters 2006 as the only player in Major League history to hit at least 30 homers in each of his first five seasons, and he comes into Year 6 with an amazing .332 career average to go with 201 longballs and 621 RBIs.

Who's hot? Jimmy Rollins. Never before has a Major League season started with the focus on a hitting streak that is worth mentioning the great Joe DiMaggio. Rollins carries over a 36-game streak from 2005, and this year marks the 65th anniversary of DiMaggio's record 56-game streak. Sixty-five years is a natural time for retirement, but retiring that "unbreakable" record will require some amazing offense right out of the gate -- extremely rare when pitchers usually are ahead of hitters coming out of Spring Training. But the Phillies' shortstop will be front and center as Tommy Holmes of the 1945 Boston Braves is next up on his list with a 37-game streak, and the first chance is Monday at home against the Cardinals.

"That's one heck of a long hitting streak," Rollins said of DiMaggio's run. "When I looked back after the season, it was like, 'Wow, that's 36 days of working to be successful, but he did it for 20 more games.' It's almost unimaginable that someone can even hit in that many games straight, but here I am across the halfway point. This is when it gets tough."

It will be tough for Jim Leyland to do for Detroit what he did for Pittsburgh (reached NLCS) and Florida (won World Series), but Tigers fans can't wait to see whether he can rekindle the magic after some rough years. Their season begins with a rather unusual phenomenon. One year after Jeremy Bonderman became the youngest Opening Day starter in Tigers history, 41-year-old Kenny Rogers now becomes the oldest when he starts their opener at Kansas City.

There are other new Opening Day managers for 2006: Jim Tracy of the Pirates, Grady Little of the Dodgers, Sam Perlozzo of the Orioles, Joe Maddon of the Devil Rays, Joe Girardi of the Marlins, and Jerry Narron of the Reds. Of all those managers, some of whom had interim roles last season, there is one who is generally given the best chance to lead a contender: Little. He has the benefit of such additions as Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton, Bill Mueller and Rafael Furcal, hoping to put the Dodgers back into a postseason that they enjoyed in 2004.

How amazing would it be to see Little managing against the Red Sox in the World Series? Hey, anything's possible these days. Red Sox fans probably can't wait to see how Little does now that he is back from the post-Boston hinterlands, but they are even more curious to see what it will be like when Damon comes back to Fenway for the first time as a Yankee on May 1.

How will Alfonso Soriano do in left field for the Nationals? He was acquired in a deal that sent Brad Wilkerson to Texas, but had to reluctantly accept the switch to left because of Jose Vidro's presence at second. Will it last? Washington captured the imagination of fans everywhere last season in their first year since moving from Montreal, and it will be interesting to see if Frank Robinson's club can make it last longer in 2006.

As usual, there are a lot of health questions. Scott Rolen of the Cardinals, Keith Foulke of the Red Sox, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers and Frank Thomas of the A's are just four big names who could have big impact if they come back healthy.

History await beside the Bay
One of the obvious 2006 stories already being followed is Barry Bonds. Lost in all of the swirling conversation about a steroids investigation is the fact that he had a good spring, and he opens the season against Padres starter Jake Peavy. Bonds enters the season with 708 career homers, so he needs seven to pass Babe Ruth for No. 2 on the all-time list, and then Hank Aaron would loom ahead with 755. Will Bonds be challenged in 2006 or will pitchers continue to throw around him?

"To me, he's the best hitter ever in baseball," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "If you want to get it done, throw six balls right down the middle of the plate and let him hit six home runs. Then do whatever you're going to do. He will beat Hank's record. If he doesn't, I will be very disappointed. I think it will be great for baseball."

Maybe this is the year that the Giants win it all for the first time since moving to the West Coast; they last won the World Series in 1954 behind Willie Mays' great catch against Cleveland. Maybe this is the year that the Indians not only get over the hump in the AL Central but also win their first world championship since 1948. Maybe those Astros not only get a World Series but finally get that first title, and maybe the state's other team with stars like Mark Teixeira and Michael Young finally wins its first playoff series.

We can't wait for a rematch of the White Sox and Astros, who gave everyone four terrific games in the last World Series. Of course, they were all won by Chicago. They meet June 23-25 at U.S. Cellular Field, one of the highlights of an Interleague Play stretch that has become a monstrous attraction on the MLB schedule.

Those who were mesmerized by the ability of a Japan team that just won the inaugural World Baseball Classic probably are going to be very interested to see how Kenji Johjima does as the new catcher for the Mariners. It also will be interesting to see if Adrian Beltre can do for Seattle this year what he did for the Dominican Republic last month (four homers) in the Classic. Throw in a full season for phenom Felix Hernandez, and maybe Seattle will be this year's team to come from out of nowhere and make late noise.

We can't wait to see if Josh Beckett can pitch at least 200 innings for the first time; if Oakland can get back to the playoffs and perhaps to a first title since 1989; who got the better of that Jim Thome-Aaron Rowand trade; if Washington's Ryan Zimmerman can go from being drafted last June to All-Star consideration this summer; and if offseason moves like the acquisition of Sean Casey will mean Pittsburgh has even more excitement than bringing an All-Star Game to town.

The unpredictability of modern Major League Baseball is one of the reasons this particular regular season is greeted with such phenomenal anticipation. Perhaps the White Sox will repeat, and perhaps a completely overhauled Marlins club will "shock the world" the way it did just three years ago.

Now, at last, the questions can begin to be answered, and before you know it the All-Star ballot will show up.

Welcome to Baseball 2006. It's back at last.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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