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Baseball ready to take sports world's spotlight

Baseball ready to take sports world's spotlight

Baseball ready to take sports world's spotlight
Punxsutawney Phil already made the call: Spring is coming soon. At least that was the star of Groundhog Day's unflinching prediction, met with much skepticism by a shivering nation.

Perhaps what Phil should have done was go to the Super Bowl for the sure thing, since he'd know as soon as he emerged from that game -- shadow or no shadow -- that spring is definitely around the corner, bursting with green grass, warm breezes and the soothing sounds of bat against ball with the start of Spring Training.

Now that the Packers have knocked off the Steelers by a 31-25 final at Super Bowl XLV in Arlington on Sunday, the clock flips to 6:00 a.m. to signal the end of the big post-Groundhog Day party, and "I Got You, Babe" floats from the clock-radio -- OK, iPod -- of every baseball fan.

Time to look out the window and see a brand new day -- baseball is right around the corner. Call today groundskeeper's day, if you'd like, as baseball prepares to take the national spotlight.

OK, so it's probably still snowy or cold or not quite spring yet out your window. Give it a few days. You'll be in Arizona or Florida very soon, at least in spirit, right along with the boys of summer.

Already, equipment trucks are headed south -- from Cleveland to Goodyear, Ariz., and from Philadelphia to Clearwater, Fla. -- with the start of Spring Training only a week away. Players, managers, coaches and trainers are all making final preparations to swarm upon all 30 Spring Training sites in sunny climes.

Starting Sunday, the four warmest words of winter become the first words of spring: Pitchers and catchers report.

Maybe Punxsutawney Phil had the first word when he had his say on Gobbler's Knob and presumably returned to his burrow -- he probably had a sweet setup down there to watch his Steelers on the flatscreen. Either way, the passing of the sports baton is nigh.

Phil didn't quite get his way. The Steelers put up a game fight against Green Bay in a back-and-forth first three quarters and scored a late touchdown, adding a two-point conversion to cut the Packers' lead to 28-25, but they wouldn't get closer.

Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers converted a huge third-down play to wide receiver Greg Jennings, leading to a field goal with just over two minutes left. The Green Bay defense held Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense one last time to seal the deal and turn the keys over from the gridiron to the Grand Old Game.

How fitting that all these memories took place in Cowboys Stadium, which is right down the street from where Tim Lincecum was lifted on his teammates' shoulders at the end of the Giants' triumph at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the defining image signaling the end of the 2010 Major League season.

And, perhaps just as fitting, the Rangers are riding high following a remarkable run through the postseason -- unlike their often-celebrated gridiron neighbors -- and they're poised to make another run with third baseman Adrian Beltre joining an already stacked lineup.

Will the Rangers have what it takes? Will the Giants once again paint the corners of October orange with those remarkable, young arms holding the brushes? Or will anyone get past the Phillies now that they have Cliff Lee for a fearsome foursome? And what about the Red Sox, flush with talent after picking up Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez -- are they in line for a third World Series title in eight years after 86 years without?

Hey, where's that little rodent when you need him? Phil, a little help here! Got some predictions for you to make.

Ah, baseball doesn't need a groundhog. It's got the grounds crew and ground balls already. Heck, a White Rat is in the Hall of Fame. We're good on rodents, Phil.

All baseball needs is for that clock to hit 6:00 a.m. with the end of the Super Bowl to bring on a new day. All baseball needs is for time to keep rolling into Spring Training toward a first-ever midweek Opening Day, through the summer months that made the boys famous, into the September stretch run and through October's parade of passion and tension.

As the clock flips this year, a remarkable season will become history. Yet there is always that sense of familiarity from one year to the next, like you've seen this before, like it's Groundhog Day all over again.

The Year of the Pitcher, in which there were six no-hitters, the most famous near-perfect game ever and shrinking ERAs everywhere, is over now that 2011 is starting -- or did it just start a Decade of the Pitcher?

After all, the Giants aren't the only ones with pitching. There's Felix Hernandez hitting his prime and defending his American League Cy Young Award, National League winner Roy Halladay getting more help than he could imagine with Lee joining an already stellar Phillies rotation, the Brewers upgrading their chances in the NL Central with the arrival of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and an A's staff that quietly led the AL in ERA last year bolstering its bullpen. Pitching will tell the tale again in 2011 -- that much is evident.

The Great Manager-Go-Round of 2010 might have stopped spinning, but its results are forthcoming. Historic change brings 12 skippers into this Spring Training that weren't at their team's helm a year ago. We'll see new leadership with John Farrell in Toronto and Ron Roenicke in Milwaukee. We'll see the continuation of managerial stints started last year by Buck Showalter in Baltimore and Kirk Gibson in Arizona. We'll see how the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez and the Dodgers' Don Mattingly each fare stepping into a legend's shoes.

And now that the 2011 baseball season is officially on deck, it's time to shift from imagining the possibilities to examining the results of an offseason of change.

A lot of eyes will be on the Red Sox, third in the AL East last year but atop the Majors in headline-grabbing moves this winter. They will trot out a beefed-up bullpen when pitchers and catchers report and then have their two new All-Stars join several healed regulars when the full squad arrives.

The Phillies, Brewers and Cubs all made moves this winter to improve their starting pitching, while the Giants did not make a solitary change to their Major League-best pitching staff. Still, the Giants are well aware that it took until the final day of the 2010 regular season to win the NL West -- as are their pursuers.

The eight teams that were in the playoffs last year have precisely nothing guaranteed. The 22 teams that weren't ... well, they have their chance again, albeit across a wide range of opportunity.

Hmmm, that does sound familiar. It's like Groundhog Day all over again, and we're all just a stranded weathercaster, waiting to look out the window for a new day -- a day that says spring is around the corner.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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