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Fun in the sun to begin at last

Fun in the sun at last

The aroma of freshly mowed grass, the feel of a warm, soft breeze and the distinctive sound of a baseball slamming into a glove for the first time in several months can mean only one thing: Spring Training.

Say goodbye to winter and hello to the sun and fun that is Florida and Arizona in mid-February.

With the northernmost part of the country buried in snow or chilled to the bone, the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals welcome their pitchers and catchers to a new season today in Tampa and Viera, Fla., respectively, and then work out on Thursday.

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The last team standing at the end of the 2006 season is among the seven teams reporting tomorrow. The World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, led by ace right-hander Chris Carpenter, begin defense of their title in Jupiter, Fla.

Meanwhile, the Florida-based Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies also report on Wednesday, while the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants get the jump on the 12 Arizona-based teams with Thursday workouts.

At the other end of the reporting-for-work spectrum, the Cincinnati Reds and Minnesota Twins will be the last teams to begin organized workouts. Their pitchers and catchers report on Sunday, and the Colorado Rockies are the final team to have a full-squad workout on Feb. 25.

The American League-champion Detroit Tigers open camp in Lakeland, Fla., on Friday with nice-to-see-you-again handshakes, followed by the what could be the first of many PFP (pitchers fielding practice) sessions. Actually, manager Jim Leyland says he'll refrain from talking about the five errors his pitchers made during the World Series.

There are interesting story lines everywhere.

The Cardinals made a few roster changes, including the return of second baseman Adam Kennedy, whom they traded to the Angels for Jim Edmonds seven years ago, but the bulk of a team that turned an 83-win regular season into a surprising World Series title returns. St. Louis will try to become the first team this decade to successfully defend its championship.

The big topic heading into camp is the health of closer Jason Isringhausen. The franchise's all-time saves leader missed the end of last season and all of the postseason with a hip injury, and his status won't be known until he enters the Grapefruit League proving ground.

But World Series hero Adam Wainwright gives manager Tony La Russa some closer insurance.

Cubs' workouts in Mesa, Ariz., always draw large crowds, and the gatherings could be even larger this spring. Always-entertaining manager Lou Piniella returns to the National League after 13 seasons in the American League -- 10 mostly successful years with the Mariners and three frustrating seasons with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Sweet Lou has assured the Cubs faithful that the team will play sound fundamental baseball and use Spring Training to develop a swagger that title-contending teams need. Cubs fans also want to see just what sort of improvements have been made during a $300 million offseason spending spree.

The Boston Red Sox also did some offseason shopping and landed highly touted starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Most Valuable Player of last year's inaugural World Baseball Classic reports to his first MLB camp on Saturday and works out for the first time on Sunday before what is expected to be a plethora of photographers and writers from Japan and the U.S.

Up the road in Tampa, the Yankees have a rebuilt starting rotation. But the big news could come on Feb. 20 when the perennial playoff contenders from the Bronx begin a Spring Training without Bernie Williams on their roster. That hasn't happened since 1990.

Williams has been invited to camp as a non-roster player and offered a Minor League contract.

"I think if they wanted me, they probably would have signed me already," Williams told reporters last week. "The option to go to Spring Training and see what would happen, I don't think at this moment it is something I want to consider."

The distance from the Oakland Athletics' Spring Training complex in Phoenix and the Giants' practice fields in Tempe, Ariz., is about 10 miles. But it might seem like light years apart for left-hander Barry Zito, who begins his first season on the West side of the Bay Bridge.

After seven years, three All-Star Games and one AL Cy Young Award for the A's, Zito inked a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants.

And that's just a few of the storylines that will grab the attention of baseball-starved fans for the next six weeks.

The forecast for Cooperstown, N.Y., on Wednesday calls for snow and a high of 19 degrees. But in a way, it also will be sunny and warm.

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

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