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Baseball springs to life

Baseball springs to life

Spring (Training) has sprung, the bell has rung ... and catchers in selected Arizona and Florida camps are moaning, "That stung!"

Far from the nasty Northeast weather, and even more removed from the rubber-chicken circuit, the men of spring have begun the process of becoming the boys of summer.

Dreams continued the crossover into reality on Wednesday for the seven Major League clubs that joined two others getting the jump on the competition with their official check-in days for pitchers and catchers.

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Checking in and weighing in were the Cubs, Giants, Angels and Mariners in Arizona, while the Florida parade was led by the Orioles, Phillies and Cardinals. The Yankees and Nationals reported on Tuesday.

Buzzwords of the day? "Excited." "Great." "Awesome." "Strong."

Take it from Kerry Wood, whose arm has been through a lot but who's once again in camp, pitching for a role with the Cubs:

"I'm very excited. I feel great, and that's the most exciting thing for me -- coming to Spring Training feeling great. My arm feels as good as it's felt in many years. I don't have any concerns about that. It's exciting to come in healthy, and knowing you can go out and do stuff every day and go out and pitch."

From Mesa, Ariz., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spring clubhouses came alive with the sounds of players greeting old teammates after a winter's separation and welcoming new teammates.

In Tampa, it has been a little of both for the Yankees, who again include Andy Pettitte.

"Man, this is just so comfortable, which it should be," the left-hander said on the first day of the rest of his second life as a Yankee. "It's been great. It hasn't really been strange or awkward at all."

In Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies still include Pat Burrell, who is delighted to have survived a winter of being the subject of trade rumors and analyses.

"That's all behind us," Burrell said, with Bright House Networks Field grass stains on his shoes. "Obviously, that's part of the game, and you have to be able to handle it and move on.

"I'm here now. Who knows what will happen, but I'm planning on being here," he added, echoing sentiments all across the baseball map. "The focus should be on what we need to do to prepare to get ready to win."

Of course, "official reporting day" loses its exclusivity when it comes to players eager to lose the rust under the mid-February sun. Thus, all 30 clubhouses have already sprung to life. There are already photographers with calluses on their shutter fingers.

For instance, the camps of both the Yankees and Red Sox have been stirring for days. Transition has been the big topic around the Bombers' Legends Field, where Bernie Williams' locker has been reassigned (to pitcher Jose Veras), and Joe Torre, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada have all been asked to confront their future in pinstripes.

The Mariners have been cavorting in Peoria, Ariz., long before they had to. This tells manager Mike Hargrove that he isn't alone in feeling that he has a club capable of contending for the American League West title.

"There's been a lot of them down here," Hargrove said. "It tells me we have guys that want it. And that's something that I don't know you can teach. Guys are looking good, they really are."

Wednesday was the first step on a lot of comeback roads. Again digging his cleats into a mound rubber was Jason Isringhausen, the St. Louis closer, whose September hip surgery threw him from the Cards' World Series ride.

"He looks strong," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "He's feeling good, throwing the ball good. He's got a good mental attitude because of his health."

At Disney's Wide World of Sports, Mike Hampton was introspective 532 days after his last competitive pitch -- and two days before he is to get off the shoulder of that comeback road.

"There will be some bumps in the road," said Hampton, returning from reconstructive elbow surgery. "It's not going to be smooth sailing from here on out. I know that I'm going to have to work to get to that point."

And in Tempe, Ariz., you couldn't wipe the smile off Casey Kotchman's face with a palm frond.

"I feel my strength and my stamina are great," said Kotchman, who sat out most of the 2006 season with mononucleosis. "I'm able to play and get a jump on Spring Training and get some at-bats that I missed."

The Pirates' first official workout isn't until Friday, but that didn't keep about 30 Bucs from going through drills at Pirates City. The early attendees include veteran Japanese pitcher Masumi Kuwata, which sparks a question:

Which media person was chosen to stay behind to chronicle news in Japan?

All the others are certainly on our shores. Kuwata is being covered by three dozen members of the Japanese media, and the 38-year-old right-hander with 173 career wins is hardly the biggest Japanese newsmaker in spikes.

Pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox and Kei Igawa of the Yankees, outfielders Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) and Hideki Matsui (Yankees), and infielder Akinori Iwamura (Devil Rays) rate a bit more coverage. And there are still recorders and cameras left over for Kaz Matsui (Rockies) and Kenji Johjima (Mariners).

Ranking among the spring's top attractions is Matsuzaka. You can tell by the rings under John Blake's eyes. Of the 270 requests for Spring Training credentials fielded by the Boston media relations executive, 130 were from Japanese outlets.

Then there are the Nationals, who underwent their first workout in Viera, Fla., the Ellis Island of Spring Training. Embarking on their first full season under new ownership with a long-range vision, the Nats have been a magnet for players seeking opportunities.

Ex-Tigers strongman Dmitri Young and former Expos third baseman Tony Batista became the latest journeymen to journey to Viera, joining nearly three dozen non-roster veteran hopefuls, including Ray King, Mike Bacsik, Tony Womack and D'Angelo Jimenez.

Tom Singer 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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