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Baseball returns across America

Baseball returns across America

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It's time for giant flags unfurled across the outfield, emotional first-pitch ceremonies, deafening fly-overs from local military bases, player introductions, moments of silence, an American Idol finalist and a country star belting out a national anthem, April reacquaintance from coast to coast, and most of all a lot of workers calling in sick and hopefully not bringing the economy to a halt.

Opening Day is here, and it already has been ushered in by the unfurling of a world championship banner in St. Louis on Sunday night, followed by some 6-1 payback by Tom Glavine and the Mets over the Cardinals.

There are 13 games on the docket Monday, all of them live on MLB.TV for those who haven't yet joined the revolution, and the final season opener will follow on Tuesday when the Padres visit the Giants. It also should be mentioned that a fairly big college basketball game will be squeezed in during the evening between Florida and Ohio State. Now that you know that, onto the pomp and circumstance:

Devil Rays at Yankees, 1:05 p.m. ET
The Bronx Bombers have won nine consecutive home openers (1998-2006) and 20 of their past 23 since 1984, so no pressure at all on Carl Pavano in that much-discussed and late-announced starting assignment for the home team. He will face Scott Kazmir, who had the All-Star first half last season with Tampa Bay and who came up with the other team in New York before heading for Florida.

The game will be preceded by pageantry and poignancy. Melanie Lidle and son Christopher will take the mound for the ceremonial first pitch, dedicated to the memory of Cory Lidle, the former Yankees pitcher who was killed in a Manhattan plane crash last October. Lidle's parents, Doug and Lisa, and his twin brother, Kevin, will also attend the ceremony.

In addition to the presentation of colors by the West Point Cadet Color Guard, a giant U.S. flag will be unfurled in the outfield by 40 West Point cadets. The national anthem will be performed by a West Point soloist, and toward the end of the ceremony, two U.S. Navy F-18s piloted by the Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (the Blue Blasters) will fly over Yankee Stadium.

"It's an historic park," Kazmir said. "Playing against the Yankees. What more can you ask for? It's going to be exciting. The adrenaline is definitely going to be there."

Blue Jays at Tigers, 1:05 p.m. ET
It has been a long, long winter to wait if you're a Tigers fan who got so close to nirvana last October, and except for the notable loss of Kenny Rogers for the first few months of the season, it all starts again on a sweet note at Comerica Park. Legendary Motown group The Four Tops will perform The Star-Spangled Banner.

This season already sounds good. Lori Couturier, who has performed at Tigers games since 1987, will sing "Oh, Canada" prior to The Four Tops' rendition.

Jeremy Bonderman gets the dream assignment for Detroit, and opposing him is Roy Halladay, once again among the top AL Cy Young favorites. It will be a first look at Gary Sheffield in the Tigers' lineup, and on the Toronto side it's the debut of Frank Thomas with his third AL club.

The Tigers are waiting a bit to get their own rings, for their American League championship. That ceremony will be on Wednesday.

Braves at Phillies, 1:05 p.m. ET
If the Phillies are the "team to beat," as shortstop Jimmy Rollins has said, then the Braves get the first shot at doing that. And on the mound for Atlanta will be none other than John Smoltz, the player who has been the most vocal about Citizens Bank Park being a hitter's paradise. But first, the Phillies have some literal business to take care of: They will be represented in the morning at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange when legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas and two Phillies ballgirls ring the opening bell.

Back at the ballpark, Rollins and his Phillies teammates will parade onto the field, followed by the unfurling of a giant U.S. flag to the music of the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Men's Chorale. In addition, 50 state flags will be carried by members of the Philadelphia police and fire departments. It is typical of the pageantry that will be on display across the Majors on this day. A Navy parachute team will skydive into the stadium with the first ball, and it will be tossed as the ceremonial first pitch by Vince Vukovich, 26-year-old son of the late and longtime Phillies coach.

Then it's time to see if Smoltz can keep Ryan Howard and the Phillies inside the park, something pitchers were able to do so rarely during his 58-homer season of 2006. And it's time for Rollins & Co. -- widely predicted by preseason publications to reach the postseason this time around -- to walk the walk.

Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 p.m. ET
When you think of Opening Day in Washington ballparks, you think of presidents throwing out the first pitch in the days of Walter Johnson and the old Senators. For this game, the ceremonial first pitch will feature a celebration of baseball history in the nation's capital. Throwing out the first pitch will be Hank Thomas, the grandson of Johnson; Mickey Vernon, Washington Senators first baseman from 1939-48 and 1950-55; Audrey Fields, the widow of Homestead Grays ace Wilmer Fields; Chuck Hinton, first baseman and outfielder for the Washington Senators from 1961-64; and Manny Acta, the new Nationals manager. District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty was also invited to participate.

This game is especially noteworthy because it begins the final season at RFK Memorial Stadium and it marks the Nationals' first season opener at home since Major League Baseball's return there from Montreal.

The Dixie Devils, a New Orleans jazz band, will perform outside the Main Gate from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET. Balloon artists, face painters and caricaturists will also be present outside the gates to enhance the fan experience. On-field pregame entertainment will begin at 12:15 p.m. with a performance by the U.S. Army Chorale, a seven-piece rock band. The National Guard Youth Challenge Program Cadets and Honor Guard will present a giant U.S. flag in center field during the National Anthem by the U.S. Army Marching Band and Herald Trumpets. The anthem will conclude with a flyover by two F-18 Super Hornets, flown by the VFA-213 Black Lions.

Dodgers at Brewers, 2:05 p.m. ET
This is the 25th anniversary of the Brewers' only World Series appearance, and many people are expecting bigger things in 2007 for Milwaukee. The pursuit begins against a club that is favored to be in the postseason by many preseason publications, and Ben Sheets will be on the mound for the home team against Derek Lowe.

Pregame ceremonies include first pitches by James Kimble and his grandson, 11-year-old Blake Kimble-Jones -- a local Boys & Girls Club member. The pair was selected to represent the strong inter-generational appeal of the game, and that speaks volumes about Opening Day in general. A giant U.S. flag will be unfurled by 75 randomly selected season-ticket holders and Joseph Attanasio will perform the National Anthem.

Cubs at Reds, 2:10 p.m. ET
On May 4, 1869, the Red Stockings beat the Cincinnati Great Westerns, 45-9, in the first professional baseball game. The Red Stockings would go on to win their first 130 games, including 81 official games and 49 exhibitions, before losing to the Brooklyn Atlantics, 8-7 in extra innings, on June 14, 1870.

And life went on. This is the Reds' 131st Opening Day game, still generally regarded as the "traditional opener" on the schedule even though the Sunday night game has become the standard first look. Eric Davis -- who led the team to its last title in 1990 for the same Lou Piniella who will manage these Cubs -- will be grand marshall of the 88th Findlay Market Parade. Cincinnati's newest mascot, Mr. Redlegs, will deliver the ceremonial first pitch to the city's mayor, Mark Mallory.

Atlanta Records recording artist Gia Farrell will sing the national anthem, and the song will be accompanied by a flyover from four F-16 jets from the 178th Fighter Wing of the Ohio National Guard. Then the question is whether Cincinnati can regain its Opening Day touch on the field. The Reds are 2-6-1 in their past eight openers, and the Cubs have become an early thorn -- winning last year's opener with a 16-7 blowout.

Indians at White Sox, 2:05 p.m. ET
Cleveland is 55-51 in its 106-year history on Opening Day, and it can boast Bob Feller's only no-hitter to be thrown on this special date. But it has lost four consecutive Opening Day games since the 2003 season and five of its past six, and this one opens in front of a full house at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

Joan Higginbotham, a NASA astronaut and Chicago native, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The graduate of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Southern Illinois University made her first space flight aboard Discovery last December. She carried a White Sox jersey into space and will present the jersey to the Sox franchise; it then will go to Cooperstown for posterity this summer.

Chicago's own national recording artist Umphrey's McGee will perform the national anthem. It is the third time Umphrey's McGee has had this honor at a White Sox home game, and this rendition will be accompanied by a U.S. flag unfurling in center field and a flyover by VFC-12 Ambush (Fighter Composite Squadron Twelve) F/A-18C Hornet Naval aircraft from Oceana, Va.

Diamondbacks at Rockies, 4:05 p.m. ET
For the third consecutive year -- and just sixth overall -- Colorado will open its season at home. Pregame ceremonies at Coors Field will start with a military march of all four branches of the U.S. military. The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force will march an honor guard unit, followed by a battalion of 50 people from each group around the warning track. Then some 100 Air Force servicemen and women will unveil a football-field-length American flag on the field, and the national anthem will be sung by the Air Force Academy Choir.

Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday will be presented before the game with his 2006 Silver Slugger Award -- courtesy of Rockies hitting coach Alan Cockrell. Four ceremonial first pitches will be thrown by: Steve Miner, an original season-ticket holder from 1993, Russ Dispence from King Soopers, Colo., Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

Then the home team has to deal with the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Brandon Webb -- 16-8 last year, 1-1 against the Rockies in four starts against them -- opens the season against Colorado righty Aaron Cook (9-15 in 2006).

Red Sox at Royals, 4:10 p.m. ET
How's this for the magic of Opening Day? The weather forecast for this opener is 83 degrees (with a low of 64). The forecast for the rest of week calls for highs of 50 to 51. Those are perfect conditions to watch Gil Meche -- the Royals' major offseason free agent pickup -- make his debut on the hill against Curt Schilling.

That is a big study in contrast. Schilling is a seasoned veteran of the Opening Day start; it is the first for Meche, who says, "Throwing the first pitch to get the season started is going to be a neat experience. I'm extremely excited, not only for me, but I know the fans are ready. They want to see the new team."

Kansas City will honor iconic local legends Lamar Hunt and Buck O'Neil, as well as past Royals greats like George Brett. REO Speedwagon will perform the national anthem after the colors are presented by an all-services honor guard, and Whiteman Air Force Base will provide the B-2 Stealth Bomber flyover.

A's at Mariners, 6:35 p.m. ET
It's that telltale time of year when Ichiro Suzuki is presented a Gold Glove Award, his sixth in a row. But there is an important new twist for the Mariners on Opening Day, and that is the arrival of Felix Hernandez as their starting pitcher against Oakland's Dan Haren.

"When you're the Opening Day starter, you're also like a leader for the team," Hernandez said. "You have to go out and do your best. I think it's the greatest thing of my life."

Opening Day activities get under way with a countdown at the Home Plate Gate (corner of First Ave. South and Edgar Martinez Drive South) at 4:30 p.m. ET. The pregame program starts at 5 with a full slate of activities other than Ichiro's award including: The national anthem by the Seattle Symphony and Chorale; presentation of colors by the Bellevue Fire Department Honor Guard; ceremonial first pitches by Jay Buhner, Alvin Davis and Dave Niehaus; and a ceremonial first run around the bases by 10-year-old Ryan Schroeder, a local boy waiting for a heart transplant.

Pirates at Astros, 7:05 p.m. ET
The sixth annual Opening Day Street Festival is from noon to 6 p.m. ET, featuring Astros owner Drayton McLane, broadcasters, players like newcomers Carlos Lee and Jason Jennings, and lots of music -- the same feel of the "Rally Monday" the day after the regular season. There's a lunchtime pep rally, an Opening Day Blood Drive all afternoon, and then the gates of Minute Maid Park open at 4 ET and the floodgates open for baseball bliss.

Pregame ceremonies feature presentation of the colors by the Houston Fire Department Honor Guard. The first pitch will celebrate a "Salute to Houston's Good Guys," with the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachuting into the park. Other pre-game activities include a flyover by the 147th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard and a presentation of an oversized U.S. flag held and displayed by members of the 2006 5A State Champion baseball team from The Woodlands High School.

The national anthem will be performed by Beaumont, Texas, native and country music star Clay Walker. Walker, whose new album "Fall" is scheduled to be released on April 17, also will sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Orioles at Twins, 7:05 p.m. ET
Brad Radke will be pitching for the Twins, but alas, it will be only to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Now retired, he then will give way to Johan Santana, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, as Minnesota begins defense of its surprise AL Central title. How much the Twins miss Radke is to be determined.

A big day in the Twin Cities starts with a Breakfast on the Plaza from 7-10 a.m. ET, then a Twins Rally at noon at Mall of America. Then there is a Concert on the Plaza at 5 p.m., and a big on-field ceremony that includes the national anthem being performed by American Idol finalist and Edina, Minn., native Paris Bennett. There is a sad backdrop for this one locally, following the death on Sunday of Herb Carneal, the longtime and popular Twins radio broadcaster.

Erik Bedard starts for Baltimore, which is hoping to jumpstart its first winning season in a decade.

"Overall, I think the guys went about their business extremely well in the spring," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We got some pleasant surprises from some guys, and I like the fact that we've got some guys we can go to if we need some help."

Rangers at Angels, 10:05 p.m. ET
In addition to throwing out the honorary first pitch, Troy Percival will officially retire as an Angel prior to this game.

"Troy Percival has been an integral part of the success and tradition of Angels baseball for many years," Angels GM Bill Stoneman said. "It is very appropriate that he retire as an Angel."

Other highlights in this Opening Day pregame will include: A joint services honor guard presenting the nation's colors, displaying a 300-foot U.S. flag during the singing of the national anthem; and the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales parading along the perimeter of Angel Stadium before the game.

Then it will be time to look first-hand at an Angels club that has sky-high aspirations and heavy expectations, with such key additions as outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. John Lackey will start for Los Angeles against Kevin Millwood.

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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