Spring carries renewed sense of hope

Spring carries renewed sense of hope

It is where baseball players come hungry, some looking for a breakout season, some looking to protect their longtime turf against brash wunderkinds, some trying to win jobs and establish Major League Baseball careers.

"The guys who have the inside track on jobs better come ready and the guys who come into camp hungry, we don't want to stop that hunger," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I don't see it any different than anywhere else. That's baseball every spring."

It is where torrid Hot Stove discussion manifests itself at last in uniformed spectacle, an entire offseason's worth of free-agent signings and trades finally evident in new jerseys belonging to such men as Matt Holliday of the A's, CC Sabathia of the Yankees, Khalil Greene of the Cardinals and Jon Garland of the Diamondbacks. It is where the talk ends and baseballs finally fly through the air.

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"It's going to be different," said Holliday, who spent his first five Major League seasons with the Rockies, "but I'm really looking forward to getting down there and getting to know the guys.

It is where fans descend by car and air for an annual sojourn to see the best and the brightest, to replenish themselves with a crack of a bat and observe the 2009 model. This is just like how fans long before went to Florida to see Tom Seaver work into form, and others to Arizona to see Tony Gwynn get the head of the bat on the ball in a quiet exhibition. They come to see a team they expect to go all the way, no matter what happened last fall.

"Before last year, we were seeing stuff on television about how nobody expected us to do much," said White Sox pitcher John Danks. "Going into this year, I feel we can win the World Series. It's something I really believe."

"The team we have can make the difference," Mets third baseman David Wright said.

"We are looking at a fresh start here," Mariners first-year manager Don Wakamatsu said. "My goal is for everybody to play to the best of their ability. Where that leads, I don't know. We will be focusing from the neck up, getting them to play the game intelligently."

These are the kinds of things you are about to hear constantly throughout the game, because this week The Moment finally arrives. "Pitchers and catchers report." They are four words that mean so much to people across the land. Some words become cliche and lose their meaning; those four words never do. Pitchers and catchers report starting this week to Spring Training in Florida and Arizona, led by the Cleveland Indians, whose pitchers and catchers will report on Thursday.

You can see it on the countdown clock at the top of the MLB.com homepage. The time is almost here. In fact, many of your favorite players already are unofficially at their spring domains, working out on the side, eager for the possibility that is ahead. Never has there been a more universal possibility in this game, either. All 30 clubs are considered contenders in 2009. To those who would smirk and discount a 2008 also-ran, it is time to pay closer attention to the modern trend. Anyone can go to the 2009 World Series.

Anyone.

The Rays went to the last one after an entire club history that consisted of losing seasons. The Rockies went to their first World Series the year before that. The Tigers got there the year before that, for the first time in the lifetime of many of their fans. In 2005, the Astros got there for the first time and lost to a White Sox team that ended an 88-year title drought. In 2004, the Red Sox finally won it all.

We are now accustomed to Spring Training opening with that universal hope. Long paeans and poetry no longer are required to explain the annual rite. All you have to do is listen to the fan bases. There is a new kind of hope. Milwaukee just went to its first postseason since 1982, eliminated by a Phillies club that finally gave a city's populace reason to throw a long-awaited parade.

Cole Hamels tied the Major League record with four victories in that postseason, and might have made it five had rain not suspended his last start and forced teammates to win the clincher without him on the mound. Now the young lefty already is said to be in the Clearwater, Fla., area, typical of the excitement surrounding a club that hopes to become baseball's first repeat titlist since the Yankees beat the Mets in 2000.

The Phillies open this season as host against Atlanta in the annual Sunday night opener, and this time that will be on April 5. The traditional Monday openers follow that one. Due to the later start this year, there is a strong likelihood of the latest World Series clincher in history, perhaps a full week into November.

This is due to the return of the World Baseball Classic next month, and if you really love Spring Training, then you should be very happy. It will last a long time. The World Baseball Classic requires selected players to get ready earlier than normal, and as an example of its ramifications, Oakland will have an unprecedented 48-day camp.

"Late in the spring, I'm usually one of the guys saying, 'This feels like the longest Spring Training ever,'" A's catcher Rob Bowen said. "This time, it really will be the longest Spring Training ever."

The A's are scheduled to open Cactus League play against the host Brewers on Feb. 25 -- less than two weeks after pitchers and catchers report and about a week after the full squad reports to Papago Park in Phoenix.

"I'd just as soon get going right away, anyway," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "It's good to get some live competition in as soon as possible."

Spring Training is a time for fundamentals, of PFP, or pitcher fielder practice. It is a time for fans to seize the moment and get autographs that will be much harder to obtain amid the larger crush of people in the summertime. It is a time to reacquaint yourself with pitch counts, situational strategy, and the players of your lives.

These are many of the people you have grown up with. These are many of the people to whom you are being introduced. This is the time when the phenoms make themselves known, either to break camp with the parent club or to break onto the scene later in the season -- the way Evan Longoria did early last year for Tampa Bay.


"Spring Training is one of the great parts of baseball, where fans can bond with the players and vice versa."
-- Dodgers owner Frank McCourt

Who could have known that many months later, Phillies fans would be serenading him with chants of "Eva! Eva!" for every one of his World Series at-bats at Citizens Bank Park -- an ultimate show of respect for a dangerous foe.

"It's the fans that need Spring Training," Harry Caray once said. "You gotta get 'em interested. Wake 'em up and let 'em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll."

Oh, we know. We're interested. We're ready for the good times to roll.

We even remember one day in the early '90s when Caray sat there shirtless in a lounge chair smack-dab in the middle of the Cubs' spring field in Mesa, Ariz., sunning himself before a Cactus League game.

"The highlight of my career?" Bob Uecker once asked. "In '67 with St. Louis, I walked with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run in an intersquad game in Spring Training."

Someone might do that in the next month, and might go on to make a Hall of Fame career out of joking about it.

Someone might show you something this Spring Training that you never will forget, and you will become a fan of that player forever.

Or at least for as long as he plays for your team.

Right now, you know who's on your team, for the most part. Now it is finally time to see what those parts look like. The long winter's hibernation is just about over. This is the week that it ends. It is about safe to come out now. All will be right with the world in a mere matter of days, and then comes an Opening Day and an All-Star Game and a pennant race and a magical postseason ending in one team's glory.

The Dodgers will be training somewhere other than Dodgertown for the first time since Harry Truman was president -- sharing space in Arizona with the White Sox. Randy Johnson will work into form as a new Giants pitcher, perhaps leading to a season that gives him a 300th win. Fans will be all over the camps, from the Orioles' home in Florida to the saguaro cactus way out west.

"Spring Training is one of the great parts of baseball," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said, "where fans can bond with the players and vice versa."

It is just about time for pitchers and catchers to report. It is just about time for fans and players to start bonding again, each important to the other.

Spring Training is about the very beginning of our new book. Yours is almost here.

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