"Nothing compares to Spring Training," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, 50-plus pounds lighter than he was this time last year. "Don't get me wrong. It requires a lot of hard work. Players cannot take it easy and be ready for the season. But it's also a time when there's not the stress and tension of the regular season."
Commissioner Bud Selig always talks about how important Spring Training is to every team.
"There's always new hope and faith," Selig says. "I use that with the clubs all the time. This is a wonderful time of the year. The late Bart Giamatti [former Commissioner] used to say it beautifully -- Spring Training is a renaissance. Here we are in the midst of a tough winter in many places; pitchers and catchers are reporting. Yes, this is a great time of the year."
My first Spring Training was in 1958. I climbed onboard the crowded Silver Meteor for a grueling, 24-hour train ride to Clearwater, for me the long-awaited promised land.
I was armed with a cranky Olivetti portable typewriter, a bulky Crown Graphic camera, the typical arrogance of a green 22-year-old and unmatched enthusiasm for my first Spring Training.
There have been springs interrupted with lockouts, strikes, player holdouts and distasteful off-the-field stories. But in the end they've all been overshadowed by what baseball is all about -- the game on the field.
And my passion for the game hasn't waned one iota.
Now it's 2010 and another beginning. The storylines are far-reaching.
Will the Yankees, with Curtis Granderson in center field and Johnny Damon gone, be able to make it back to the World Series?
Will the Phillies, after obtaining Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the business, make it three World Series appearances in a row? And will fans forgive them for trading Cliff Lee? I'm convinced that years from now, historians will look back on this deal and call it one of the worst ever. The Phillies let one of the top left-handers in the game today -- 2.89 ERA over his last 455 innings -- leave.
To me this is particularly interesting, because if the Yankees and Phillies make it back to the Fall Classic, it will be the first time since 1978 that the same teams have met in back-to-back years (Dodgers vs. Yankees). The Phillies are trying to become the first National League team to play in three consecutive World Series since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals.
Fourteen teams reached the World Series between 2000 and 2008, and five of those clubs made it for the first time. It is this statistic that gives so many teams hope as Spring Training gets under way.
Speaking of Lee, will his addition to the Seattle roster -- along with that of third baseman Chone Figgins -- propel the recast Mariners to the American League West title the Angels seem to own? Or will the vastly improved Rangers, favored by many to win the division, prevail?
Will the Red Sox, with John Lackey -- the top pitcher from this winter's free-agent class -- in the rotation, be able to give the Yankees a run for the money? Jason Bay, their three-time All-Star outfielder, signed with the Mets, and Boston decided to focus on defense by signing outfielder Mike Cameron.
And what about Albert Pujols? He's the best player in the game today. So with him on the roster, shouldn't the Cardinals be playing late into October? Mark McGwire, who admitted in January that he used steroids, is their hitting coach, and there's the fear that he may be a huge distraction as Spring Training gets under way in Jupiter, Fla.
By the time full squads report, an interesting story is expected to have unfolded in Lakeland if the Tigers sign Damon, the proven leadoff hitter they covet. Detroit traded Granderson and Edwin Jackson and watched free agents Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney sign elsewhere.
When I look back over the 50-plus years I've spent reporting Spring Training, there have been vast changes.
Some things should always remain the same, but they don't. It's hard to believe it's been two years since the Dodgers held their last Spring Training at the famed Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. I thought they'd train there forever.
This spring the Reds have moved from Florida to Arizona. Florida used to house the majority of the teams, but now there's an even split -- 15 in the Cactus League and 15 in the Grapefruit League.
The homey, rickety stands have been replaced with state-of-the-art facilities.
Putting it bluntly, Spring Training is now big business. Last year attendance totaled 3.7 million in Arizona and Florida, with the Yankees alone averaging 14,790.
Between now and April 4, when the season opens at Fenway Park, with the Yankees taking on the rival Red Sox, the story lines of all 30 teams will change daily.
For me the adrenaline is flowing. This is a marvelous time of the year.