Get ready for the real thing
From champion Phillies to retooled Yanks, plenty to watch in '09
Those split-squad bus rides heading down lonely desert highways or rolling past steamy Florida swamps? Soon they'll be pleasant memories.
Those deep-fried Oreos in Surprise, Ariz., and seven-player-change fifth innings in Fort Myers, Fla.? Within a week they'll fade, giving way to the bright lights and big cities of Major League arrival.
Beginning Sunday, April 5 at 8 p.m. ET, when the Atlanta Braves take on the soon-to-be-defending World Series champion Phillies in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, real baseball is back, and each game counts until the final out of the World Series.
Baseball's winter Hot Stove kept us warm with trades and signings, and Spring Training gave us a tropical break, but as the countdown to Opening Day narrows, it's go time for all 30 big league clubs and the storylines they'll write over a 162-game grind.
Here are 10 to keep an eye on in 2009:
1. Phightin' for a repeat: The Phillies and their phaithful waited 28 years for a second World Series title and don't want to wait that long for a third. So why not win back-to-back crowns in 2009, especially when most of their big guns from '08 are back, and potentially nifty pickups such as Raul Ibanez, Chan Ho Park and Jack Taschner should keep them fortified? As difficult as it is to take two titles in a row -- it hasn't happened since the New York Yankees pulled off three straight in 1998, '99 and 2000 -- you can't argue with a lineup featuring Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Ibanez and a pitching staff with Cole Hamels leading the way.
2. Pinstripes reloaded: Speaking of those Yankees, when are they not a huge story? This year brings the first pitch -- and many other firsts -- at the new Yankee Stadium, more A-Rod news every week, the New York debuts of big-buck signees CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, and what's sure to be another protracted three-way tussle for American League East supremacy.
3. Rays the roof: They were the darlings of baseball in 2008, this young team that went from the AL East cellar a year earlier to a division championship and American League pennant. But what do they do for an encore? Adding Pat Burrell to the middle of the order shouldn't hurt, and expectations aren't sky-high, either. Not with the Yankees and Red Sox poised to take them on with heavily retooled rosters.
4. Meet the Mets (again): Something different has to occur if the team from Queens is to make it to the postseason for the first time since being mere outs away from the World Series in 2006. Two September collapses will be forgotten if the Mets get off to a hot start at brand-new Citi Field and new closer Francisco Rodriguez and setup man J.J. Putz make more news for protecting leads than losing them.
5. Wild, wide (open) Wests: The Los Angeles Angels boat-raced the AL West last year but have serious pitching question marks as Opening Day nears. The Oakland A's are young and unproven but very talented on the pitching side and otherwise improved in other key areas. The Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners have made key offseason moves that make them somewhat intriguing at the very least. In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks figure to go at it all season long at the top of the West, the Colorado Rockies look for a bounce-back to their World Series form of 2007 and the San Francisco Giants' arms look as good as they have since they last made the Fall Classic in 2002. What does it all mean? Pennant races, that's what.
6. Meet everyone in St. Louis: The Dave Matthews Band rocked the new Busch Stadium last June in the first major concert since the ballpark was built prior to the Cardinals' World Series championship season of 2006. This July 14, the fans in one of the country's great baseball towns get to host the 80th All-Star Game, marking the first time the Midsummer Classic has been played in St. Louis since 1966.
7. Cubs-ology 101: The kismet or curse or karma or coincidence of the 100th anniversary of their last World Series championship went by the books in a hurry when the Chicago Cubs dropped last year's NL Division Series to the Dodgers. This year they're set to compete for a third straight Central title, and beyond that, who knows? The secret lies in the ivy.
8. Mannywood shuffle: What happens in Manny's head usually stays in Manny's head, but what happens off Manny's bat often leaves the ballpark. We'll surely be treated to many entertaining right-handed ruminations as one of this generation's premier hitters -- and characters -- plies his trade in the NL for a full season for the first time in his great career.
9. Homer Dome send-off: Visions of legendary Minnesota Twins such as Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Dan Gladden, Gary Gaetti and Greg Gagne will dance all over the funky green FieldTurf of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for one last year as the 2009 Twins attempt to get back into the postseason. On Opening Day 2010, MLB will welcome the state-of-the-art Target Field, where open-air baseball will come to the Twin Cities for the first time since the club left Metropolitan Stadium at the end of the 1981 season. Before then, we'll all bid farewell to the Baggie, the plexiglass, the white roof, the lovably bad acoustics, and the building where two World Series (1987 and 1991) were won in unforgettable style by unforgettable teams.
10. Expect the expected and unexpected: Bank on new San Francisco Giants lefty Randy Johnson reaching the 300-win mark sometime before the All-Star break and St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols challenging for a Triple Crown. Don't be surprised if the Detroit Tigers once again challenge for the AL Central while Johan Santana gives Tim Lincecum a fight for NL Cy Young honors. Don't think for a second that the Red Sox aren't huge contenders to win their third World Series in the past six years.
But also expect to be bowled over with surprise at what could happen.
What if the Florida Marlins win it all for a third time to stick to their recent pattern of taking the World Series every six years? Will baseball witness the final seasons in the legendary careers of Tom Glavine in Atlanta, Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle and Jason Giambi in Oakland, or will they all keep going? And seriously, who will jump up out of nowhere and be the Rays of 2008? Could it be the much-improved Kansas City Royals or the intriguing Cincinnati Reds or the young and skilled Baltimore Orioles? Or will it be, well, the Rays?
We're less than a week from getting some answers in baseball, where anything can happen between those white lines. The beauty of it is that we won't find out what that anything is until they play the games.
So let's play 'em.
Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.