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02/13/09 7:45 PM EST

Spring Training is here at last

Players begin to report to camps in Florida, Arizona

Now you can dare to dream.

Spring Training is under way.

It is under way in the time-honored tradition of sunny HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., where the Cubs' pitchers and catchers reported Friday for the start of what baseball's most drought-ridden team hopes finally will be the great breakthrough. Just ask manager Lou Piniella, whose team comes off consecutive Octobers of being swept in the National League Division Series:

"We have to put [last year's postseason] behind us and get very positive this spring. We have to go out and get off to a good start and re-establish ourselves as the top team in the National League and give ourselves another chance in the postseason. That's all we can do. We can talk about last year and the year before and so on and so forth, but it doesn't do any good. We know what we need to do with this club this year, and we're going to get it done."

It is under way in Tampa, Fla., where CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett were among pitchers and catchers working out for the first time on Friday.

"I'm definitely excited to be playing on this big stage," Sabathia said, fielding questions about the hype over their big-contract signings. "I'm definitely glad I've got a guy like A.J. that we can walk into this together, and we can lean on each other. We just laugh about that stuff. It's good to have somebody to bounce that off."

It officially began Thursday in Goodyear, Ariz., where new closer Kerry Wood, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee and the rest of the Indians' pitchers and catchers checked in at their club's new Cactus League facility far from home. In fact, most Cleveland players are already there, including new position player Mark DeRosa.

"I've always been a guy who likes to come in with the pitchers and catchers and get out on the field," said DeRosa, who comes from Cubs, just like Wood. "You get that cabin fever hitting in a cage during the winter. I want to take some ground balls and get my feet under me and get that initial soreness out of the way. That way, when the actual workouts start, you're able to just play the game and not worry about your soreness."

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All the others soon follow in the annual rite of passage for the national pastime, the first step toward the presentation of the Commissioner's Trophy in a champagne-soaked clubhouse like the one last October in Philadelphia.

This is the moment we all have been waiting for through another inanimate and barren winter. It feels so good when Major League Baseball returns that it actually is worth the pain of having it wrested from our tight grips in late autumn. Were it a 12-month season, there would be no chance to miss it the way we have lately.

Baseball is back, player by player, pitch by pitch. It is now time for a Spring Training that will go hand-in-hand with another World Baseball Classic while coloring nature with blues of Kansas City, reds of Cincinnati and purples of Colorado. It is the natural companion to cherry blossoms and maple buds, all harbingers of new life.

Dormant lawns soon become lush green. Dormant ballparks soon become civic meccas. The countdown clock on MLB.com now is about to reset toward the first exhibitions, a clear signal that Spring Training is upon us at last. Then comes the Opening Day countdown.

On Friday, pitchers and catchers reported to camps for the Cubs, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Dodgers, Brewers, Mets, Yankees, Pirates and Mariners. On Saturday, they do so for the Braves, Diamondbacks, Orioles, Reds, Rockies, Marlins, Astros, Athletics, Phillies, Padres, Giants, Cardinals, Rays, Rangers and Nationals.

Saturday also will mark the first day teams can work out, and 16 camps do so that day: Red Sox, Cubs, Reds, Indians, Tigers, Marlins, Astros, Royals, Angels, Dodgers, Yankees, A's, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals and Mariners.

On Sunday, pitchers and catchers report for the White Sox and Twins -- those same clubs that met in that thrilling one-game playoff that finally decided an American League Central champion two days after the 2008 regular season ended. Yes, you remember that finish. Ken Griffey Jr. made that incredible throw from center to nail Michael Cuddyer trying to score after tagging up from third base. Jim Thome hit the home run that won it. John Danks had the big pitching performance, and he will be reporting on this day.

Also on Sunday, 10 teams will work out for the first time: D-backs, Braves, Orioles, Rockies, White Sox, Brewers, Mets, Giants, Rays and Rangers. Then on Monday, the Blue Jays are the last pitchers and catchers to report, and they also have their first workouts that day, along with the Twins, Padres and Nationals.

Every single one of those 30 clubs will report and begin working out with a valid hope of going to the World Series. That is what raises the anticipation level of this particular Spring Training even more. Just think about one year ago today. Did you have the Rays going on to the Fall Classic?

It felt so different on Friday, when those first Rays players officially start reporting to their camp in Florida. This year they know that they know what it takes to win in this sport. Young pitcher David Price showed up knowing without a doubt that he belongs at this level. Left-hander Scott Kazmir reported on a mission, and the first sightings of manager Joe Maddon and those glasses were a true signal of rebirth in the Grapefruit League.

Tommy Lasorda took a tour bus from Dodger Stadium to the Dodgers' new Spring Training home of Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. It's a symbolic gesture to show Angelenos how easy it is to get from Southern California to the club's new camp, following all those decades spent at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. Lasorda's bus departed at 10 a.m. PT, stopped at a nearby 76 station for gas and then at a Carl's Junior for lunch in Palm Desert, Calif.

One question is whether Manny Ramirez will show up at Spring Training. He still is an unsigned free agent. The Dodgers' big question entering camp is whether the kids can step up, as the club is committed to building from within and prepared for life without its negotiating superstar.

Most everyone is ready now. Are you?

MLB.TV Premium? Check. Ready to watch live Spring Training exhibition games and then an entire regular season of out-of-market action. It is time for fans to report for Spring Training as well, and that is one item on everyone's list.

Tickets for Spring Training and the regular season? Check. Where there is a will, there is a way -- now more than ever. Clubs have added value in ticket pricing and packaging across the board in the face of hard economic times, and even where there are sellouts, there is StubHub for secondary ticketing needs.

New Spring Training gear? Check. The MLB.com Shop just introduced the latest line of authentic spring apparel, so now is the time to order that Mark Teixeira No. 25 Yankees batting practice jersey just like the Cool Base model about to be worn by the Yanks' new first baseman. Or you can get that Dodgers Authentic Game Performance 59FIFTY On-Field Cap.

By far the biggest-selling items in the Shop since last October were Phillies World Series championship gear, and now the focus shifts from happily dwelling on the past to taking on the brave new future. It is time to see the reigning champs.

We remember this rotation well: Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and power-hitter extraordinaire Joe Blanton. Now they report on Saturday, in the first official act of a possible repeat champ. Major League Baseball has not seen one of those since the Yankees repeated in 2000. The biggest question right now for the Phils is the return of the game's best second baseman and its most risqué speaker: Chase Utley. He had hip surgery on Nov. 24 and is projected to be ready between March 24 and May 24 -- take your pick. The Phillies and Utley think it will be sooner than later.

Seeing pitchers and catchers report puts our mind-set back on baseball stats. It is a cause to glance back at a player's previous year and say: That was an incredible year. Witness Clifton Phifer Lee: 22-3 record, 2.54 ERA, 174 strikeouts, 34 walks. Wow. How do you even begin to match that as you report to camp? Indians fans will take anything close.

This also is the time when you start typing mere letters such as "K" and "BB" -- a clear sign that you are eager and ready to keep score.

When pitchers and catchers report, everyone is talking about it. Sure, next week the attention will shift back to Alex Rodriguez as he appears at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. But this is a day that belongs to the baseball fan, because it is about baseball.

This weekend marks the official reporting of Francisco Rodriguez to Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. -- and don't forget J.J. Putz, signed as his theoretical setup man. How different will it be today seeing Wood report to a club other than Cubs? Randy Johnson reports Saturday for the first time as a Giants pitcher, beginning a process that could result in a 300th career victory this season. He is 295-160.

We love milestones in baseball. It is time to get some, and it all starts with Spring Training. Gary Sheffield will get back to work for a 22nd Major League season when the Detroit full squad cranks up the first workouts on Saturday. And after another Spring Training, he should reach the 500 Home Run Club in no time. He has 499.

For all of the individual storylines surrounding this Spring Training, though, it is one major event that figures to be the overarching theme throughout the long camps. The World Baseball Classic is coming in March for its second go-round. As with the 2006 event, that means clubs will be losing some key players for a while during exhibitions -- and then having to get everyone back on the same page in time for Opening Day.

Pitchers and catchers report to World Baseball Classic camps on Saturday for all four pool groups, and in the case of Pool A (Tokyo), all Asian World Baseball Classic players report that day. For the Pool B (Mexico City), C (Toronto) and D (San Juan) groups, position players report on Tuesday.

What does that mean for, let's say, A-Rod followers? He is due to report to Yankees camp on Friday, and then he will be due to report to the Dominican Republic team's camp on Tuesday in Jupiter, Fla., where the Marlins are the "host club."

Let's say you are heading to Florida to watch Spring Training and want to see the USA team while you are there. Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter and other USA players are due to report Tuesday to Clearwater, where the Phillies are the host club.

Feb. 24 will mark the announcement of all final World Baseball Classic rosters, and most of the national team workouts start on March 2 in Florida and Arizona. The first World Baseball Classic game will be a Pool A match in Tokyo between defending tournament champion Japan and China at 4:30 a.m. ET on March 5 (ESPN2). The championship game will be on March 23 at Dodger Stadium.

Yes, the same place where Lasorda's bus departed from today. Spring Training has come full circle. Somewhere along the way, we might even know if and where Ramirez will be playing in 2009.

It is time to start dreaming again. Your baseball team is getting back to work, and it could result in a trip to the World Series. That is why they report now. That is why we watch. The great game of baseball is back at last.

"I'm excited -- it means baseball season is starting," said knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who reported to camp for his 15th season with the Red Sox. "I'm sure everybody here did their offseason work and now it's time to get back to work. Being here in Fort Myers again and being in some nice weather, I'm looking forward to it."

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