02/10/12 10:00 AM EST
Spring excitement gets early start this weekend
Mariners pitchers, catchers first to begin workouts on Sunday
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
That is one of our favorite phrases in the baseball lexicon, right up there with "Play Ball!" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Opening Day" and "World Series champions."
True, it will be just one of 30 Major League Baseball teams reporting at the outset, a full week earlier than most. The Mariners will take advantage of a special allowance to start workouts Sunday and begin preparations for the Japan Opening Series 2012, in which they will face Oakland on March 28-29 in Tokyo.
No matter how many players show up and suit up, this makes it official. Pitchers and catchers report this weekend. That means you are about to see Felix Hernandez, one of the game's best pitchers. You are about to see two of the top 16 prospects in the Majors: newly acquired catcher Jesus Montero (No. 13) and left-hander Danny Hultzen (No. 16).
"I think everybody's ready for Spring Training to get going," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said at the team's FanFest. "It's going to be a little bit different this spring with the trip to Japan. ... I'm just really thrilled and ready to take this thing for a ride. ... We're going to try to push the envelope a little bit in regard to our mindsets and what our expectations are."
If you are a baseball fan in the Valley of the Sun, you are about to see some activity. If you are following at MLB.com and MLB Network and outlets everywhere, you are about to see images of players on emerald lawns wearing workout gear and throwing baseballs.
Then it will truly hit you: The game is coming back again, a tradition dating back to the 1800s. Fans are ready to take this thing for a ride, too.
The A's will wait until Feb. 19 for their first pitchers-and-catchers workout, opting for the maximum offseason break, opting not to rush their arms before arriving at their spring home in Phoenix. It is a study in contrasts, the first of the season: One club raring to go a week early and one doing what the other 28 teams are doing.
Technically speaking, Sunday is listed on the Important Dates page as the "Voluntary report date for pitchers, catchers and injured players (Oakland and Seattle)." On Feb. 17, A's and Mariners full squads may begin reporting. For all other clubs, Feb. 19 is the voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers and injured players, and Feb. 24 is the earliest for full-squad workouts.
One of the highlights over these coming days will be the mere familiarity of a life's passion. Seeing players going through drills, wearing spikes, a baseball glove on one hand. Watching the mechanics of a delivery again. Hearing the thump of fastballs into catchers' mitts.
One of the highlights over these coming days also will be the jarring vision of players in new places. Seeing Mark Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen together as pitcher and manager was a common sight over many White Sox springs in Arizona, but what a view it will be when they each wear new Marlins uniforms as Miami's pitchers and catchers start workouts in Florida on Feb. 22.
The defending World Series champs start workouts on Feb. 19, and the difference will be palpable right from the beginning. There likely will be no sign of future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, now retired and replaced by Mike Matheny. But for Cardinals fans, it will mean the long-awaited sight of Adam Wainwright, no longer just a rooting presence like last fall but a Cardinals pitcher once more after missing all of last season and having Tommy John surgery.
Mat Latos' first workout with the Reds will be Feb. 19 in Arizona. C.J. Wilson returns to the Cactus League, but with the Angels on Feb. 20 instead of the two-time defending American League-champion Rangers, who will introduce Japanese sensation Yu Darvish to their field starting Feb. 23.
A special thrill is in store for Red Sox Nation, because pitchers and catchers begin workouts Feb. 21 inside brand-new JetBlue Park at Fenway South, in Lee County, Fla. It will bring a touch of 100-year-old Fenway Park down to the subtropics, complete with Green Monster. More important, it also will mean turning the page on the 2011 finish, with Bobby Valentine managing instead of Terry Francona.
The first live exhibition game of any kind will be Florida State against the Phillies on Feb. 29 in Clearwater, Fla. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are about to return, a dreaded trio for Phillies opponents. Even though the combination was not enough to put Philadelphia into the National League Championship Series, it is a presence that will stand out again when that club's pitchers and catchers begin workouts on Feb. 19.
The first game between two Major League clubs is the same Mariners-A's matchup, March 2 in Phoenix. The Japan Opening Series will christen the regular season, then the Cardinals will be in Miami for Opening Night on April 4, followed the next day with seven Opening Day games.
And so it begins, with a gradual trickle of players, a metamorphosis again into ballplayers. It starts with one team well ahead of the others, but one team is enough and the certainty of arrivals is right behind them. It is OK to get a little excited again.
Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training this weekend.