Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 13, 2011

Another Beginning, And Hope Abounds

February in northern New England is monochromatic; a time when winter’s vise-like grip seems unending. The sky above is flat and gray, the feeble rays of the midwinter sun unable to penetrate the dense cloud cover. The ground is a matching hue, once pristine snow gone ugly from repeated applications of salt and sand, and the residue of traffic both human and automotive. It is piled especially deep this year, covering evergreen shrubbery and brick sidewalks that might otherwise provide some slight hint of color. From the gray ground rise tree trunks of a similarly bland gradation. The trunks give way to barren branches, shorn of springtime’s blossoms or summer’s greenery, extending naked spindly gray fingers to the cloud cover above, knitting the whole colorless landscape together.

Yet in the very depths of the season of death and darkness, and as improbable as it seems from looking out the window, the sentiment of the day is not despair, but unfettered hope. While the world around us may be unremittingly gray, we are now certain that it will not always be so. For in other parts of the land the magic order is being given, and our heroes are assembling.

The diamonds of New England may be frozen and buried, but in Florida and Arizona they are fresh and waiting. The bright white chalk lines are being laid and the fresh brown dirt is being raked. Outfield expanses of emerald grass are newly mown under the endless arch of a robin’s egg sky. Everywhere, there is hope.

In Viera, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, there is the news that the Nationals’ young phenom Stephen Strasburg has begun tossing a ball again. In the midst of a year-long recovery from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg will not pitch before September, if at all this season. But the news that he has picked up a baseball means he remains on track. Strasburg was electrifying in his abbreviated rookie campaign, and Nats fans are entitled to dream of what the future might hold.

Across the state second baseman Dustin Pedroia has arrived early at the Red Sox camp in Fort Myers. The American League MVP in 2008, the bantam Pedroia missed more than three months of the 2010 season due to a broken foot. Now fully recovered, he and new teammate Carl Crawford will give Boston lightning speed on the bases to go with a powerhouse lineup. After watching the post-season from afar last fall, Red Sox fans are already imagining a run deep into the playoffs this year.

Also in Fort Myers, the Twins are beginning to gather. Minnesota is proof that success is not limited to teams in large markets. With closer Joe Nathan and first baseman Justin Morneau healthy again, Twins fans can readily believe that this will be the year their team does much more than simply reach the playoffs.

A couple of hours up the Gulf Coast in St. Petersburg, the Rays have reunited two former teammates in Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Perhaps the aging stars will be little more than a sideshow; or perhaps they can both summon one more season of offensive power to help offset a depleted bullpen and lead Tampa Bay to the playoffs for the third time in four years.

Nearby, Tampa itself is the springtime home of the Yankees, whose most important off-season addition may have been a coach rather than a player. Veteran Larry Rothschild has been brought in to handle the Yankees’ pitchers. Tasked with getting both starter A. J. Burnett and reliever Joba Chamberlain back on track, Yankees fans know that successful work by Rothschild will almost certainly mean another October of baseball in the Bronx.

Due west from Tampa is Clearwater, where Phillies fans know that their team has assembled what appears to be one of the most dominant pitching rotations in the history of the game. The mighty foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have made Philadelphia the winter favorite to represent the National League in next fall’s World Series for the third time in four years.

Across the country in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Giants have other ideas. Having turned aside Texas in last fall’s Series behind a ragtag lineup of other team’s castoffs and some dominant pitching of their own, San Francisco is hoping to become the first team to repeat as champion since the 2000 Yankees. While Series MVP Edgar Renteria has moved on, most of the Giants team that snuck up on everyone else last year has returned. Catcher Buster Posey, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year will lead the offense, while Tim Lincecum will anchor a rotation that outpitched both the Phillies of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, and Lee’s then-Rangers in last year’s playoffs.

On the other side of Phoenix in Glendale, the Giants’ historic rivals from Los Angeles begin spring training hoping to rebound from a disappointing 2010 and make their own bid for supremacy in the NL West. After nearly a decade and a half in various coaching roles for the Yankees and Dodgers, Don Mattingly, “Donnie Baseball,” finally gets to make his managerial debut for a team that has stocked up on starting pitching.

In all thirty training camps there are stories; and as the players begin to gather, everywhere there is hope. Over the course of the longest season, many of these springtime hopes will turn to ash. There will be losing streaks and batting slumps, costly errors, bad outings and blown saves. There will be injuries that will undo a general manager’s best laid plans. Aging stars will fade and highly touted rookies will disappoint. This game, like life, always dispenses its quota of disappointments.

But not all hopes will be denied. As spring unfolds and warms to the long days of summer, and summer in turn eventually yields to the first chill of autumn, the game will also bring joy to its fans. Whether watching from the stands, at home in front of the flat screen, or listening to the radio’s play by play, they will delight as a hitting streak is extended on a sharp single to right. They’ll cheer the diving catch that snuffs out an opponent’s rally and exult in the unparalleled thrill of a walk-off win. Very likely one night, in some city, they’ll be mesmerized by the perfect beauty of a pitcher recording 27 outs in a row. And at the end of the longest season, the fans of one team will know the exquisite joy of having their greatest hopes realized.

On paper, that distant final Series should be an east coast affair, contested between Philadelphia and Boston. But here at the beginning, when fresh hope abounds, the fans of the 28 other squads can fairly remind themselves that no championship was ever won on paper.

The Great Game returns. Every season’s first directive is issued, and with it the spark of hope ignites in the heart of every fan: pitchers and catchers report!

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