Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 19, 2012

The Day of Hope And Renewal Arrives

It has been a strange winter in New England. When an unlikely October storm turned Halloween night white, everyone braced for the worst; but the worst never came. Instead the entire region has been a desert through the winter months, bringing much despair to plow drivers and equal amounts of relief to those of us with lengthy commutes to work. But while we in the northeast may not be buried in snow as we were a year ago, it is still winter, the bleak season. It is the time when one awakens in the dark, then later leaves the office to return home in the next cycle of night. During the foreshortened day the feeble sun shines down on fields turned brown and lifeless by frost. We bundle ourselves against the cold and long for the warmth and bright colors of a spring that seems hopelessly distant.

Yet still the day arrives, as it does every year. In the very depths of this barren season in which darkness reigns, comes the magical day of renewal for all true fans; and with it a bright flame of hope sparks to life in thirty cities across North America. It is the day on which all teams are equal, possibilities abound, and every off-season move looks, for the moment, brilliant.

Two years in a row the Texas Rangers have been the American League’s representative in the World Series, and two years in a row they have come up short of a championship. Twice last year they were within a single strike of victory, only to have it slip from their grasp. So they spent nearly $112 million in a posting fee and a 5-year contract to bring right-hander Yu Darvish from Japan. They also signed closer Joe Nathan away from the Twins, which means young Neftali Feliz will move from the bullpen into the starting rotation.

Yet there is no certainty that the Rangers are even the best team in their division, let alone their league. Armed with the cash flow of a major new regional television contract, the Los Angeles Angels committed more than $330 million dollars to just two free agents, pitcher C. J. Wilson and slugging first baseman Albert Pujols. Angels fans will almost certainly rue the out-years of the decade-long commitment to Pujols, but in the here and now his talents are formidable.

While the moves by Texas and Los Angeles made the biggest headlines, plenty of other teams took steps that their owners and general managers believe will make them better. The Reds, who have star Joey Votto at first base, added starter Matt Latos, left-handed reliever Sean Marshall and closer Ryan Madson, all in the hopes of mimicking Milwaukee, who won the NL Central behind dominant pitching and a slugging first baseman in the person of Prince Fielder. Meanwhile Fielder has moved on to Detroit, where the Tigers hope that the addition of the burly slugger will be enough to move them past the League Championship Series, where last fall they fell to the Rangers. In the Bronx, where any season that ends without a world championship is considered a failure, the Yankees have stocked up on starting pitching. New York signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda away from the Dodgers, and traded their young one-dimensional slugger Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda. Along with the resigning of veteran Freddy Garcia and the presence of some promising minor league prospects, these moves allowed the Yankees to off-load A. J. Burnett to the Pirates even as training camps were opening. Burnett shone briefly during his first year in pinstripes in 2009, but then withered under Gotham’s bright spotlight.

Off-season moves were not limited to already successful teams looking to become more so. The Washington Nationals, long the doormat of the National League East, rose to 3rd last year and finished just a game below .500. In the hopes of becoming a true contender the Nats added the free agent Edwin Jackson and traded for left-handed All-Star Gio Gonzalez, fortifying an already promising rotation. The Miami Marlins made most of the early off-season headlines, signing shortstop Jose Reyes away from the Mets and pitcher Mark Buehrle from the White Sox. Even the low-budget Oakland A’s committed $36 million over four years to Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes.

Ahead lies the longest season, with twists and turns as yet unknown. Come October, indeed likely well before that, some of the moves described above will be derided by the very fans and sportswriters now praising them. Some players will be injured while others will underperform. The cold reality of the standings is that in the end there must be as many losses as wins. But while disappointment inevitably waits for some, others will experience the satisfaction of an off-season move that turns out even better than it seemed at the time; or perhaps the thrill of an unexpected breakout performance by a player not even mentioned here or by any of the many pundits now beginning to make their annual forecasts.

As always, to learn which fans will eventually exult and which will have their hearts broken, we must play the games. In the end, that is the purpose of this magical day. In the dead of winter it arrives, to remind us that spring will come. Once more we will make our way to the great parks scattered across North America. On a chill spring evening, again on a sultry summer Sunday afternoon, and on into next fall, we will walk up the familiar ramps and stairways to take our seats. There before us will be the emerald-green of the outfield abutting the rich earthen hue of the base paths. The clean white chalk of the foul lines will run from home plate to the fences, over which we will hope to see our sluggers send their mighty blasts. The officiating crew will gather behind home plate, and a coach from each side will come out for the exchange of lineup cards. Then at last we in the stands will rise with a mighty roar as our heroes, led by our captain, take the field. The Great Game returns. The first order of each new season is given; pitchers and catchers report!

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