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Another season


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The crocuses are up, the birds are on the wing, and the voice of the bull frog is heard booming across the blooming landscape issuing the clarion call of, "Play Ball!" And after everyone's played 162 ballgames in 180 days they'll have weeded out the mere pretenders.

They say time stands still on Opening Day but there are seasons it doesn't move much from the end of March to the first of November. Is it going to be one of those years? I'll get back to you on Columbus Day.

In the meantime, we have the usual faintly predictable first-week-of-the season nuttiness to sort out. It happens every spring. Only, when it dramatically embraces the two most exaggerated and overheated franchises in all of sport, let alone baseball, it gets really goofy.

Indeed, the Red Sox and Yankees both came sheepishly out of the gate, looking even more flawed and vulnerable than some of us expected and as far as the rest of the game is concerned only good can come from this. What might a season in which these two bloated franchises are not greedily hogging more of the limelight than they deserve look like? It would be vastly amusing to find out.

Among the intoxicating ramifications is the likelihood that the Red Sox early jitters only intensifies the Bobby Valentine watch. Nobody in baseball will be scrutinized more relentlessly, which is something nobody in baseball might enjoy more than Bobby Valentine. Like Teddy Roosevelt, our eternally brash new skipper yearns to be the groom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. He got off to a smashing start in reclaiming his suspended stardom at spring training, devoting much of the six weeks to his own assiduous self promotion.

It will take more than a whacked-out weekend in Detroit to dim this bulb. But if events at the ball yard prove disappointing you can seek solace at any of the 13 restaurants that opened under his masthead in this town before he managed a single game in this town. Win, lose or draw, Bobby will never bore you.

It was gracious of the Yankees to take some of the sting out of the Red Sox' embarrassing unveiling by being almost as inept in their opening series in Tampa. If it was only three games, it was quite enough to bring the skeptics roaring out of the wings. The Yankees were the overwhelming pre-season choice of all the savants just a week ago which seemed almost as dumb as the conventional wisdom that conceded the championship to the Red Sox before a game was played just a year ago. The wonderful thing about people who make these predictions is that they never ever learn from their mistakes.

Look closely up and down this allegedly mighty Bomber's lineup and you'll see it loaded with questions, many of them complex-compound. Just for openers, in a game that's become strikingly young, nimble, and dashing the Yankees are old, traditional, and plodding. Too much of their great expectations are predicated on such shaky notions as the fervent belief that Alex Rodriguez can again be as good as he once was. A-Rod always looks great in March. And then in the second game of the season, the manager feels compelled to give Derek Jeter a bit of rest and use him as DH. What's that about? In the end, it may be up to the gallant but 40 year old Andy Pettitte to save them. Yikes!

It's the mood of the thing in the Bronx; it is just not right. The Jesus Montero trade was a terrible risk. And then Michael Pineda came up with a sore arm. As the Queen might say, Brian Cashman's winter has been rather "horribilis."

But before you go off wild eyed about the Tigers and Rays take a breath. The Tigers have all it takes to win the Summer but lose the Fall. Playing in far and away the AL's weakest division, they can cakewalk to the playoffs. But with their top heavy devotion to sluggers and thin pitching depth it's a team that's made to order playoff-bait. They now have the Prince but it's still a team that rises and falls with the mercurial whims of the easily distractible Miguel Cabrera.

As for the Rays, yes, their pitching is wonderful and Joe Maddon walks on water. But one prefers to see how long and well that no-name offense holds up and whether Maddon -- in all of his genius -- can avoid burning out his bullpen.

Please keep the smallness of our sample in mind but after a week the Mets are also undefeated and the Orioles are in first place. So are the Mariners, also picked by nobody. If it's a new bandwagon you're seeking try the Blue Jays. The Giants are winless. The Phillies and Angels -- two other pre-season dandies -- have one more win than the Yankees and Red Sox. One year ago, Boston and Tampa started 1-6 and 0-6 and ended fighting for the last playoff berth the season's last night. The last year the Yankees started 0-3 (1998), they won 114 games and the World Series. The standings on the day after Easter are as relevant as the standings of the Grapefruit League. Case closed, I trust.

But Baseball, happily, is not just about who wins and what happens in October. Fascinating lesser issues abound and this year like every year there are some gems.

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