Baseball's kickoff

Out of the ultimate winter rears the most welcome of springs. Eternally seminal, baseball's spring training this year glorifies the promise that lies beyond the next snow bank or patch of black ice.

As harbingers, the groundhog and swallow are bush leaguers compared to the crack of the ball off the bat and the snarl of the ump, "Play Ball!" Everyone is in first place and out of some distant sun-belt grove is about to swagger the next Shoeless Joe from Hannibal. Mo. It's that time again. God's in his heaven, all's right with the world!

Hence begins the long, relentless, forced-march to November. Soon enough it will be a trail of tears for the vast majority. But as the Baseball Brigadoon's re-open, scattered all the way from Vierra on the East Coast to Flagstaff near the West, every team has a right to an illusion. Even the sight of the boys bending over to touch their toes raises little squeals of joy.

Other sports properly regard baseball's blissful six-week training routine in the sun as a bloody joke. The closest thing to a boot camp the Red Sox ever staged was in 1967 in bucolic Winter Haven when freshly appointed Drill Inspector Dick Williams ordered his pitchers to keep busy by playing volleyball between stints on the mound. The sight of it almost gave the other Williams -- that would have been the immortal Ted -- a heart attack.

Times have changed. Today's flannelled plutocrats are no longer dumb enough to report to camp 20 pounds overweight. Rare is the pitcher who cringes at the prospect of having to run a mile unless, of course, he's a 175 million dollar rookie imported from Japan. Hell-raising tales of nocturnal carousing are scarcer still. There's too much at stake. These guys mean business. They are serious to the point of boredom. This is not your daddy's game, let alone your granddads.

But this much remains constant. There will be one team left standing when the big chill returns and grey clouds thicken. En route, heroes will come and go, new stuff of legend will ripen, hearts will be broken. And it all begins again, right here and now.

As usual, a significant number of teams might as well remain in camp until October for all the difference they're likely to make. Are the Astros still in the league? If so, which league? Do the Marlins have any more young phenoms left to sell? The Twins, fortified by Phil Hughes, are probably going nowhere. As are likely the Brewers who must welcome back Ryan Braun, the poor team's A-Rod. Similarly, one sees little hope for the Rockies, Padres, White Sox and Cubs and is it time to pronounce Theo Epstein a failure in Chicago. On the other hand, it's risky to write off teams in February. Who gave the Indians a chance one year ago and under Terry Francona they made the playoffs, if only for a few hours.

Also notably resurgent last year, after two decades of pure folly, were the Pirates. Perhaps in celebration, they did nothing in the off-season. Their abrupt return to mediocrity would thereby not surprise. Equally burdened are the Angels, heavily handicapped by ridiculous contracts to the likes of Brothers Hamilton and Pujols; the Phillies whose slide back into the nether regions they once long occupied has become determined; the Mets, who seem to have no clue; the Reds who blundered by axing Manager Dusty Baker; the Blue Jays, who last year won the off-season and bombed in the real-season; and the Orioles who, piloted by the brilliant Buck Showalter and the reborn Dan Duquette, had scratched back into contention only to be sabotaged by their jug head of an owner. 'Tis a familiar tale.

Next in this profound summary we offer what I would term "the inscrutables"; teams that were busy off-season, have talent, and get good notices yet remain vaguely unconvincing, at least to me.

Seattle, already deep in pitching, made the biggest off-season noise landing Robinson Cano, ex of the Yanks. Robbie will rack up decent numbers but in the end the Mariners will be sorely disappointed. You can take that to the bank, as the Hawk would say. Knowledgeable baseball men say Oakland A's GM Billy Beane has done it again, re-patching his smart and lightly paid team on the cheap. But for all the claims of genius on Beane's behalf, he's never won anything. Arizona is another hard-to- figure outfit rated higher than seemingly deserved. The Braves are the eternal bridesmaid; or should I say, "best man." After three decades of folly, the Royals brinked on contention last season. With a deep farm system, might this be the year? Then there are the Washington Nationals of Strasburg, Harper and Company. Washington-baseball last prevailed in FDR's first year in office. I'll believe it when I see it.

Then there are the teams widely predicted to dominate. History tells us at least one in each league will bomb. The questions being, which ones?

In the NL, the Giants -- champs two years ago -- focused on re-signings. They've not much changed. The Cardinals who need no introduction never stand still. They have interesting imports in Messrs. Bourjos, Ellis, and Peralta plus their constant stream of quality youth. Everyone is conceding the NL to the Dodgers who are loaded to the gills and buoyed by an unlimited budget which they regularly exceed. But first they must beat the Cards. Handing Clayton Kershaw $30 million a year for winning 16 games and bombing in the playoffs could only make sense in Lotus Land.

In the AL, we have the usual suspects. With the brilliant Dave Dombrowski pulling the strings, the Tigers -- who virtually handed the championship to the Red Sox last fall -- have decidedly improved. With Max Scherzer on borrowed time Detroit must win now. Dumping the oafish Prince Fielder was classic addition by subtraction. In the West, Texas has weak pitching but should fend off Oakland even if adding Fielder was classic subtraction by addition.

Which brings us to the only division we really care about where the race -- always taut -- could be flat-out better than ever. In the bend, one can imagine mere four or five games separating Tampa, Boston, and New York in the end.

It's fair to say the Red Sox caught every break conceivable last year. Is it possible, let alone rational, to expect that to happen again? If they have a wild card this year it's their bottomless pit of rich farm system talent. Who will step forward this season and will he -- or they -- make the difference?

The Rays remain the Rays. The Andrew Friedman-Joe Maddon managerial tandem may be baseball's best and they've seemingly done it again; strengthening the team without much padding the payroll. Key move was to stick with David Price, now getting expensive and approaching free-agency. With a big payday looming Price likely has another Cy Young in his bag. Can Wil Myers and Des Jennings become stars? Will Evan Longoria be MVP? We may find out this year.

As for the Yankees, never have they been harder to fathom. Has there ever been a Bronx edition weighted with more questions and, yes, doubts? They could go all the way. Or they could battle the Blue Jays for last place in the AL East. One alternative would be no more surprising than the other. Such is the complexity of their make-up and the questions only a fool might believe have been answered this early. Being unchained from the madcap A-Rod melodrama is a wonderful break. While the Derek Jeter victory lap will be greatly more charming it may not be without its complications. This Yankee season could be a veritable classic.

And so might the entire season. But then they all look like that in February. One man's guess says it will be Tampa against Washington when all is said and done. Tampa alone, at the end. Check back with me around Armistice Day, old Sport.