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Baseball's back...

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The happiest and looniest interlude on the entire sporting calendar has reared again, a far more certain harbinger of palmy days looming just around the corner than any frolicking bevy of bloody sparrows. With apologies to the poet, God's in his Heaven; Spring Training is about to begin.

Has there ever been a time when enduring a three hour traffic jam crawling from Fort Myers to Sanibel Isle and back looked like more fun? Certainly not since 1978 when the addled masses that escaped that epic winter's fury came crashing down on Winter Haven in record numbers raring to party. Back then it was the nightmare of a night on Route 128 or having to dodge ice floes rolling down the main streets and back roads of the South Shore that further inspired our baseball passions. This year, the inspiration is -- incredibly -- even greater and scarier. No game benefits more from its place on the calendar.

Bear in mind, dear friends, that this too shall pass and it's only a month and a half until Opening Day. Baseball is eternal and so, in your heart of hearts, are the Red Sox.

As are of course to their respective constituencies the Yankees and Cubs, Mariners and White Sox, Nationals and Royals, even this year the Padres, although there may be less of an urgency about having to flee San Diego in February.

The point being that maybe never have there been more issues and questions, rising hopes and simmering doubts, controversy for the gasbags of talk-radio to bicker over and basic baseball for diehards of the bleacher seats to feast upon as the dearly welcome Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues re-flower. For the common and unquenchable fan it is a bonanza.

And it all derives from Baseball's historic winter-long Hot Stove Season which featured 95 old-fashioned horse trades plus 78 huge dollar-packed free-agent signings involving a total of at least 330 players and it's technically not yet over (as of the writing) because there's a couple of days to go before all the camps officially open. Those who keep track of such arcane folderol insist there's never been anything quite like it in all of baseball history and when you say something has never happened before in this game you are really reaching. On average, teams re-shuffled more than a quarter of their rosters.

Not one held pat and some were utterly out of control. The feisty Oakland A's, under the tutelage of their manic GM, Billy Beane, recasts half its roster, including the entire starting infield, even though last year's squad was good enough to reach the post-season. The team from the Nation's Capital, scene of so many colorful denunciations of runaway spending, pays $210 million for a pitcher even though they've already got arguably the best staff in the League. The long pathetic team from Miami, long run by legendary tightwads, invests $335 million in an outfielder who got seriously beaned at the end of last season. It was the winter everyone went nuts, except the Yankees. Talk of the unprecedented! From Armistice Day to Groundhog Day the trafficking in baseball was just plain crazy.

So who did best? Which team emerges most strengthened? Does one have the chance to match Kansas City's stunt of surging from abject mediocrity to a berth in the World Series? Sorry Pal, but I ain't going there. Reading those tea leaves before spring has even sprung is pure folly. Moreover, "winning the off-season" has become the game's most worthless distinction.

Two years after pulling what looked like a bunch of nifty deals the Blue Jays were widely conceded the pennant. They finished last. A year ago, the Red Sox -- fresh from a championship and seemingly set at every position -- were widely applauded for doing nothing while hanging on to their dozens of so-called prized prospects. They too finished last and now can't give away some of those alleged phenoms. Baseball is a strange game. Only dang fools and the more foolhardy members of the media dare try predict it.

For what little it may be worth, the more learned pundits seem to most like what the Cubs, Padres, Mariners, Marlins, Jays, Chisox, Mets, and Bosox have done to upgrade themselves. What's interesting about this list is that it prominently includes teams that -- save for Boston's -- have been more often than not lackluster, even traditional doormats. This perfectly reflects the changing baseball scene. In an age of prosperity and with a much wider distribution of profit than historically the case, no baseball team is truly strapped and all of them can now belly up to the bar capable of going for broke. Could it be that there is no such thing as a doormat anymore? All of this, of course, comes as particularly bad news for the New York Yankees who can no longer bully the field with their big bucks.

Can't really comment meaningfully on most of these aspirants. Teams like the Padres might as well come from Southeast Asia for all we get to really know about them. But the rising tide of great expectations on behalf of the Cubs and White Sox is particularly interesting. If there's an undisputed off-season winner, it's the city of Chicago. The annual baseball yearbook of the Sporting News -- no longer the "Bible," but still possessed of much clout for we old geezers -- flat out predicts the Cubs will go all the way this season; win it all for the first time since 1908 when Tinker and Evers and Chance were all the rage and Mordecai Brown pitched with only three fingers.

The News finds Theo Epstein's off-season moves topped by his Jon Lester coup to be quite dazzling although I remain confident the Cubbies will somehow find a way to screw it up. Not that I would root for that, mind you. Because it would be just dandy to have the Cubs and the also greatly improved cross-town White Sox meet at the brink next October in what would gloriously be a reprisal of their 1906 epic, memorably won by the "Hitless-Wonder" White Sox back when Chicago was truly a toddling town. Such wistful yearnings are at the core of Spring Training's magic.

Talk of "wistful yearnings" brings us back to the Red Sox; a subject on which I'm always from Missouri. But I do think there should be legitimate doubt about the wisdom of their off-season investment of $200 million in a third baseman who has a conspicuous weight problem and a leftfielder who has never played left field but does have a well established reputation for being fragile and possessing a poor attitude. Reference being obviously to those big-buck imports, Messrs. Sandoval and Ramirez. Nor is the pitching staff that impressive although a trade with the Phillies for lefty Cole Hamels, still rumored a strong possibility, could change that abruptly. As usual, I shall wait and see on these blokes.

On the other hand the measure of what the Red Sox did has much to do with what the Yankees didn't do because as you further know it's always all about the Red Sox and Yankees. But if the hot stove seemed cool in the Bronx that's mainly because we're so accustomed to it running red hot. Actually, they were quite busy, albeit with moves more subtle than usual. The fact that they have finally renounced the idiotic policy of throwing huge and mindless gobs of money at every problem is noteworthy.

"Prudence" is their new watchword. Will wonders never cease?

Now they face a training camp that could easily be turned into a flaming circus by the unwelcome return of prodigal son A-Rod. At his best, he could turn their spring scene upside down before anyone gets the chance to bend over and touch their toes.

Obviously, deeper explorations of all these issues are in order. But we have all spring for that, and beyond.

As Robert Browning's dear Pippa might say, "Baseball's back. All's well with the world."

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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