Baseball Blossoms in the Spring

Now that the excitement from the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory is rapidly fading (just in time for Mardi Gras) and global warming is doing its best to melt the Vancouver Olympic games into a snow-free event, there are slim pickings in the sporting world.

The World Cup is still months away, no new Tiger Woods playmate has stepped forward for her 15 minutes and I’m frankly not very interested in Gilbert Arenas’ new basketball-weapons venture (the NRA-NBA).

So, as pitchers and catchers report to camp this week for the beginning of spring training, I happily welcome the official start of the 2010 Major League Baseball season. Whether players spent their vacation time hibernating in million-dollar homes or toiling in the Dominican winter leagues, over the next two weeks, they will all convene at their training complexes in Arizona and Florida to play some long toss and take a few rounds of batting practice — as Opening Day 2010 inches closer and closer.

Here are five stories to follow as spring training begins. Pour yourself a tall glass of grapefruit juice and find some shade behind a cactus, because baseball’s back.

1. Can the Yankees stay drama-free?

New York followed its World Series Championship with a very un-Yankee offseason: lowering the team payroll, and passing on the market’s marquee-free agents for Curtis Granderson and Javier Vázquez — incredibly solid players without much flash. In the last decade, the Yankees have made dramatic and headline-filling offseasons a habit, which have always added to New York’s traditionally contentious spring trainings — and George Steinbrenner’s hernia collection. But this spring, the boys in pinstripes roll into Florida without any of the distractions that have crippled their early season potential in the past. Maybe a little zen and spring sunshine is all CC and Captain Jeter need to remain world champs.

2. The Dodger divorce court.

I sure as hell don’t envy the PR guy who has to sit down all those diehard Dodger fans and explain why Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce. This winter, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie went through a very public divorce. The clincher? Jamie also happens to be the team’s CEO. As a result, Dodgers’ ownership was neck-deep in litigation, ignoring the team’s glaring need: improving its mediocre pitching staff. All the Dodgers needed was a solid offseason to seriously contend for the NL pennant. Instead, LA enters spring training with zero upgrades and a sad farewell from its 2009 ace pitcher. I wonder if McCourt will have to pay alimony to help keep Manny in a clean pair of diapers.

3. The Cuban capitalist.

The biggest headliner out of Cuba since Elian Gonzalez is Aroldis Chapman, the left-handed defector with a 100-mph fastball. Chapman left his native country over the summer and established residency in the income tax-friendly nation of Andorra before inking a $30.25 million, six-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January.

The 22-year-old Cuban phenom has the chance to boost a rotation that also features the young and promising Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto — making Cincinnati a possible sleeper pick in the NL East.

4. MLB ain’t recession-proof.

More so than in any spring training prior, this year, there are numerous All-Stars out of work and searching for a job. Normally, each spring has a few over-the-hill players or aging stars who wait until the middle of spring to sign with a new team, but this year’s AARP stragglers include players in their prime who are coming off solid seasons. Although Johnny Damon can keep blaming his unemployment on Scott Boras’ insanity, the fact that he is still without a team would have been unthinkable even just three months ago. Other players waiting in the bread line include Jarrod Washburn, Felipe Lopez, Russell Branyan and Jermaine Dye.

5. The return of the Mac.

In spite of what might be the world’s most pathetic steroids apology, Mark McGwire now returns to the major league as the St. Louis Cardinals’ new hitting coach. Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa brought his old Oakland bash brother into the clubhouse to mentor a group of talented young hitters and to oversee an offense that includes the otherworldly powers of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.

The real question is if La Russa will keep McGwire on the active roster to use as a pinch hitter. It’s very unlikely, but weirder things have happened — like the steroids-era posterboy returning as a hitting coach.

I must be maturing as a sports writer; I just wrote a whole column on baseball without once mentioning my home team, the San Francisco Giants. Oops.