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March Sure Doesn't Go Out Like A Lamb but Opening Day's Around the Corner

New Yorkers are getting a little stir crazy. The weather hasn't been horrible but it sure hasn't been warm. Ready or not, Opening Day is April Fool's Day and for the first time in recent memory, the Yankees and the Mets both open at home. The reason is that this is the first year when there is an interleague game almost every day and traditional scheduling methods have had to be modified if not scrapped.

2013 will also be the first season that the intracity interleague games are played in one four-game series, two at home and two at away. This is a good idea because the buildup of city passion over two three-game series that have been on the schedule since 1997 have proved too wearing on the players , especially in New York and Chicago.

On April 1, 2013, the Yankees will host the Red Sox. For the first time since the early 1990s neither team is favored to win the AL East division or is not considered a lock for even one of the two wild card entries into the playoffs. Meanwhile, over in Queens the Mets cut the ribbon on the 2013 season with their "historic rival" the San Diego Padres. (I hope dear readers can see my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.)

Neither New York team is expected to do much this year but one thing is clear from my over 60 years of close watching of baseball: There will always be a surprise team who defies the pundits and contends at least into midsummer. That team will not likely win anything though the presence of two wild cards might possibly lead a surprise team into the playoffs.

I see the Mariners and Royals as possible surprise teams in the American League because their youngsters may be coming of age, esp. in Kansas City, a team now bolstered with the
veteran arms from Tampa Bay of JAMES SHIELDS and WADE DAVIS. With a high ceiling catcher in SALVADOR PEREZ and solid bats in BILLY BUTLER, ALEX GORDON and hopefully at long last first baseman ERIC HOSMER, the Royals might just be on the upswing. Certainly the great victory-starved fans of KC deserve a contender.

As an ardent Oriole fan, I know the AL better than the NL so I'm not sure who can surprise in the senior circuit. I do think San Diego's manager BUD BLACK has the ability to get the most out of his material.

He's the third member of Angels manager MIKE SCIOSCIA's staff that won the 2002 World Series to become a major league manager. Black joins JOE MADDON of the Tampa Rays
and RON ROENICKE of the Milwaukee Brewers. Ironically, as Angels owner ARTE MORENO has lately binged on the huge long-term expensive contracts for sluggers ALBERT PUJOLS and JOSH HAMILTON, Scioscia's own job security may be threatened.

As I eagerly look ahead to the new season, I still am glowing from the wonderful few days I enjoyed in the Phoenix area in mid-March. The 20th annual conference of "NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture" provided the expected stimulation.

The papers ranged from a witty analysis of American baseball stadium statues to the pros and cons of "Pump and Dump" strategies of baseball teams moving to spend and then to unload expensive contracts. An evening with BOB MOTLEY, a 90-year-old umpire who succeeded in both the Negro leagues and the Pacific Coast League, was another memorable highlight.

As always the collegial nature of the folks who come to present or just listen at NINE was the most enjoyable feature. And in keeping with conference's tradition, two afternoons during our four-day gathering were devoted to what NINE's founder the late social worker and writer/scholar BILL KIRWIN called "Field Research". Namely, exhibition games.

We were blessed with sunshiny weather and seats pre-ordered in the shade. We saw the Rangers outplay the Athletics at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where the concessions and amenities may be outmoded but the buttes beyond the outfield walls are haunting.
Next spring the A's move to the Cubs' longtime HoHoKam Park facility in nearby Mesa as
the Chicagoans head to a new facility in the same Phoenix suburb.

On a warm night with a lovely sunset rising back of the left field fence, I caught a college baseball game at BOBBY WINKLES Field between the visiting Washington State Cougars and the Arizona State Sun Devils. Fans of the Oakland A's should make a pilgrimage to Winkles Field which is part of Packard Stadium because the retired numbers of A's 1970s dynasty standouts SAL BANDO, REGGIE JACKSON and RICK MONDAY hang above the outfield fence. They are just 3 of the 15 so honored at Winkles Field. Former coaches Winkles and the late JIM BROCK also have their numbers above the fence.

It will take some doing for the new Cubs' home to match what exists outside Scottsdale at the Talking Stick Salt River Fields home of both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies. We saw the Mariners continue their fine spring play beating the Rockies. They just might have enough improved offense with dh KENDRY MORALES (obtained in a trade with the Angels for pitcher JASON VARGAS) and the maturing of youngsters DUSTIN ACKLEY, KYLE SEAGER and JUSTIN SMOAK to contend. I also ate perhaps the best ballpark food I ever tasted, a Crust brand veggie pizza that is baked while u wait.

My trip wound up with a visit to Goodyear, home to another new facility shared by the Indians and the Reds. It was St. Patrick's Day but there were none of the hijinks I saw years ago in Vero Beach where the Dodgers trained in that great Dodgertown facility created by Branch Rickey. Thanks to the Irish-American dominance of Rickey's successor Walter O'Malley, the bases in Dodgertown on March 17th were alway painted green and the beer was colored green.

St. Paddy's Day was more sedate in essentially Protestant Goodyear but the field and the entire complex were state of the art. Late in the game, which ended in a tie, I got to see the impressive speed of the Reds' BILLY HAMILTON who stole 155 bases in the minors last year and could be a center fielder of the Reds' future. Not this year but he is definitely a prospect.

That's all for now - April brings not only Opening Day but Jazz History Month. Watch in this space for my commentary on the ongoing life in New York City of America's other great original creation, jazz.

For now always remember - Take it easy but take it.
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