Sports

Baseball takes the spotlight

Let's take a look at some of the story lines of 2009 as the major league baseball season gets under way this week:

New palaces

The lights have gone out for good at venerable Yankee Stadium and not-so-venerable Shea Stadium.

New York has $2.3 billion worth of new ballparks in the Bronx and Queens.

The new Yankee Stadium has a granite and limestone exterior, just like the original one, which opened in 1923. Over in Queens, Citi Field has the outer look of Ebbets Field.

The Phillies get their first look at the Mets' new playground on May 6. They visit Yankee Stadium on May 22.

Old faces in new places

No more 'We got Wood' T-shirts at Wrigley Field. Kerry Wood has moved on to the Indians.

After 20 seasons firing fastballs and sliders in a Braves uniform, John Smoltz is with the Red Sox. Pat Burrell is saying "Thanks, guys," to reporters in the Tampa Bay area.

After a long and meritorious career with the Angels, Garret Anderson is with the Braves. Bobby Abreu is with the Angels. Matt Holliday has moved from the Rockies to the A's.

Money matters

Major League Baseball had its second-best season ever at the gate last season, drawing 78.6 million fans. That after a record attendance of 79.5 million in 2007.

Total revenue for 2008 reached $6.6 billion.

It will be interesting to see how the recession will impact these totals. There already has been speculation that attendance could dip into the 75-million range.

The economy has affected other clubs. The Indians have tabled discussions of a contract extension with lefty Cliff Lee, last year's American League Cy Young winner. Look for some potential free agents, such as Oakland's Holliday, to be traded quickly if their teams fall behind early.

New York makeovers

You'd never know there's a recession by the way the Yankees threw around money over the winter. They spent $435 million on three free agents: pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

In the grand tradition of DiMaggio, Mantle and Williams, the Yanks will open the season with Brett Gardner in center field. Cody Ransom will start at third base while Alex Rodríguez recovers from hip surgery.

The Yanks didn't make the postseason last year for the first time since 1993. Watch your back, Joe Girardi, if that happens again.

As for the Mets, they know where they lost the National League East title last season -- in the bullpen -- and moved to fix the problem by adding closer Francisco Rodríguez and setup man J.J. Putz.

Rodríguez set the single-season record of 62 saves for the Angels last season, though he did have seven blown ones. Putz had a combined 76 saves in 2006 and 2007.

The Mets finished three games behind the Phillies in 2008. The Phils were 79-0 when leading after eight innings. The Mets, who blew 29 saves, the second-most in the league, were 78-7 when leading after eight innings. With Rodríguez and Putz, the Mets should protect leads better.

The year after

It's going to be interesting to see how the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers fare this year. They were two of baseball's surprise clubs last year, for different reasons. Despite a stacked lineup and a $138 million payroll, the Tigers finished last in the AL Central. Meanwhile, the $43 million Rays, who had never had a winning season, won 97 games and made it all the way to the World Series.

The Rays remain a team loaded with young talent, but they won't sneak up on anyone again, especially not in the rugged AL East, where the Red Sox and Yankees both have the personnel to win the division.

Led by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers still have a tremendous lineup. But manager Jim Leyland will need to get some pitching from Justin Verlander and company to extract his backside from the hot seat.

Manny being Manny

Manny Ramírez is always worth watching. He made a huge impact on the Dodgers last season, hitting .396 with 17 homers, 53 RBI, and a .489 on-base percentage in 53 games.

Will his motivation suffer because he is guaranteed $45 million for two seasons? Or will he play like a man with his dreadlocks on fire because he can opt out of the contract at season's end and seek an even richer deal?

The 101-year wait

The Cubs can exhale now. All the hysteria about their having waited 100 years for a World Series title is gone. Their wait is now at 101 years.

The Cubbies won 97 games last year, but they've shuffled their deck a little. Valuable jack-of-all-trades Mark DeRosa and Wood, the closer, are both with the Indians.

The Cubs have added a good righthanded bat in Milton Bradley, but there are always questions about his health and behavior. Their new closer, Kevin Gregg, blew nine of 38 save chances with the Marlins last year.

Fixtures

How about Terry Francona? He is the first Red Sox skipper since Joe Cronin, who held the post from 1935 to 1947, to begin a sixth consecutive season on the job.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia is beginning his 10th season and received a 10-year extension over the winter. Pretty nice job security. Scioscia's club has won the AL West four of the last five seasons, running away with it by 21 games last year. Look for the Angels to do it again. They were 24-7-1 in the Arizona portion of their spring-training schedule.

Bobby Cox begins his 20th consecutive season as leader of the Braves.

A-Rod

Alex Rodríguez, the Yankees superstar slugger, required hip surgery during spring training. His recovery has taken him out of the public eye and quieted the storm of controversy surrounding his admission to using performance-enhancing substances.

A-Rod is due back in May, and his return will surely cause a stir. He'll no doubt feel some heat from fans around the country. Will he be able to block it out, Barry Bonds-style, and continue to put up big numbers? Or will his play suffer?

Milestones

Randy Johnson, 45, has moved on to San Francisco, where he will team with 24-year-old fireballer Tim Lincecum, last year's National League Cy Young winner, atop the Giants' rotation.

Johnson showed he has gas left in his tank by recording a 2.41 ERA in 13 second-half starts last season. With 295 career wins, he stands just five shy of becoming the 24th pitcher to amass 300.

This milestone is worth watching closely because it might not happen again for a long while. The next-closest active pitcher to 300 wins is the Phillies' Jamie Moyer. The 46-year-old lefty has 246.

Also, Gary Sheffield, now a New York Met, is one homer away from 500.

On the dubious side, the Pirates, who have suffered 16 straight losing seasons, tying them with the 1933-48 Phillies, are hoping to avoid setting the record.

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