fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Hit the diamonds, it's time to 'Play Ball!'

Terry Francona sat in the dugout at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium on a warm, sunny Sunday and expressed the feelings of most baseball fans.

"Opening day is 24 hours away," the Boston Red Sox manager said. "If you're not optimistic, you're crazy. But I think we have a legitimate reason to be optimistic. We think we've got a pretty good team."

Enough of the practice in Florida and Arizona. It's time to play ball for real.

After getting the final out of last year, the St. Louis Cardinals began the long season Sunday night when they hoisted the World Series flag and then lost 6-1 to the New York Mets — the team they beat in the NL championship series before blowing out Detroit for the title.

Twenty-six more teams were set to open today, leaving the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres to get under way Tuesday, when Barry Bonds resumes his chase for Hank Aaron's home run record.

"You slow down with age. You've got to manage yourself a little bit better," said the 42-year-old Bonds, who needs 21 homers to reach Aaron's career mark of 755. "I don't think anything's going to be different than in the year's past."

While he has to wait a day, more aces will be on display today than at a Las Vegas casino table. Among the stellar starters are Minnesota's Johan Santana, Toronto's Roy Halladay, Atlanta's John Smoltz and Arizona's Brandon Webb — Cy Young Award winners all.

And then there's Carl Pavano, who will face some potentially hostile fans when he starts for New York in Yankee Stadium. It will be the first major league appearance since June 27, 2005, for Pavano — he'll be their first opening-day starter who didn't start in the majors the previous year since Hippo Vaughn in 1910, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, back when the team was called the Highlanders.

"I'm excited, can't wait. After what I've been through, I expect great things," Pavano said Sunday before the Yankees worked out on a damp, chilly day in the Bronx. "I just think a lot of things were a string of bad luck. It's been a long time coming to get me out there feeling the way I do."

Today will feature the return to the majors of Sammy Sosa, who took 2006 off. He's with the Texas Rangers, his original team, and will open at the Los Angeles Angels.

"I'm ready," said the 38-year-old Sosa, who needs 12 homers to reach 600. "I had a good spring training, the whole thing. Coming back now to the season, I know I'm ready to go for it."

Commissioner Bud Selig doesn't know whether he'll be at the ballpark when and if Bonds hits No. 755, but he did plan to be in Chicago when the White Sox opened against Cleveland. Detroit starts the defense of its first AL title since 1984, at home, sending Jeremy Bonderman to the mound opposed by Halladay.

"It's a good time to be a Tiger," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "We're a team that's talked about. We've got some respect, obviously. I like the fact that people are expecting us to do something. I've gone to too many spring trainings where everybody said, 'Well, you've got no chance.' I don't know how we're going to do, but this is good pressure."

Many big names will be missing. Ninety-eight players started the season on the DL, an increase of more than 30 from last year. Among the injured pitchers are the Mets' Pedro Martinez, the Rangers' Eric Gagne, the Tigers' Kenny Rogers, the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson, the Angels' Bartolo Colon and the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang.

Also on the sidelines is Roger Clemens, who at 44 appears likely to return for his 24th big league season. He won't decide until May whether to stay retired or pitch for the Astros, Yankees or Red Sox.

Alfonso Soriano (Cubs), Gil Meche (Royals), Carlos Lee (Astros), Gary Sheffield (Tigers), Frank Thomas (Blue Jays), Mike Piazza (Athletics), J.D. Drew (Red Sox) were set to make debuts with new teams today. So was the Angels' Gary Matthews Jr., who gained unwanted notoriety during spring training when his name was linked to a steroids investigation.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, the most talked-about rookie, will have to wait until Thursday, when he makes his first start for the Red Sox at Kansas City. By then, fans no doubt will be checking for the early trends — are home runs up or down? Who is off to a fast start and who is stumbling?

"I like to prove people wrong and make sure they're always wrong," Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "The predictions — whatever they want to say, they can say."