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New season brings plenty of storylines

Sun., April 2, 2006

Now that baseball has a true world champion for the first time, it’s time for the Chicago White Sox to defend their World Series title.

Japan’s victory in the World Baseball Classic punctuated the most unusual spring training in a decade, one in which star players left their clubs to join national teams even while much of the focus remained on Barry Bonds and his alleged steroid use.

But it will be back to business as usual starting today, when Cleveland plays Chicago in the major league opener.

Well, not quite business as usual. The White Sox haven’t defended a World Series title since 1918, when they dropped to sixth at 57-67 a year after beating the New York Giants 4-2.

“I told them 2005 is over, and we’re going to be a target to everyone in baseball,” said manager Ozzie Guillen.

Boston knows how the White Sox feel. After winning in 2004 for their first title in 86 years, the Red Sox had visions of repeating heading into last year. But injuries to Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke caused Boston to struggle, and the Red Sox were swept by Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.

Trying to make it two in a row, Chicago re-signed Paul Konerko, acquired Jim Thome from Philadelphia for Aaron Rowand, jettisoned an angry Frank Thomas and obtained Javier Vazquez from Arizona.

After falling short, Boston spent the first part of the off-season trying to figure out if Theo Epstein would stay (he left, then returned 21/2 months later). When the on-field shuffling was done, the Red Sox got 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett from Florida’s dispersal, brought in Coco Crisp to replace center fielder Johnny Damon and remade its infield by adding second baseman Mark Loretta, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and third baseman Mike Lowell.

“I’m not worried,” said Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, entering his 12th season with Boston. “They’re all professionals, regardless of where they came from.”

Adding Damon was the biggest move by the New York Yankees, who head into the season once again with an old pitching staff that seems destined for the disabled list. Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright all had health issues last season, and Pavano and Wright already have ached this year.

Still, with A.L. MVP Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, the Yankees are likely to be among the scoring leaders.

“We still have to stress the fact that in spite of having the ability to hit a lot of home runs, we’ve got to have a different mind-set, or continue to think small and let the big things happen,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “Sometimes when you have a club like we have, you tend to wait around for boom, boom, boom, and sometimes it doesn’t happen.”

Home runs are what fans await from Bonds, who missed all but the final three weeks of last season because of a knee injury. He hit five homers last year, boosting his total to 708. The 41-year-old outfielder trails only Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) and isn’t sure whether he’ll stick around for 2007, even if he hasn’t broken Aaron’s record.

“I’ve played a long time,” Bonds said. “I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. We’ll tackle that bridge when it happens. I’ll sit back and talk with my family and take a long, long vacation and see how I feel. I could do that and get in the wintertime and say, ‘That’s enough,’ and somewhere in January wake up and say, ‘That’s not enough.’ “

Bonds has refused to respond to accusations in an recently released book that he used performance-enhancing drugs for at least five seasons beginning in 1998. Commissioner Bud Selig announced Thursday that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell will head an investigation of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport.

Steroids are back in the spotlight this year, with players testing positive initially receiving 50-game suspensions, up from 10-day penalties last season. Players also will be tested for amphetamines for the first time, and will be sent for counseling if they test positive.

Rafael Palmeiro, the most high profile of the 12 players who tested positive last year, won’t be around on opening day. Though he hasn’t announced his retirement, Palmeiro wasn’t wanted back by the Baltimore Orioles and wasn’t pursued by any other team.

Sammy Sosa, who testified alongside Palmeiro at the March 2005 congressional hearing on steroids, also will be missing. He chose to retire rather than take a contract offered by the Washington Nationals, the only team that wanted him.

Roger Clemens won’t be on the mound but hasn’t decided whether he’ll come back later in the year. After losing the game that eliminated the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic, the 43-year-old Rocket issued an ambiguous statement that said: “For me, right now, it’s goodbye.”

There are dozens of other story lines heading into a season in which two-thirds of the teams have a realistic chance to get one of the eight playoff spots.

Toronto, unable to catch up with the Yankees and Red Sox in the A.L. East, signed a top starting pitcher (A.J. Burnett) and a top closer (B.J. Ryan).

Dodger Stadium will have a little bit of a Fenway Park flavor. New general manager Ned Coletti hired former Red Sox manager Grady Little as his skipper and signed former Red Sox players Nomar Garciaparra, Bill Mueller and Aaron Sele to join Derek Lowe.

Other new or recycled managers are Florida’s Joe Girardi, Detroit’s Jim Leyland, Pittsburgh’s Jim Tracy and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon.

The New York Mets geared up by adding former Florida Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca and closer Billy Wagner, who left Philadelphia.

In Atlanta, the biggest move was adding shortstop Edgar Renteria. The Braves, who may be sold by Time Warner Inc., are trying to extend their record streak of division titles to 15.

In St. Louis, the Cardinals will move into a new Busch Stadium after a relatively quiet off-season, and on the North Side of Chicago the Cubs start the season with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the DL.

The N.L. champion Houston Astros, who dethroned the Cardinals last year, had a noisy winter highlighted by their decision not to offer arbitration to Clemens and battles with first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who will go on the disabled list – Houston wanted him to retire as part of its effort to collect about $15.6 million in insurance.

Two closers got hurt Saturday and will start the season on the DL: Detroit’s Todd Jones (hamstring) and San Francisco’s Armando Benitez (knee). Burnett (elbow) also is on the DL.

Rainiers edge Mariners

Gil Meche, Seattle’s No. 4 starter, pitched an efficient 51/3 innings Saturday in his final spring start, but the Mariners lost 5-4 to the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers in Tacoma.

Oswaldo Navarro had a one-out, two-run, bases-loaded bloop single off Rich Dorman in the eighth inning to put the Rainiers ahead 5-3.

Meche allowed one run and six hits, striking out three and walking two.

Clearing the bases

The Texas Rangers traded outfielder David Dellucci to the Philadelphia Phillies for right-hander Robinson Tejeda and minor league outfielder Jake Blalock. … Jose Contreras and the Chicago White Sox agreed to a $29 million, three-year contract extension. … The Red Sox placed pitcher David Wells and first baseman Hee-Seop Choi on the 15-day disabled list.


 

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