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Nine scenarios to keep an eye on as Baseball steps off on its 162-game parade

They’re back! Strike up the band! A tattered Nation flickers its star-crossed gaze upon you, Jackie Bradley.

Baseball returns with less pretense and bombast hereabouts than usual, there being less urgency in striving to rise from the cellar. Still, the play’s the thing. It’s time for another opening, another show.

Here are nine points to mark the moment. Call them issues or scenarios or a foot in the bucket list. For me they are the nine most interesting story lines – or at least those I’ll most intensely follow – as another long, long, long season of the beloved pastime grinds from the blocks with its customarily glacial rapidity.

Boom or bust, smash or dud, the season will stretch over six full months, 162 days of play. Unlike on Broadway, in Baseball you can’t fold your tent when you discover you’ve got a clinker on your hands. More’s the pity! Anyway, here’s our lineup:

The Red Sox Seek “Redemption” – Hokey as it may seem, even by this ballclub’s legendarily turgid standard, that’s the season’s guiding motif: “the quest for redemption.” It has been adopted by the front office as a promotional/sales strategy and accepted by the ever-gullible Nation as a matter of theology. Should they win the home opener, watch for the band to strike up “The Impossible Dream.”

On the other hand, they do have much to redeem. Last season’s 69-93 pratfall was the weakest since 1965 when hopes were being pinned on the likes of Felix Mantilla, Jim Gosger, and Dennis Bennett while experts were strenuously urging that they trade Carl Yastrzemski. Two years later, they hit the jackpot. Don’t look for history to repeat itself. It’s harder to do nowadays.

A busy but oddly unfocused off-season has been followed by a quiet, orderly camp, at least compared with last year’s circus featuring Maestro Bobby Valentine. Of the king’s ransom they luckily landed by dumping bloated contracts last summer, over $100 million was spent on bit parts and role-players. But only one of the seven – Shane Victorino – is signed for more than two years, so perhaps they’re learning. With near-half the roster and all the coaching staff having been turned over, it will be different. That alone is certain. But is it enough? The Nation is hardly famed for its patience.

Theo & Tito – There’s such irony in the principal architects of New England’s renaissance now languishing in what amounts to baseball’s Elba and St. Helena, they having been banished to the Cubs and Indians.
In Chicago, Theo Epstein seeks to re-build around the NL’s most mercurial young star, Starlin Castro. In Cleveland, Terry Francona looks to a revived Jason Giambi and re-born Scott Kazmir to reach .500. The Sporting News says achieving that modest goal would make Francona Manager of the Year. As for Epstein’s wayward Cubs, the Baseball-Bible terms their 2013 prospects as “grisly.”

Ouch! In Boston, Theo and Tito’s haughty ex-employers could hardly be more amused. This game can be cruel.

How the Blue Jays and Dodgers Will Blow It – The answer is: “Easy.” Consider your Red Sox two years ago when their winter-wonders had them proclaimed “greatest team ever.” As this year’s undisputed off-season champs, might the Jays and Dodgers have been similarly cursed? We hope so.

Everyone picks them to meet in October yet both have questionable leadership. The giddy Dodgers have displaced the Yankees as baseball’s most wanton spendthrifts, amassing a $240 million payroll with such dubious moves as making Zack Greinke the richest pitcher. That makes their purchase of Josh Beckett look smart. Money is no object but they remain managed by still unproven Don Mattingly. They’d be better off with Bobby Valentine.

In Toronto, the only Canadian franchise fields a virtual Latin-American all-star team and adds to its pitching staff one of sport’s most interesting characters, A.J. Dickey. But they entrust all this to John Gibbons, who has already failed them once as manager, because they apparently could find no one else. Why?

The Further Decline of the Phillies and Angels – Each the most aggressive franchise in their respective leagues of late.
When the Phils added Cliff Lee, then Jonathan Papelbon to a staff already led by Roy Halladay the rest of the league was urged to surrender. Since then, the Phils have gone backwards.

When the Angels inked Albert Pujols to a monstrous two-year deal, they proceeded to miss the playoffs. So they rushed to add gifted but problematic Josh Hamilton, bringing to roughly $400 million their investment in past-their-prime sluggers in one year.

If they again miss the playoffs, can we all agree there’s a message there somewhere?

The Further Rise of the Nationals and Rays – Washington and Tampa are the trendiest picks to go all the way, by the game’s smart set that favors rational thinking in a madcap business. Both teams are young, innovative, fundamentally sound, wisely built, and   brilliantly managed at reasonable prices. It’d be a triumph for one to make it, a joy for both.

The Ups and Downs of Other Contenders and Pretenders – There are so many. The Rangers are trying to dump Nolan Ryan, proving they’re still a dumb franchise. Why aren’t the Giants picked to repeat? In Bruce Bochy, they have the best manager. The effects of Houston’s switch to the AL could influence pennant races in both leagues. Will the Marlins’ meltdown in Miami be allowed to continue? Whither the Tigers? Jim Leyland never repeats. Do the Orioles fade? How much more scandal pours forth from that anti-aging clinic, Biogenesis, in Miami? Questions! Lots of them!

The Pittsburgh Pirates – They seek to smash their own record for having losing seasons 21 straight years? We’ll root for them to do so, hoping that will change their rotten luck.

The Kansas City Royals – If there’s a surprise this year it’ll be Kansas City, high among America’s finest and liveliest towns. They think they have their best ball club since the heyday of Brothers Saberhagen, Quisenberry, Wilson, White, and the incomparable Georgie Brett. If you love this town, you dearly hope so.

The last waltz in the Bronx –  Over the years, many have lusted to proclaim the end of a Yankees era while living to rue their impertinence. This year such satisfaction could be unprecedented with no such potential downside.

For the latest Yankees’ dynasty – only the fourth most sensational in this brilliant franchise’s storied history – is indeed dead and gone. One could sooner expect the return of the Dodgers to Brooklyn and Braves to Boston or even the restoration of the Hapsburgs than for the Bombers to slip off the hook of time and fate this time. It ain’t going to happen. The only question is how steep will the fall be and how painful the shame. For no team endures failure’s shame more acutely than these guys.

You know all about the aging and injuries, the decline of Jeter and fall of Rodriguez, the radical philosophic flip-flop embracing an astonishing austerity more worthy of Third World franchises. That has all combined to speed their demise, although it was the gluttony of those hideous contracts they so long dispensed like jellybeans that most made that demise inevitable. Those who would imitate them ought take notice.

Much as the sight of the almighty Yankees searching baseball’s scrap heap for cheap alternatives was the off-season’s most shocking story, tracing the dynasty’s death throes will be the most fetching of the regular season. Moreover, rebounding will not be so easy for them this time. The game has changed greatly of late.

Many will delight in all this. But not me. The Yankees are to Baseball what Beethoven is to Great Music or Rembrandt to Great Art. You need not love them to acknowledge they’ve been titanic and impossible to deny. But then, excellence is hard to live with. There are folks who also disdain Beethoven and scorn Rembrandt. I guess.