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Archive for Sunday, February 15, 2004

Spring opens with optimism

Unfortunately for major league baseball, steroids also hot topic

February 15, 2004

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A year ago, right after flipping his Mustang on a California highway and somehow surviving the crash with hardly a scratch, a 21-year-old lefty who never had pitched above Class A walked into his first major-league camp. He was promptly assigned No. 77.

"I felt like a lineman," the rookie later recalled.

By October, Dontrelle Willis had blossomed into a fan favorite, an All-Star and a World Series champion.

If there's any time to think big, it's now. Spring training opens with the New York Yankees closing in on a trade for Alex Rodriguez, while even the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are full of optimism.

Baseball returned this weekend, set against a backdrop of palm trees and cactus in Florida and Arizona.

It also came back under a dark cloud.

Because with all the exciting possibilities -- Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in Houston, Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke in Boston, Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez in Baltimore -- fans will be scrutinizing more than lineup cards and stat sheets.

A 42-count indictment this week against four men accused of distributing steroids to top athletes surely will send shock waves through the sport. No players were named, but the whispers that have hounded top sluggers in recent years are bound to turn into shouts -- especially with baseball ready to begin penalizing players for steroid use.

Former NL MVP Ken Caminiti already has admitted to juicing up during his playing days. In a neat twist, the San Diego Padres have invited Caminiti to be a spring instructor, and he's expected in camp shortly.

Pitchers and catchers began reporting Saturday, with Tampa Bay the first team to open. From the get-go, Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella is raising expectations for a team that has finished at the bottom of the AL East in all six years of its existence.

"We're not going to finish last in our division. Put it that way," Piniella said. "We're going to start moving up the ladder."

The Tigers are aiming high, too, after 10 straight losing seasons. Coming off a year in which they set an AL record with 119 losses, they got busy in the winter, signing free agents Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White and Fernando Vina.

"We're going to see this organization, this Detroit Tigers team, in the playoffs very soon," predicted Rodriguez, MVP of the NLCS last October.

Pudge's old team, the champion Florida Marlins with Willis and World Series MVP Josh Beckett, and the Minnesota Twins will be the last clubs to start camp Feb. 22.

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