Football's over, so let's play baseball

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WALLA WALLA - I've always looked forward to Super Bowl Sunday.

It's a red-letter day for me, very much like the shortest day of the year.

That's the winter solstice - Dec. 22 in the northern hemisphere - when the sun is farthest south and the length of time between sunrise and sunset is at its shortest.

Because from that day forward, for the next six months at any rate, you know that the days are getting longer. And psychologically, that's a good thing.

Same thing goes for the Super Bowl.

Once the big game is in the record books and the hype begins to die down, it's time to put another NFL season behind us. And instinctively you know that another baseball season is right around the corner.

In less than one week, pitchers and catchers report.

Eleven of the 30 big league teams, including the Seattle Mariners, will open their spring training camps on Wednesday of next week. The other 19 will follow in short order.

Other position players are scheduled to report as early as Feb. 22, and the first full workouts are slated for the following day.

The first exhibition games are on tap March 2 when the Detroit Tigers entertain Florida Southern in Lakeland, Fla., and the Atlanta Braves take on the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The Mariners open their Cactus League schedule the following day when they host the San Francisco Giants at Peoria Stadium in suburban Phoenix.

Just in case you're wondering, the 2010 Major League regular-season opener is just 52 days away. The defending world champion New York Yankees pop the cork against the Red Sox at Boston's Fenway Park.

The Mariners unveil their revamped squad the next day against the Athletics in Oakland.

I can already feel the grass growing. Smell the hotdogs and brats. Hear the crack of the bat and visualize the baseball as it soars lazily into an azure sky.

It's not that I don't enjoy and appreciate other sports, because I do. And there are some notable events on the sports calendar before baseball takes center stage.

First and foremost, the 2010 Winter Olympics begin Friday in Vancouver, B.C. Two weeks of skiing and skating and a plethora of other snow and ice-related activities - some of which we're exposed to only once every four years - are in the offing.

Locally, the high school basketball playoffs are upon us. Considering Wa-Hi's boys team claimed the Big Nine Conference Cascade Division championship and the girls earned the division's No. 2 seed to the district tournament, both Blue Devil squads are well positioned going into the postseason.

And then there's this little matter of March Madness.

There isn't any sports-related event during the entire year that is more captivating than the men's NCAA college basketball tournament. From Selection Sunday, when the 65-team field is announced, right through the championship game, this tournament provides more thrills and spills and frenzied lose-and-you're-out action than most of us can hold up under in three action-packed weeks.

And as bad as the Pac-10 appears to be this year, we've still got Gonzaga to pin our hopes on. If only the Zags could make their free throws.

But ultimately, baseball wins the day for me.

Maybe it's because I grew up in the tundra where summers were shorter by far than anywhere else I've ever lived. You learned to savor those warm, sunny days, and baseball was so much a part of them.

Or maybe it's because I grew up in the pre-television era and spent so many summer evenings with a transistor radio pressed against my ear. If it wasn't tuned to the WLS rock station out of Chicago, it was dialed into baseball. Once the Braves game from Milwaukee was finished, I'd search through the static until I picked up the Dodgers or the Giants from out on the coast.

You can do that living in Middle America.

And like spring itself, each new season brings renewed hope for baseball fans everywhere. Not to mention an array of questions.

Will the Yankees repeat? Can the Cubs contend? Who's most likely to surprise?

Or, just how good are the 2010 Mariners?

The team certainly made some good off-season moves, signing Chone Figgins to play third base, Casey Kotchman to play first, Milton Bradley and Eric Byrnes to help solidify the outfield, and versatile Ryan Garko. And prospects such as outfielders Michael Saunders and Greg Halman, catcher Adam Moore and pitcher Dan Cortes add to the mystery, not to mention first baseman Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 June draft.

But how well the team plays and how close it comes contending for the American League West title falls squarely on the shoulders of its starting pitching rotation. In Felix Hernandez, last year's ace, stud lefty Cliff Lee, acquired in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia, and recently re-signed southpaw Erik Bedard, the front end of Seattle's rotation can as good as any in baseball.

I'm guessing - it's too early for predictions - that this year's Mariners team will be the most successful since the back-to-back 93-win seasons in 2002-03, and the most entertaining since the record-breaking 2001 club that won 116 regular-season games.

Who knows, maybe there will even be some postseason success that will take us back to the Mariners' 1990s golden era?

Isn't baseball fun?

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