Familiar sound foretells baseball's return

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WALLA WALLA - Pling!

The sound was unmistakable. And inviting.

Pling!

I was jogging on Tietan Street. The sun was arcing low along the southern horizon and it's brilliance was almost blinding. But my ears were not deceived.

Pling!

I glanced to my left and spotted the familiar source. The outline of a father as he wound up and pitched baseballs to his son, who wielded a metal bat in front of one of the Tietan Park backstops.

Pling! Pling!

Hmmm. That's pushing the season a little, I thought, and then reconsidered.

So what if it was still mid-January. So what if it wasn't exactly warm. The temperature was in the low 40s, after all, well above freezing. And there was no sign of snow.

That makes it almost baseball season, right?

Besides, in no time at all the analysts on the MLB Network are going to be reminding us on a daily basis:

Twenty-one more days ... 20 more days ... 19 more days until ...

Pitchers and catchers report. The four happiest words in the sports lexicon.

And spring training comes a week early this year, too. For the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics, that is.

The voluntary reporting date for those two clubs' pitchers and catchers (and injured players) is Feb. 12. That's exactly 28 days from today.

And the voluntary reporting date for the remainder of their players is Feb. 17.

The Mariners and the Athletics get a one-week jump on their Major League counterparts because they have been designated to open the regular season with a pair of games against each other March 28-29 in Tokyo. None of the other clubs will play until the official April 4 Opening Day when the Marlins christen their new Miami Ballpark against the world champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Seattle and Oakland will also launch the Cactus League season March 2 at the Mariners' spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. The first Grapefruit League games in Florida are scheduled for March 3, although several teams will see earlier action against college teams, led by the Philadelphia Phillies vs. Florida State University on Feb. 29.

Here in Walla Walla, the youngster I noticed at Tietan Park probably won't see his first official practice until mid-March or later, depending on his age. But the town's two college teams, Whitman and Walla Walla CC, are in takeoff mode.

Whitman will hold its first official practice Monday and opens its season in Caldwell, Idaho, Feb. 11-12 when the Missionaries meet College of Idaho in back-to-back doubleheaders. The Whits will be on their way to Chandler, Ariz., where they will play four games in four days beginning Feb. 16.

The community college takes the practice field for the first time Jan. 30. The Warriors will be preparing for a March 3 regular-season opener when they entertain the Prairie Baseball Academy in a doubleheader.

Of course, baseball almost always has to share the spotlight.

For now, the NBA is back with an abbreviated schedule after settling its labor woes. The NHL is in full swing. And there's also this little thing called the Super Bowl, which will be played Feb. 5 in Indianapolis once the NFL's weeding-out process concludes.

The big one, of course, is March Madness, college basketball's blockbuster season-ending tournament that just might be the most popular event on the annual sports calendar.

But for baseball guys - and there are more of us out there than ESPN would lead you to believe - our time is fast approaching.

Big league teams have reshaped their rosters and the balance of power in each division has shifted to greater and lesser degrees. Every team considers itself a playoff contender, also to greater and lesser degrees. And the anticipation of another 162-game marathon is palpable.

And then there's my fantasy league team to consider as well. It's time to begin poring over scouting reports, 2012 projections and player rankings.

Because there's always room for improvement.

A trade or two, perhaps? Doubtful, considering my track record in that area.

A waiver-wire nugget waiting to be uncovered? Unlikely, considering the wiles of my fellow owners.

Prospects with potential? You bet.

So isn't it heartwarming to realize that winter's nearly at its end and another baseball season is right around the corner? I can hardly wait for that first pitch and the resounding crack of the bat.

Or the pling, as the case may be.

Contact Jim Buchan at jimbuchan@wwub.com.

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