Baseball players anxious to begin season

Monday, April 1, 2002

Roberto Alomar is ready. Really ready.

"I can't wait to start the season the right way and win lots of games," the New York Mets' new second baseman said during Sunday's workout at Shea Stadium.

Same goes for Luis Gonzalez.

"The last time we took the field for real, when we walked off we were world champions," the Arizona star said. "All the guys are anxious and eager."

And so, after an acrimonious winter filled with talk about contraction and more labor trouble, baseball can finally focus on what it does best -- playing ball.

The season started Sunday night with an Easter special as the Cleveland Indians visited the Anaheim Angels.

Then today, it revs up for real with opening day at 10 ballparks.

Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks will raise the World Series banner before they play the San Diego Padres at Bank One Ballpark.

Pedro Martinez pitches at Fenway Park, Roger Clemens starts at Camden Yards in his drive toward 300 career victories.

Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr., both within range of 500 career home runs, face each other as the final year begins at Cinergy Field. The Minnesota Twins, after escaping offseason elimination, playing at Kansas City.

Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn, all gone. Yet new stars on the way -- are Florida pitcher Josh Beckett and Texas third baseman Hank Blalock really as good as the scouts say?

And for at least for one afternoon, optimism abounds all over the majors.

"Everyone is in first place on opening day," Mets star Mike Piazza said.

Patriotic tributes and reminders about Sept. 11 will be present. American flags will appear on players' jackets, "God Bless America" will continue to be sung during the seventh-inning stretch and there will be a minute of silence at 9:11 p.m. during each team's first home night game.

That is, if the games last that long. Baseball has once again tried to institute speed-up rules -- pitchers must throw the ball within 12 seconds of the batter stepping in the box if no one is on base.

Among those in charge of enforcing the regulations is Joe West, one of the five umpires rehired after 22 of them lost their jobs 2 1/2 years ago in a failed resignation plan.

At Arizona, fans are still celebrating after Gonzalez's bottom-of-the-ninth single beat the New York Yankees in Game 7 last November. But Johnson, the winning pitcher that night, already is looking ahead.

"I've put all that behind me," the Big Unit said. "How is that going to make me better out there against the San Diego Padres?"

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