Spring training opens with optimism and a dark cloud

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2004

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 had never 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 even the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays full of optimism, set against a backdrop of palm trees and cactus in Florida and Arizona, with the scent of suntan lotion mixing with the smell of pine tar.

Baseball also returns 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 will surely 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 were to begin reporting this weekend, with Tampa Bay the first team to open up. 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 on Feb. 22.

Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar are now in Anaheim and Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez are with the New York Yankees, and plenty of other big names switched teams.

Billy Wagner, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Richie Sexson and Roberto Alomar were on the move. So was Japanese star shortstop Kaz Matsui, who signed with the New York Mets, while Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki left the team and went back to Japan.

Terry Francona, Lee Mazzilli and Ozzie Guillen wound up in new dugouts as managers. Greg Maddux, Raul Mondesi and Ugueth Urbina, meanwhile, are still looking for jobs.

The exhibition season starts March 2 when the St. Louis Cardinals play Florida Atlantic in Jupiter, Fla. The next day, games will take place in familiar spring haunts such as Vero Beach and Bradenton.

The Grapefruit and Cactus league seasons feature games in Mexico City between Houston and Florida on March 13-14. Philadelphia will have a new ballpark in Clearwater, Fla., replacing cozy Jack Russell Stadium, where the warning track was made of crushed seashells.

Exhibitions will still be going on in places such as Tucson and Winter Haven when the Yankees and Tampa Bay play the majors' regular-season opener in Tokyo on March 30. After a two-game series, New York and the Devil Rays will return to Florida to brush up before resuming the season.

Clemens and Pettitte are absent this spring from Legends Field in Tampa, where the Yankees have sold out all of their exhibition games. Instead, the Houston-area residents will be two hours east on I-4, over in Kissimmee and pitching for the Astros.

Earlier this month, the new aces were honored at a dinner in Houston. Pettitte and Clemens appreciated all the attention, but were eager to start up.

''This is the last banquet, thank goodness,'' Pettitte said. ''Let's get to spring training and play.''

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