The Countdown Begins
Only 47 days until Opening Day. Anyone know where to get a World Series season in Seattle? Amazon says it's still on backorder and offered me a stinking St. Louis world championship on Kindle instead. Meanwhile, pitchers and catchers report to spring training for most teams this weekend, with each club -- even the Pirates -- hoping their preparation leads to a Fall Classic climax like this. -- Jim Caple


Put me in coach, I'm ready to play …
Back in 1989, there was a much-hyped 19-year-old outfielder who entered spring training with little chance of making the big league club. "Needs more time in the minors," everybody said. But Ken Griffey Jr. was too good to send down. He made the Opening Day roster. And that's why we'll be watching Bryce Harper this spring. Some kids -- even at 19 -- are that good. -- David Schoenfield


Every day is important
Even in spring training, when the wins and losses didn't matter, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was intense. It's said the ever-intimidating Gibson, still looking strong now at 76, once plunked a young Frank Taveras in a spring game after he thought he had been showed up earlier. Gibson, the greatest baseball player to wear No. 45 and a two-time World Series MVP, took spring training seriously. -- Eric Karabell


There can be only one
Reginald M. Jackson wore No. 44. Willie "Stretch" McCovey wore No. 44. But the greatest No. 44 of all time was the man who inspired these words from Milo Hamilton: "Here's the pitch by Downing … swinging … there's a drive into left-center field … That ball is gonna beeee … OUTTA here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home run champion of all time … and it's Henry Aaron!" -- Jayson Stark


Not everything changes
Dennis Eckersley's Hall of Fame career changed how closers were used. But when he threw the 200th no-hitter in MLB history for the Red Sox in 1977, started games for the ill-fated '84 Cubs, surrendered his game-losing homer to Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series and won the 1992 AL Cy Young and MVP awards with the A's, one thing was constant: The Eck wore No. 43. -- Christina Kahrl


Time to just say 'Mo'
In the spring of 1995, a Yankees outfielder named Ruben Rivera was hailed as "the next Mickey Mantle.'' But another young Yankee with the same surname was destined for much bigger things. Mariano Rivera went 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA as a rookie. Seventeen years later, he has 603 saves and is Cooperstown-bound. At age 42, he might be in his final spring training; enjoy it while it lasts. -- Jerry Crasnick


Remembering Tom Terrific
In one of Tom Seaver's visits to the Ramsey home during the summer of 1987, he said to 20-year-old Gus Ramsey, now a coordinating producer at ESPN, "I need to start throwing. Can you catch me?'' So, Seaver threw to Gus, who wore his first baseman's mitt, on the front driveway. "I'm going to throw some sliders now,'' Seaver said. And Gus nervously said, "What does that mean?'' -- Tim Kurkjian


The Red Baron Flies Again
Rick Sutcliffe was the ace of the '84 Cubs, but not all seasons end badly for that ill-starred franchise: As recently as 1908, they won the World Series. Fans can read all about that year in two books I'd recommend: "The Unforgettable Season'' by G.H. Fleming (a clever collection of newspaper clippings) and "Crazy '08'' by Cait Murphy (a straightforward, entertaining history of the season). -- Jim Caple


Brooklyn's Finest?
It took catcher Roy Campanella a few years to settle on a number to wear for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But once he chose 39, he made sure he would be forever associated with it: He won the MVP in the NL three times, caught three no-hitters and helped the Dodgers win their first World Series title in 1955 with a couple of home runs. The Dodgers retired his number in 1972 to honor him. -- Richard Durrett


An Amazing Talent
The number 38 has never been retired in major league baseball. If Ray Dandridge had not been denied by his color, he might have been the one. The best third baseman never to play in the big leagues is what they said about Dandridge, who instead played in the Negro leagues. Someone else once said, "A train could go through his bowlegs, but that a baseball never did." -- Gordon Edes


Speaking The Truth
Like everyone else, managers go overboard in the spring. Sparky Anderson infamously praised Torey Lovullo and Chris Pittarro, two can't-miss prospects who missed. But Casey Stengel had the most accurate assessment of a player's future. One spring, Casey pointed to prospect Greg Goosen and said, "This is Greg Goossen. He's 20 years old, and in 10 years he has a chance to be 30.'' -- Jim Caple


Late-Career Kicks
With Tim Wakefield's retirement, Roy Halladay became MLB's active leader in wins with 188 (unless you count Jamie Moyer, with 267). Can he reach 300? Well, consider at the same age Gaylord Perry (who wore No. 36 with eight teams) had 177 wins. From age 35 to 40, Perry won 102 games. Halladay's seeking his fourth 20-win season; don't bet against him. -- David Schoenfield


Just The One
No need to fire up the wayback machine this time around because nowadays, when you think of No. 35 (with apologies to Frank Thomas) you can keep it associated with the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award-winner, Justin Verlander of the Tigers. Verlander became the first starting pitcher to win the Cy and MVP in the same season since Roger Clemens in 1986. -- Christina Kahrl


A Bundle Of Excitement
With a bowling-ball physique spun around a 5-8 frame, Kirby Puckett might have been the unlikeliest superstar. But his transparent joy for the game inspired fans in ways few players ever could. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Puckett might be best remembered for the game-winning extra-inning HR he hit in the 1991 World Series, forcing a Game 7 in the best Fall Classic ever played. -- Christina Kahrl


A Model Of Quality
"Steady Eddie" Murray was a watchword for slugging consistency over the course of a 21-year career, finishing with 504 home runs -- second only to Mickey Mantle among switch-hitters -- but never belting more than 33 in any single season. At the start of his career, he was as gifted and athletic a first baseman as there was in baseball. The Orioles retired his No. 33 the season after he retired. -- Christina Kahrl


Lefty Deserves His Due
I'm going to get myself in trouble -- I'm still not convinced the greatest No. 32 ever was Sandy Koufax. Instead, I'm nominating Steve Carlton. Koufax had six insanely dominant seasons, but Carlton was a dominator for two decades. He won nearly twice as many games as Koufax (329-165), won more Cy Youngs (4-3) and had a career WAR of 84.4 (to Koufax's 54.5). So worship what Koufax was from 1961-66, but don't forget the OTHER No. 32. -- Jayson Stark


A Master At His Craft
Greg Maddux won 355 games with a demeanor that was less than imposing. Maddux vanquished opponents with pinpoint control, a superior baseball intellect and athletic gifts that far surpassed his bookish exterior. This spring, he's in Texas' camp helping his older brother, Mike, tutor the Rangers' pitching staff. If the Texas pitchers are smart, they'll make sure to pay attention. -- Jerry Crasnick


'Rock' Sure Had Game
As a kid, I really enjoyed watching Tim Raines run around the bases. And as a Sabermetrically-inclined adult, I've been able to fully appreciate his accomplishments better. Hopefully Raines -- a game-changing, switch-hitting leadoff hitter who stole many bases and spent much of his career wearing No. 30 -- eventually gets his due with a deserved Hall of Fame plaque. -- Eric Karabell


Winning Is Everything
John Smoltz will soon be a Hall of Famer, and he's wildly competitive in every way. This story has been confirmed from two sources, one of them being Smoltz. He crushed a friend in ping pong, then said, "I'll beat you playing left-handed,'' and then he did. It is the common denominator among all great athletes: They have to win, no matter the game. Smoltz is the worst about that, or the best. -- Tim Kurkjian


You Gotta Love It
Spring training is not just for major leaguers. This is the time of year for everyone to get their gloves out from between the mattresses, find the finest performance-enhancing alloy bats available, stretch out the arm and get ready for the softball season. And just in case you need some inspiration, click here for one of the finest scenes in screen history. -- Jim Caple


A Number That Has True Meaning
Perhaps it's the perfect baseball number. To win a nine-inning game, it takes 27 outs. And as a pitcher, it represents absolute perfection to get all 27 batters faced out in order. In the modern era, there have been 20 perfect games in history, a list that includes Cy Young and Sandy Koufax. Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series remains the only perfect game in the postseason. -- Richard Durrett


No Fond Memories
Wade Boggs had seven consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits for the Red Sox, and he also had 2,098 hits wearing the No. 26 on the back of his Boston jersey. That being said, this is how Boggs will be remembered in Boston. -- Gordon Edes


Talk Of Hall Never Gets Dull
It's always a good time to talk about the Hall of Fame. Which player can most improve his Hall résumé this year? How about Adrian Beltre? He has 310 career home runs and is young enough to have a few more big seasons. Or maybe Lance Berkman (six top-seven MVP voting finishes). And, yes, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds should be in. -- David Schoenfield


That's M-A-Y-S!
Two of my boyhood heroes were the greatest baseball player (Willie Mays) and the worst (Charlie Brown). The two were linked -- Peanuts creator Charles Schulz occasionally referred to Mays, including this classic when Charlie Brown studies hard for weeks to compete in a spelling bee, takes his spot in front of the class feeling "oddly confident" and then … well, see for yourself. -- Jim Caple


A Moment Frozen In Time
I'll never forget the shockwaves that rippled through Dodger Stadium when No. 23 hopped out of the dugout. It was Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, and Kirk Gibson wasn't going to play. But then there he was, limping toward home plate. Then there was that baseball, hanging in the night. Changing that World Series. I'll never forget No. 23, gimping around the bases that night. Will anyone? -- Jayson Stark


By Rocket's Light
For two decades, Roger Clemens was a Grapefruit League fixture -- sweating, grunting, popping mitts and outworking the competition on his way to 354 career wins and seven Cy Young Awards. He defined the phrase "Texas fireballer'' like no one since Nolan Ryan. Now 49, the Rocket has faded from the scene like a ghost, proving that for the game's elite there are no guarantees. -- Jerry Crasnick


A True Hero
Jackie Robinson's place in baseball and American history is secure, and the game honored him by retiring his No. 42. There are many who believe Roberto Clemente and his No. 21 deserve the same recognition. Clemente was a great player and obvious Hall of Famer, while also being a noted humanitarian who was heavily involved in charity work. He left a legacy on and off the field. -- Eric Karabell


A Man For All Seasons
Frank Robinson won the MVP in both leagues, played in the World Series, won a Triple Crown, retired with the fourth most homers at the time, was MLB's first African-American manager (he homered in his first game as player-manager) and was a GM and MLB executive. He's also mentioned in Annie Savoy's opening monologue in "Bull Durham'' but a career like that deserves its own movie. -- Jim Caple


Bat And Ball The Winner
If there's one thing synonymous with spring training besides rundown drills and pitchers' fielding practice, it's golf. Players love to jet out after the sixth inning and hit the links. In 1978, Robin Yount threatened to retire and take up golf as a pro. Luckily for the Brewers, they signed him during spring training. Yount went on to win two MVP awards and reach the Hall of Fame. -- David Schoenfield


It's All About Money
Not many baseball players have made me laugh more over the years more than former Pirates and Cardinals center fielder Andy Van Slyke. When someone threw coins at him in the outfield one night, he said after the game, "Fans hate us because we make so much money, then they get mad and throw money at us. Why? Hey, throw me your electric bill." -- Tim Kurkjian


Like No One Else
He might have pitched in the black-and-white era, but few stars were more colorful than Dizzy Dean. "Diz" was the ace of the Gashouse Gang team that took the 1934 World Series behind his wins in Games 1 and 7, capping a 30-win season. But he was equally famous and beloved for his time in the booth, where Deanisms like, "He shouldn't hadn't oughta swang!" remain unique. -- Christina Kahrl


Honesty The Best Policy
As we hit the Sweet 16, it's worth pointing out tournament pools are as popular in spring training clubhouses as in your office. The stakes are a tad higher, though. Jeff Francoeur told me last spring he won $6,400 one year. And did he report the income on his taxes? "Absolutely,'' he said. "We report it to everybody. MLB. The IRS. We want to pay taxes. We want to do the right thing.'' -- Jim Caple


Far Better Than Advertised
Tim Hudson may not return until May following offseason lumbar spine fusion surgery. (How somebody who had lumbar spine fusion surgery can pitch again seems miraculous.) Hudson has been one of the most underrated pitchers of this generation, with a career 181-97 record, a .651 winning percentage that is ninth-best since 1901 (minimum 150 wins). -- David Schoenfield


A Polarizing Figure
It's a jersey number worn by many greats in the game. But for most baseball fans, the No. 14 conjures up visions of Pete Rose's rough and tumble style, grinding out at-bats and collecting a record number of hits. Rose has become one of the game's more controversial figures, but he remains popular whether you think he belongs in the Hall of Fame or not. -- Richard Durrett


Unlucky? No Such Thing
Superstition might be as synonymous with baseball as bats, balls or hot dogs, but it shouldn't surprise anybody that Ozzie Guillen has been bold about making his own luck. On the field and in the dugout, Guillen dares fate wearing the unlucky number, but considering he led the 2005 White Sox to their first World Series win since 1917, you can't argue with the results. -- Christina Kahrl


One Of Baseball's Pioneers
On July 21, 1959, more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green entered a game as a pinch-runner for the Red Sox, the last of MLB's 16 teams to integrate. Two weeks later, on Aug. 4, the 25-year-old Green made his Fenway Park debut. Thousands of African-American fans came to the game, many standing in a roped-off section of center field. -- Gordon Edes


Baseball's Perfect 9
One of the best rites of spring? The debut of the new team promotional commercials. A lot of clubs do these, including the Mariners, who have had some outstanding efforts over the years. Perhaps the one that brings more smiles to Seattle fans is one that wasn't made by the team but by a local hardware store, featuring one of Seattle's most beloved players, Edgar Martinez. -- Jim Caple


A Truly Great Man
There are other No. 10's we could pay homage to -- but not this year, because this is the year the late, great Ron Santo gets inducted into the Hall of Fame. Finally. Too bad it's an honor that will mix so much sadness with the joy, because this man won't get to stand at the podium and soak in this hallowed moment. But at least this is one time Cubs fans won't have to wait till next year. -- Jayson Stark


Simply Splendid
When it came to pure batsmanship, perhaps no hitter in history could top the immortal Ted Williams. With an incomparable career line of .344/.482/.634 abbreviated by two stints spent serving his country, the man who wore one of baseball's most fundamental numbers was as admirable off the field as he was on it, playing for some of the beloved Boston ballclubs of all time. -- Christina Kahrl


Remembering The Kid
Several Hall of Famers have worn No. 8 -- Yogi, Ripken, Yaz, Morgan, Stargell, Dickey. But I'm thinking of Gary Carter and how he was too young to pass away. Teammates called him 'Kid' -- they didn't mean it in a nice way -- and he was full of enthusiasm and energy, maybe to a fault in a game with baseball's daily grind, but few players loved the sport as much as Carter. -- David Schoenfield


A Sacred Number
Mickey Mantle wasn't perfect, as we've been able to learn in the decades after his career ended. But to a generation of baseball fans who grew up watching him achieve great heights on the field, he certainly was. Mantle hit 536 home runs and earned three MVP awards. But to those who saw him play, the numbers are irrelevant, except one. "The Mick" wore No. 7. -- Eric Karabell


A Must-See Event
We're six days from Opening Day in the U.S., but the season has already started in Japan where the Mariners and Athletics began play this week. Ichiro had a big homecoming with four hits and an RBI in the opener. But for an even more memorable game by Japan's favorite player, check out this video from when Ichiro pitched in the Japanese All-Star Game in 1996. -- Jim Caple


A Beloved Figure
Brooks Robinson isn't the greatest No. 5 ever, but he's the single nicest star player in baseball history. He is so revered in Baltimore, not just because he is a Hall of Fame third baseman, but because of the way he treats people. In the late 70s, Gordon Beard, a Baltimore sportswriter, said the following: "Here in Baltimore, we name our children after Brooks Robinson." -- Tim Kurkjian


The Iron Horse's Legacy
From his 1927 through 1937 peak, Lou Gehrig hit .350 and averaged 39 home runs and 153 RBIs. From 2001 through 2011, Albert Pujols hit .328 and averaged 40 home runs and 121 RBIs. Gehrig is still regarded as the greatest first baseman of all time. But if Pujols wins another MVP Award, is it time start reconsidering that belief?
-- David Schoenfield


Open Window
Another spring training is almost complete, and the Rays are brimming with optimism thanks to a loaded pitching staff, an airtight defense, the leadership of manager Joe Maddon and the presence of MVP candidate Evan Longoria. The Rays have shown that the "window of opportunity" for financially-challenged teams doesn't necessarily have to slam shut after a year or two. -- Jerry Crasnick


Still the Captain
How many more quality seasons does Derek Jeter have left? He hit .297 in 2011, but without much power and without much range in the field. He turns 38 in June. Has it really been 16 years since he took the field on Opening Day 1996 as the team's starting shortstop? There is no clock in baseball, but time catches everyone … eventually. -- David Schoenfield


A New Season Awaits
Do a backflip, folks … Opening Day is just about here. May all your teams stay healthy and stay in the race all the way. Well, maybe not Yankees fans. And Cubs fans, well, there is always next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. Or the year after that …
-- Jim Caple

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