- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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There is still snow on the ground in parts of New England -- and possibly as much as another foot of it expected Friday in an April Fools' Day cruelty -- but it is, finally and officially, baseball season. The San Francisco Giants (who shouldn't have to worry about snow at their opener in Los Angeles on Thursday night) begin the 2011 season as something they never have been: defending World Series champions. The Texas Rangers, too, are treading unfamiliar turf, approaching Opening Day as defending American League champions for the first time.
But trumping those surprises is one from Major League Baseball itself. The game is beginning the season with another first: It's winning in the field of labor relations, an area in which it has produced strikeout after strikeout over the decades.
As improbable as it sounds, baseball -- with its eight work stoppages and enough deep, historical grievances to be worthy of a college course on labor relations in the 20th century -- opens the season in the ironic position as an oasis of stability in the otherwise unsettled world of professional sports. The game's collective bargaining agreement expires in December, but, so far, early talks between management and the Major League Baseball Players Association have been respectful and promising. There are indications that a new deal could come together smoothly and without rancor.
Meanwhile, the National Football League, once considered the model sports organization, made good on its threats and has shut down. NFL junkies can still get a fix with the draft at the end of April, but the lockout is souring the experience. The NBA is on a collision course with its players to do the same this summer. The NHL is still recovering from a disastrous 2004-05 work stoppage.
At a time of the year when the sports fan can choose from a bounty of alternatives -- the Final Four is this weekend; The Masters is next week; and the NBA and NHL seasons are finally gearing up for the playoffs -- baseball might be the most appealing option. For the first time in a long time, there is nothing of import to take the focus away from what happens on the field.
The sport is in something of a transition, its recent icons being forced by time to begin releasing their grip on this generation. Joe Torre is gone from the manager's office and will spend this season, at least, in a much less public role as the executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office. Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox are gone. Pedro Martinez's attempt at a Roger Clemens-esque midseason comeback last year did not materialize; and it is unlikely now that we will ever see Pedro in a big league uniform again. Andy Pettitte says he will not pitch this season. Derek Jeter, once supreme, is now under pressure to pass the torch, and his great rival and teammate Alex Rodriguez is limping into perhaps the final stage of his career -- an assault on the home run record, if his body will allow it.
The Tampa Bay Rays' aging Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are playing for their fifth and sixth teams, respectively. Jason Giambi turned 40 in January; Jim Thome will be 41 in August. They're all giving way to David Price, Tim Lincecum, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Cain, Buster Posey and others.
(On the other hand, Mariano Rivera, nearly as old as his number, apparently plans on pitching forever.)
So, while the decertified NFLPA is dipping into its lockout fund to pay its membership and NFL owners are begging to spend broadcast revenue from lockout payment provisions in network contracts (which the courts so far will not allow), the baseball fan can focus on the pitcher's mound, where the Philadelphia Phillies rule the roost, the Giants are a close second and, yes, the Oakland A's are attempting a comeback to relevance.
As New Englanders wait for bare trees to turn green, they can perhaps put aside their angst about revenue sharing and labor negotiations and wonder, instead, whether the Red Sox will go wire to wire this season -- as they should, assuming Carl Crawford finds what he wishes for in terms of East Coast baseball intensity every day and every night, David Ortiz starts fast, and Jonathan Papelbon survives the season as Boston's closer.
The Atlanta Braves, after a surprise playoff appearance in 2010, are intriguing, as are the Cincinnati Reds, who are the defending champs in the NL Central and have the reigning MVP in Joey Votto. The Rays, a playoff team in two of the past three years, represent the hopes of little guys everywhere and believe they can beat salary-uncapped Boston or New York (or both) and make the playoffs.
All of which is not to imply that baseball has reason to gloat. The playoffs, mercifully, are scheduled to end before Halloween, as they should; but the game still faces issues about the length of its season and the possibility of postseason expansion. The damage done to baseball in the steroids era was gradually being repaired, but it's back in the headlines now during the Barry Bonds perjury trial.
The details of the Bonds case are simultaneously stale and lurid, the jury left to ponder whether his sexual abilities declined as his home run totals increased. Regardless of the hope that comes with this Opening Day as baseball moves on to a new decade, the Bonds trial is a sad reminder of all the sport did not do in the first decade of the 21st century.
And although Bonds is a leadoff for the spring, the summer will be interrupted by Clemens' perjury trial, which is scheduled to begin in July. The Mitchell report is a thing of the past, assessed more by history books now than by newspapers, but this season very well could become the year when arguably the greatest pitcher and hitter in history are both sentenced to prison.
But those steroid trials notwithstanding, baseball is back, which means warmth is not far behind, even in New England. These rare instances when the game comes first need to be savored. This is one of those times. Right now, you don't need to have a law degree or be a pharmacist to make sense of Opening Day.
Enjoy it while you can.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
It's always a harbinger of hope, sure. But in this year's mixed-up, locked-out sports world, baseball's Opening Day is something else, too. It's shelter from the storm.