BASEBALL Optimism joins with sun, sand

Spring training boasts new players, new managers and new dreams.
Mike Piazza stepped off the plane and shuddered. Like a lot of places, New York was in a deep freeze.
"Man, my ears almost fell off," the Mets star said. "I'll be glad when we get going."
He's not the only one. With much of the country covered by snow and ice, it just takes a few words to warm up baseball everywhere: It's time for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training.
The Seattle Mariners will be the first team to open camp. They get going today, and there's a reason for the quick start -- Ichiro Suzuki, Freddy Garcia and the Mariners will play the major league opener real early, on March 25 in Tokyo against Oakland.
Within a week, every team will break out the bats, the balls and the big hopes. From Florida to Arizona, from Vero Beach to Scottsdale, optimism will mix with the sun and sand.
New faces
"We are going to go all the way and win it all," boasted San Francisco's Felipe Alou, one of 10 new managers this season.
Dusty Baker, Buck Showalter, and Lou Piniella also will be in different dugouts, while Detroit's Alan Trammell will try managing for the first time.
All over, teams are excited, particularly with so many top players having moved. Jim Thome, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Kent switched sides, and the New York Yankees brought two newcomers to the big leagues -- Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras.
Plus, camps will be full of fresh young faces, guys who sooner or later may become household names. Could the new star be 19-year-old Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, Cleveland first baseman Travis Hafner, or Phillies center fielder Marlon Byrd?
Reason to hope
So why not be enthused, especially after what the Anaheim Angels accomplished last year?
Coming off a season in which they finished 41 games behind in the AL West, Mike Scioscia's bunch bounced back to beat Barry Bonds and the Giants in the World Series.
A rookie who began the season in Triple-A, John Lackey, started Game 7 and shut down San Francisco. And a 20-year-old who opened the year in Double-A -- Francisco Rodriguez -- became a postseason sensation.
Yet even the fabulous K-Rod, now about to receive a championship ring at 21, sounded like a seasoned veteran as the Angels prepared to open camp on Valentine's Day in Tempe, Ariz.
"Everything starts with zero," the reliever said. "The most difficult thing in baseball is to be consistent. You can have one good year but if the next is bad, you're defrauding everyone."
And remember how the spring started for the Angels last year? They got in an exhibition fight with San Diego, and Troy Glaus and Scott Spiezio were suspended. By October, Glaus was the World Series MVP, and Spiezio was a postseason star.
There's certain to be news this spring, too. The Veterans Committee will announce its voting for the Hall of Fame on Feb. 26, with Gil Hodges and Marvin Miller among the candidates. And there could be developments with Pete Rose's bid to win reinstatement from commissioner Bud Selig.
On the field, if there's ever a time to think big, it's now.
So maybe that's why Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets was looking ahead after a season in which the Brewers lost 106 games.
"To be honest with you, I don't even think about last year. It all goes away -- good year, bad year, doesn't matter. Just like a good game, bad game, you can't bring it with you," he said. "Clean slate."

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