Ahead of the Curve
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You can't see it, can't hear it and can't smell it, but it's there.  Baseball's in the air.

Spring training's over a month away (MRD / 3-2) but the big deals are done and the temps are heating-up in southern climes.  Before you know it the sound of ball smacking leather (Rawlings & glove) will fill the air at parks around the country.

Until then there's plenty of sporting fare to fill the void.

There's international soccer, World Cup skiing (Vonn / St. Moritz) and ESPN's Winter X Games.  A modern-day version of ABC's classic Wide World of Sports, the events are so esoteric it's hard to see much difference from the older bicycle-hockey and rattle-snake round-ups.

Something tells me Mr. Djokovic's fantastic finish at the Australian Open merely sets the stage for Rafael Nadal to get healthy, dig deep, rise from the ashes of frustration, topple yet another seemingly unbeatable foe (Federer '06) and then hopefully keep his shirt on.

The men's golf tour teed-off last week at Torrey Pines (CA) and Abu Dhabi (UAE), but the big news wasn't the two winners, Snedeker (that Farmers' trophy looks like a piece of broccoli) and Rock.  The media's still banking on Mr. Woods.  Whether he's a good bloke, a super freak, wins another PGA event or not, I've had my fill of the Tiger-shill.

The sparkplug set gears-up for 2012 and that means just one circuit for USA viewers: NASCAR.  Formula 1 / IndyCar were shown the off-ramp in the 90s as sponsors turned isolationist and went-all-in with All-American stock.  Familiar faces set-the-pace (Busch / Gordon / Stewart / Johnson) but all eyes are on Danica.  If Tony can goad her to three top ten finishes in Sprint Cup / Nationwide, America's "honey badger" (Newscore / 1-13) will pass this years road test.

NBA & NHL: wintertime fun, but I'm a casual fan until post-season begins.  Apart from the rare "bar fight" (Garnett / ESPN / 1-26), NBA regular season is all about celebrity, 3-pointers and dunks.  In the NHL, ice-painting (brawling) sets the tone up until Cup play.

Gotta' love the NFL but once the Conference games are in the books "the thrill is gone" (BB King / '70).  By the time Super Sunday finally arrives after the 2nd week of promotion, (some generously call it a "bye" week), the edge has been taken off the players' game and fan interest, apart from team devotees, is ebbing low.

Sure, shindigs and big TV ratings are in store, but now the sell is so long, so over-baked it gets hard to stomach the 6-hour long commercial it's become.  I concede, next Sunday's match-up between America's QB (Tom) versus America's first family of QBs (Eli) looks to be a dandy.  Still, I'll settle for the highlights and replay on NFL Network.

There is one sport spectacle that pulls me in before the crack o' the bat gets me hooked.  It's America's new favorite sporting event: the NCAA Basketball Championships.

Launched by CBS' Selection Sunday (after the last dollar's been squeezed from the last superfluous conference tourney), no event in the USA gives more hope & joy to so many from Maine to Modesto, Miami to Medford than the NCAA's Big Dance.

But there's been no shortage of news to stir baseball fans from their slumbers.

Boru o hatasu! (Play ball!), will start off MLB 2012 as the Mariners and Athletics travel to the Land of the Rising Sun (Tokyo) for a two-game set March 28-9.  The 4th opener to be played in Nippon, this one has special significance for it honors / assists the victims of last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ("Mariners" / MLB / 9-28 / MN). 

The biggest moves this baseball off-season involved Theo Epstein (Cubs), Jose Reyes & Ozzie Guillen (Marlins), Prince Fielder (Detroit), Bob Valentine (Red Sox), Yu Darvish (Rangers) and Al Pujols (Angels).  The most curious move might be the Rockies invite to 49 yr-old wily southpaw pitcher Jamie Moyer.  Go get 'em Gramps! 

Most notable of post-season awards was Justin Verlander's garnerment of both the AL Cy and MVP trophies.  Some grumbles from dunderheads who claim a pitcher cannot be an MVP.  But if you know rounders you know the names McLain ('68), Gibson ('68), Sutter ('82), Gooden ('86), Hershiser ('88) and then know that such a claim is pure gibberish.

More surprising than his winning the NL MVP was the news of Milwaukee's Ryan Braun testing positive for PEDs.  The first Brewer to win the award since the great Robin Yount ('89), Braun's denial of the result ("BS") was as brief as it was typical & unconvincing.

On the plus side, after forging a new CBA, owners extended Bud Selig's reign through the year 2014 (UPI.com / 1-12).  This CBA marks a new era as MLB becomes the first of four majors to draw blood for PED testing in 2012.  An off-finish by Tiger in a foreign tourney gets more press than this watershed event, but in time, fandom will appreciate the policy and wonder what took so long.  They need only look in the mirror for that answer.

Don't expect many shockers in this first round of random testing.  Albert and any player with at least half a brain have been anticipating this day for quite some time.  Should be smooth sailing.

The biggest challenge facing Pujols and his former division rival Fielder: AL baseball.  The pitching, the style, even the umpires require study & adaptation.  And given the disastrous 2011 of former RBI-machine Adam Dunn (White Sox), ownership in Anaheim & Detroit would be wise to give their new, well-paid stars homework assignments this spring on League variations.

And last but not least: somebody on the Giants needs to get pitcher Tim Lincecum into a barber's chair.  The long hair might be throwing-off his pitching motion.  He can then sell the clippings on e-bay and donate the proceeds to his favorite cause.

Like the man sang, "The times they are a-changin'" (Dylan).  It's a new era in baseball.

Steven Keys

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