International tilts hype terrific regular season

Contests in Mexico City, Havana also give sneak peek of potential expansion

March 28th, 2016

Twenty years from now, the players who participated in these games in Havana and Mexico City will look back and remember them as one of the really cool experiences of their career.

These were fans who cared deeply and brought energy and joy and noise to the ballpark. They let it be known that these exhibition games were a big deal in both cities, and this is exactly what Major League Baseball was hoping for.

Players feed off this kind of vibe. They're fueled by it. When the whole place is crackling with excitement, there's a feeling that even an otherwise meaningless exhibition game is important.

None of the Rays, Padres or Astros knows when or if they'll ever play in these cities again, and so they were committed to leaving the right kind of impression. If this is the only chance fans in Cuba and Mexico have to see an Evan Longoria or a Carlos Correa in person, those players were going to put their best on display.

After watching players participate in community events and engage fans of all ages prior to the Rays-Cuba game and the Padres-Astros games, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred proudly said he couldn't have found better ambassadors for his sport.

Astros light up scoreboard in Mexico City

If these games were dress rehearsals for a future expansion conversation, both cities passed with flying colors. First, there are kids playing the game at a high level in both countries. Second, there are people who love watching the games, love watching and second-guessing and all the rest.

Manfred has made two points about expansion. One is that healthy businesses see expansion as a natural part of growth. Another is that baseball is committed to having a larger footprint outside the United States and Canada.

Manfred seeks relationship between MLB, Cuba

This season, that footprint will be an increased television presence in China and Mexico. Down the road, there will be more regular-season games around the world, and perhaps even expansion franchises.

This week served to whet our appetites for Opening Day. While some of the names aren't ones we're likely to see much of during the regular season, these games did not have the usual laid-back Spring Training vibe. In that way, they felt like a preview of what's ahead.

This final week of spring is a difficult one for teams as they trim their rosters for Opening Day. For the past five or six weeks, managers and coaches have taught and encouraged and become invested in the players they have in camp.

The best managers and players see players for what they can do rather than what they can't. If a player is still in camp, there's a good chance a manager or general manager can envision ways he can contribute. But they can't all stay, and these are tough conversations. Every manager will tell you he hates this part of his job.

So now, beginning next Sunday and Monday, we'll begin the journey again. Are the Cubs really as good as most of us believe they are? Will there finally be October magic at Wrigley Field?

That's where the conversation in the National League begins. At least eight other NL teams believe they're good enough to win the pennant, and even a club no one is picking -- for instance, Atlanta -- believes it will be far more competitive than anyone thinks.

The American League is more clear-cut, in that it's not clear-cut at all. Every single team, all 15 of them, sees a path to the postseason, and there's a chance it has never been like this before.

Is this the year for the Indians? That pitching staff might just be good enough to carry them deep into October. Others -- the Red Sox and Yankees, the Blue Jays and Astros -- could hardly be feeling more optimistic as Opening Day approaches.

As Manfred pointed out at the beginning of Spring Training, 80 percent -- 24 of 30 -- of baseball's teams have been to the postseason at least once in the past five seasons. That's evidence of a healthy sport and points to a fascinating regular season.

We're almost there. After all the comings and goings of the postseason and after five weeks in Florida and Arizona, the real fun is about to start. See you at the ballpark.