The magic is back with start of Spring Training

February 17th, 2016

We have our favorite things, the things that remind us that baseball is back. There's magic in all of them.

That would be Andrew McCutchen gliding under a fly ball and Mike Trout taking a round of batting practice. Clayton Kershaw throwing a bullpen session and Jake Arrieta running sprint after sprint. Clint Hurdle's booming voice and Hunter Pence's energy and Giancarlo Stanton's swing.

Yep, there's magic in all of it. On this first day of Spring Training, we welcome one of baseball's true gentlemen, Dusty Baker, back to the dugout, as the manager of the Washington Nationals. That just feels right, doesn't it?

Every Spring Training requires time to refocus on what our favorite teams may actually look like after an offseason of comings and goings.

We have familiar faces in new places -- David Price and Zack Greinke and others. We have hotshot rookies here, there and everywhere.

We have reshaped rosters and redefined postseason races. We have the promise of September chaos, with more teams than ever seeing a clear path to October.

In Baker's case, no adjustment is necessary. He has been part of the fabric of baseball for six decades, having played or managed in 5,215 games and counting. The sport is better when he's in uniform, and his return is one of the highlights of these first days of Spring Training.

Another is John Farrell, back managing the Red Sox after undergoing months of cancer treatment. He's one of the good guys, and his return is incomprehensibly sweet.

Some changes will take time getting used to. For instance, Johnny Cueto playing for the Giants, Jason Heyward for the Cubs.

Give us a few days to digest it all. At some point, we'll become comfortable with Price wearing a Red Sox uniform and Heyward playing center for the home team at Wrigley Field.

One thing that's clear is that so many teams made so many significant changes with a larger purpose in mind: Almost every team believes it's good enough to make the playoffs. Perhaps never before has the talent level among the top 25 or so teams been so close.

That's a reflection of what we see in October. Only three teams -- the Dodgers, Cardinals and Royals -- played a postseason series in both 2014 and '15.

In the past three seasons, 18 of 30 teams have played at least one playoff series. Seven American League franchises have been to the World Series in the past 11 seasons. In that same period, six National League franchises have won at least one pennant. Considering the Giants have won three, that's an remarkable number.

Most teams approached the offseason believing they were a tweak or two from doing what the Royals and Mets did last fall. For instance, in the AL, all 15 teams believe they're good enough to make the playoffs, and that's probably never happened before.

These first days of Spring Training remind us why we love baseball so much. Maybe it's seeing our favorite players back out there in the sunshine, preparing and laughing and having the time of their lives.

It's thinking about the journey ahead. Let's face it, we're relentlessly and unapologetically optimistic. We believe in this new kid we've heard so much about. We believe this might be the year the pieces fit together just so.

Things are changing, and quickly. Trout and Bryce Harper have morphed from heralded prospects to superstar status over the past four seasons. Now it's time for Corey Seager and Byron Buxton to show off their gifts.

Teams are changing, too. The Cubs have methodically constructed a powerhouse team. The Mets and Astros are really good, too, after years out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, some familiar October teams -- the Yankees, Giants and Athletics -- are hoping to re-establish themselves on the postseason stage.

Plenty of others -- the Indians, Twins and Mariners -- believe this might be their year, too. They might be right, because that's the beauty of this era of baseball.

All of that is for another day. For now, it's about the familiar sights and sounds. It's players getting back to the thing they love. It's the same for us, too.