Clouds linger as season begins

PHOENIX — Every player is a suspect.

From the home run hitters to the power pitchers, suspicions trail every major leaguer like 8 a.m. shadows cast behind silhouettes on a back field at spring training.

"If Ryan Howard goes out and he hits two home runs in April and three in May, everybody's going to go: 'Uh, oh. What happened here?' " Hall of Famer George Brett said, raising the pitch of his voice for emphasis. "And if he goes out and hits 10 home runs in April and 15 in May, they're going to go, 'Well, he must have been clean.' And it's going to be like that with everybody."

For the record, Howard wasn't mentioned in it, but that's what the Mitchell Report hath wrought by implicating seven MVPs, 31 All-Stars and more than 80 players in the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Who got smaller? Whose bat suddenly lost its pop?

Those are the batting-cage questions these days.

We've reached the point where a multihomer game or a few hitless nights prompts calls for a drug test.

"In a world of talk radio and the Internet, you're going to get speculation that ranges from reasonable and informed to completely insane," broadcaster Bob Costas said. "I don't think anybody is ever 100 percent certain about anybody anymore."

Opening day 2008 is as much about those won't-go-away suspicions as it is about the annual new start. Alongside the perpetual optimism of spring training and projections by management that MLB will top 80 million fans for the first time, there was worry that more drug news may be ahead.

And even if there is, it's not clear it will even matter to those season-ticket holders.

"I think there's almost no carry-over when you talk about fans following and rooting for their own team," Costas said. "If you're a fan in Cincinnati, I guarantee you're more upset that Joe Nuxhall didn't get into the broadcasters' wing of the Hall of Fame and more excited that Dusty Baker has been hired as the manager and more interested in whether Ken Griffey can play 140 games than you are in the Mitchell Report."

Indeed, baseball is running on parallel tracks: the shiny on-the-field, which has never been better, and the slimy off-the-field, which has rarely been worse.

When Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka threw the first pitch of the season against Oakland at the Tokyo Dome on Tuesday, much seemed to be business as usual.

Following that two-game split in Japan, the Washington Nationals open their new ballpark against Atlanta tonight. Other teams get under way the following day, when Yankee Stadium hosts its final opener, the start of a season-long goodbye to a baseball shrine.

But the stench of steroids is never far away, with federal prosecutors aiming at seven-time MVP Barry Bonds and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. The yin and yang of the Steroids Era are absent from the field but not forgotten.

In an age of designer drugs and undetectable human growth hormone, players are sometimes presumed guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

"When you have a very good month, maybe the people think: 'He used something,' " Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. "When you have a bad month or a bad season, the people want to think, 'Oh, maybe he was doing something before that. That's why he's not hitting now.' "

Yet, steroid skepticism is compartmentalized. Players are forgiven by their home supporters as long as they perform. Signs with syringes and chants of "cheater" — well, that's for opposing stars.

In Boston, Red Sox fans are hoping their team can become the first repeat World Series champion since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees.

In New York, more than 3.8 million of the 4.4 million available seats have been bought for the final season at Yankee Stadium, where the All-Star game will be played July 15. The Mets project to draw 4 million at home for the first time in Shea Stadium's final year, the arrival of Johan Santana no doubt helping ease the sting of the Mets' historic September collapse.

In Seattle, Mariners fans are salivating over Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva, who could form one of the top rotations in the majors.

At Dodger Stadium, laid-back Los Angelenos might arrive a little earlier and stay a little later now that Joe Torre is the manager and Andruw Jones is the center fielder.

In Detroit, the arrival of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida sparked a ticket boom that's seen 2.6 million of Comerica Park's 3.3 million seats already sold.

Even in Pittsburgh there's hope, with a new regime trying to help the Pirates avoid tying the record of 16 consecutive losing seasons set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48.

Out in Denver, Rockies fans worry whether last year's NL pennant was a fluke.

And then there's Chicago, where Wrigley Field's perpetual lovable losers are trying to win the World Series for the first time in an even century.

"Ninety-nine years of not winning a World Series, don't put this type of pressure on this team," Piniella said. "Let it stand on its own merit."

As for milestones. Trevor Hoffman will add to his career-leading 524 saves, and Ken Griffey Jr. is seven homers shy of becoming the sixth member of the 600-homer club — the third since 2002.

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