Last April, the start of the Major League Baseball season was a reward for enduring a brutal winter. This April, it constitutes a celebration of a winter that never was.
The beginning of the baseball season today is welcome, as it is every year regardless of the nature of the winter that preceded it. It marks the advent of spring and heralds the promise of the summer to come. It honors tradition, as baseball is an ancient sport as sports go that was invented right here in Pittsfield! — or perhaps one of any number of other communities.
This year, baseball will have the added benefit of providing a distraction from an already brutal national election campaign that promises to grow far uglier before it finally ends during football season.
For Red Sox nation, the hope offered by a new season is diluted by the memories of the last two seasons. Boston has finished last in the American League East for two years running, in spite of — or perhaps because of — one of the highest payrolls in all of Major League Baseball.
Ace lefthander David Price took $217 million of majority owner John Henry's bucks to sign a seven-year free agent deal to anchor Boston's pitching staff. Price has been a consistent success with three teams throughout his major league career, and while he has also consistently flamed out during the postseason, Red Sox fans will worry about October playoff baseball if and when it gets here. The new leftie should at least be able to lead the Sox out of the AL East basement.
The Red Sox have consigned two expensive and disappointing free agents, outfielder Rusney Castillo and roly-poly third baseman Pablo Sandoval, to the bench for the start of the season. Their fate and the performance of their replacements will go a long way toward determining how far up the standings the Red Sox will rise, but Red Sox fans should welcome the clear statement by management that big salaries won't guarantee playing time — performance will.
Other key questions: Will new first baseman Hanley Ramirez be able to field his position while showing a little hustle on the basepaths? Can number two starting pitcher Clay Buckholz stay healthy all summer? Is hard-nosed second baseman Dustin Pedroia in decline? Does legendary designated hitter David Ortiz have one more big year left in him?
The beloved Big Papi, who led the Red Sox to three World Series titles and spoke frankly (to the say the least) for the city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, announced during the winter that this will be his last season. He deserves to be honored by fans and media, but his retirement tour is likely to match that of New York Yankees' star Derek Jeter two years ago in terms of wretched excess. Whatever happened to players announcing their retirement AFTER the season?
Speaking of the Yankees, the region's fans will root for a team sporting a strong, veteran lineup and boasting a three-member short relief corps (once Aroldis Chapman returns from his domestic abuse suspension in May) that will make the Yankees tough to beat after the sixth inning. Attention-craving Yankees' slugger Alex Rodriquez has announced that he will retire after the 2017 season — when his contract runs out. A-Rod, who was suspended for the 2014 season for using performance enhancing drugs, is not likely to get another contract or a glorious, gift-laden retirement tour.
For the region's fans of the New York Mets, the season gets underway this evening with a rematch of last year's World Series between the National League champion Mets and the America League's Kansas City Royals. The Mets again have concerns about their offensive production but their extraordinary corps of starting pitchers makes them World Series contenders once again in 2016.
For baseball fans, the season provides the background hum for six-plus months, about half of that comprising the summer. The din of the election campaign will make the pleasant sounds of baseball all the more enjoyable in the months ahead.