Even before the first pitch is thrown today, this season has stirred excitement, including the celebration of Jackie Robinson's entry into the majors

Flashback: Major-league baseball attempts to break the weather barrier by beginning the 1996 season on March 31. The earliest start ever proves problematic, with inclement conditions wiping out a number of games.

What to do?

Begin April 1, a day later, which is exactly what will happen today as the '97 season rolls out in a dozen, mostly warm-weather or climate-controlled ballparks.

Hey, the eagerness is understandable.

After four years, the signatures are finally on a new labor accord; the tradition-shattering introduction of interleague play is expected to boost fan interest; the Yankees are back on top again after 18 years and are waiting to see if anybody can knock them off; and Major League Baseball is pulling out all the stops to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's 1947 entry into the Majors.

Robinson broke the color barrier at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. The official anniversary ceremonies will take place April 15 during a game in New York's Shea Stadium between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets. President Clinton is on the guest list.

This historic event is one that baseball can justifiably feel good about. After all, it occurred years before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. helped make civil rights a national issue. A special logo has been created for the season-long celebration and 20 companies have been licensed to sell products bearing Robinson's name or image.

No matter how tastefully everything may be handled, some observers may wonder if the majors have truly paid tribute to Jackie via minority hiring. Baseball executives generally answer in the affirmative, yet not all evidence supports this view. For example, four blacks are managers, a position Robinson cited as an important frontier.

"There are people who are qualified who can't even get an interview," Tommy Harper, a Montreal coach, told The Boston Globe. Whatever the reviews on baseball's integration record, the major leagues are striding into 1997 with a new confidence and energy. Now that labor peace has been achieved, attention can shift toward aggressively marketing and selling the game.

A "March to Opening Day" campaign of fan-grabbing events has been part of the spring promotional buildup, as has a greet-and-smile campaign aimed at improving player-fan relations.

In a bold stroke, baseball has also jazzed up the competition, throwing open the doors to interleague play. The crossover games constitute only about a tenth of the schedule, but they serve as enticing sugar cubes. Imagine, if you will, the excitement when the Yankees take on the Mets in New York or the Cubs and White Sox go at it in Chicago.

The latter June 16-18 series is such a major attraction that the host White Sox are using it to sell tickets to other games. In order to buy a ticket to one White Sox-Cubs game, three more must be purchased to other games.

Such packages shouldn't really be necessary this year, given a better team on the field. Or at least it looks that way on paper since ex-Cleveland slugger Albert Belle signed for a truckload of money ($55 million). The change of scenery affords Belle an opportunity to shed his snarling-inferno image, plus join with Frank Thomas to give the White Sox two of the game's most feared fence-busters (they have 178 total home runs during the last two years).

And speaking of long-balls, bleacher-goers may have to grab for the pith helmets. A power surge of almost embarrassing proportions occurred in 1996, when 1,000 more home runs were hit than in the last previous full season (1994) - attributed to weight-training and weaker pitching, among other factors.

Those with strong mound staffs are well suited to take advantage of the situation. Yankee manager Joe Torre believes his team has the potential to repeat its glorious championship season, partly because he can call on such quality hurlers as Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and David Cone. Free agent reliever John Wetteland fled to Texas, but such departures are common today. The rest of the American League is just happy the Yankees didn't manage to sign Japanese fireballer Hideki Irabu, whose former Japanese team blocked the move.

Atlanta's Team of the '90s moves into (Ted) Turner Field, last summer's Olympic centerpiece. Even the pitching-rich Braves weren't able to stop New York in the World Series. Rather than stand pat, though, they made a blockbuster deal last week with Cleveland, another team seeking to remain a regular pennant contender. The Braves gave up outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice, who delivered the title-clinching hit against Cleveland in the 1995 World Series, to get superlative leadoff hitter and centerfielder Kenny Lofton, plus pitcher Alan Embree.

The team that spent the most to improve itself during the offseason was Florida, a fourth-year expansion club. The Marlins figured they needed more quality players to surround superstar outfielder Gary Sheffield, who wields one of the National League's most potent bats. Florida signed Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, and Alex Fernandez, players expected to appeal to Latino fans and give new manager Jim Leyland, who came from the cash-poor Pittsburgh Pirates, a pennant-contending lineup.

Besides Florida, other teams with new managers are Boston (Jimy Williams), Philadelphia (Terry Francona), Pittsburgh (Gene Lamont), Houston (Larry Dierker) and the Anaheim Angels (Terry Collins).

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