A season of The Rivalry and a new arms race

For most of the major leagues, Monday is the best of baseball days. It is Opening Day - that annual moment of perfect potential, when the game's unwritten script holds promise for every fan, no matter how long-suffering. And rarely has the script promised better stories.

This is the year that the Chicago Cubs could end more than 90 seasons of futility. It is the year that baseball's longtime have-nots could show some muscle. And it is the year that America's greatest sports rivalry could escalate to levels of acrimony not seen since Hannibal marched over the Alps to sack Rome.

Yet this year also threatens darker stories. Allegations of steroid use among some of the game's best players - and a federal investigation - could throw each titanic clout into doubt.

Indeed, Monday raises the curtain on what could be the most anticipated and most dreaded season in recent memory. "There is a lot of attention being paid to a lot of different issues, and that's what makes it so interesting," says Chris Kahrl, author of the "Baseball Prospectus."

Moreover, there is the simple fact that baseball is baseball, and Opening Day remains a shared national ritual of ballpark franks and head-first slides unfolding the slower rhythms of summer and days past. It is the president throwing out the first pitch - as he will do in St. Louis Monday - and a sense of connection to history that acts as a salve, particularly in a time of government hearings and overseas atrocities.

"In the minds of many - fans, politicians, and those who look at baseball - there still is something special about this game," says John Odell of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Right from that opening pitch, the fabric of this season will be knit from the loose threads of last October.

In many ways, the Chicago Cubs are still standing in left-field foul territory, waiting to make the catch that might have moved them closer to the World Series - but was knocked away by a fan. The Boston Red Sox are still standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium, waiting for a chance to make amends for the Pedro Martinez falter and extra-inning home run that knocked them out of the playoffs. And the New York Yankees themselves are wondering how they lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins.

In the intermezzo between this season and the last, each team has rampaged through the off-season with wounded fury, gobbling up premier players as if single-handedly trying to construct an All-Star team. Meanwhile other, less familiar, teams have loaded up - from Houston to Philadelphia to Anaheim.

Power on the mound

The arms race has pushed the Red Sox and Cubs - who haven't won the World Series since 1918 and 1908, respectively - closer to a title then they have been in decades. And it has turned 84 years of unpleasantness between the Red Sox and Yankees - beginning with the sale of Babe Ruth from the Sox to the Yankees in 1920 and mounting through each of the Yankees' 26 titles since - into an epic that needs only a few furry-footed hobbits for Oscar consideration.

Yet there's a subtext to the familiar refrain of the rich getting richer. The not-so-rich, it seems, are getting at least a little richer, as well. Part of it has to do with the labor agreement reached two years ago, which shares more money among all teams in baseball. But some teams such as the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres are also simply looking at the success of the past two World Series champions - the Marlins and the Anaheim Angels - and realizing that a well-built middle-class team can, in fact, compete.

The spending going on with the Yankees and Red Sox "is misleading," says Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News. "This year is about the rise of the middle class. They're spending more than they did [in the past] and getting better."

Steroid cloud

Hanging over every at bat, however, is the specter of steroids. Several of the sport's top hitters have testified before a federal grand jury investigating a company charged with distributing steroids, and Congress has suggested that it might become involved.

"The biggest story line is what happens with this steroid stuff," says Harold Reynolds, an analyst with ESPN.

So far, it seems to be having little effect on fans' interest.

No major players have been indicted or have tested positive, though new reports suggest that the government wants to look at the 2003 drug tests of several top players, including single-season home-run king Barry Bonds, as well as Yankees Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.

If power numbers drop off - as they did last year in the first year of major-league drug testing - some could increasingly question the integrity of the game.

"What happens to these players who came out of nowhere and hit monstrous numbers of home runs?" asks Mr. Odell. "What if they come back smaller and don't hit as many home runs? What does that say?"

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