Spring training offers a chance to start over

Spring training for major league baseball offers us the chance to experience vicariously the glorious opportunity that too seldom comes our way: Starting over.

Starting over.

What golden words these are, sliding off our tongues with the smooth eloquence of Coeur d'Alene and San Juan Capistrano.

The problem for us is that truly starting over - which baseball players get to do every year at this time - is something we rarely get to do without creating enormous wreckage.

The classic starting over for millions is to divorce a wrongheaded spouse and move along to the perfect next spouse. Then there's changing jobs, in which wrongheaded bosses are exchanged for perfect bosses. Then there's having children in which empty freedom is soon exchanged for the exquisite pleasures of parenting teenagers. It's hard for us to start over.

But for baseball players, starting over is a way of life, as predictable as palm trees swaying behind outfield fences in Florida. The past truly means nothing, if we step smartly past the obvious that their salaries depend on it. Baseball is all about starting over with past shortcomings and indiscretions never held against a player.

Play good this year and last year is forgiven. It's an exhilarating cleaning of the slate.

For example, the Rockies Darryl Kile was the worst starting pitcher in the National League last year, losing a whopping 17 games. So is he shunned and pilloried? Absolutely not. New Colorado manager Jim Leyland's first order of business was to name Kile the starting pitcher Opening Day.

Starting over. It's a wonderful thing for Darryl Kile.

Erratic-behaving (albeit immensely talented) Albert Belle fully wore out his welcome at the White Sox, whereupon he goes to the Orioles in a five-year, $65 million deal. Nice start over. Aging Jose Canseco gets his start-over in Tampa Bay, after Toronto. Rafael Palmeiro goes from Baltimore to the Rangers for $45 million.

Ranger relief pitcher Rick Helling had a $216,500 salary in 1998. He starts over this year at an average of $3.5 million.

Whatta country.

Tim McCarver, one of the handful of truly competent broadcasters, was canned by the New York Mets for being too honest about team shortcomings. The Yankees immediately picked him up.

But start-overs can come on the heels of triumph, too. The most terrific start-over this year is exquisite fast baller Roger Clemens. He pitched for the Red Sox for 13 years before he was traded to Toronto in 1996. To understand that move, all that's necessary to comprehend is that it was the Red Sox doing it.

Never forget, Babe Ruth was a Red Sox before he was shipped to the Yankees for $100,000. And the Red Sox never lose their touch. Over the winter, they sent star first baseman and team leader Mo Vaughn to the Angels. Boston believes in start-overs that benefit everyone - except Boston.

But Clemens, sensational in Toronto last year as the league's best pitcher, starts over with the Yankees this season. This reels the mind. The Yankees, with 125 wins last year and an easy World Series win, did it with pitching of blazing excellence. They promptly improved it dramatically with Clemens.

Plus, every team gets a start-over. These days, each is oblivious to the fact the Yankees and the also-pitching-rich Braves already are selling World Series tickets. Regardless, nothing like starting over for the likes of Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, Oakland, Florida, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee. They were all losers in 1998, but thanks to the start-over, they all envision winning in 1999. They won't, of course, but how wonderful for each to think so if only briefly.

Heck, one more starting pitcher, a closer, a left-handed power hitter and - they reason as they whistle past the cemetery - they'll be real good. Come on, it could happen. Starting over can be the stuff of potency.

Starting over can be daunting, too. Mark McGwire, for example, can't relish the prospect since he'll fall far short of the record 70 homers he hit last season, which will put him in a moody funk.

Meanwhile, we go to our same job, drive our same car, live in our same house, frequent the same delis, and overcharge on the same credit cards.

But we get to wallow in the good times of watching the big leaguers start over, and ponder: What if we could start over every year?

*Please send your comments to looneyd@csps.com

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