Opening day: eight questions for the baseball season

On opening day of the baseball season, the Monitor looks at whose major league debut is most anticipated and whether Matt Wieters really deserves to be a Sports Illustrated cover boy.

Baltimore Oriole catcher Matt Wieters bats against the Boston Red Sox last year. On opening day, Wieters is expected to be one of the breakout stars of 2010 baseball season.

On opening day of the 2010 baseball season, all is right again in the baseball world, some would say, because the New York Yankees enter the new season as the defending champions. Just as many fans probably conclude the opposite: that things feel wrong when the mighty pinstripers are showing off World Series rings again.

There’s no gray when it comes to the Yankees, except for their road uniforms. But whether you’re fur ‘em or again’ em, whenever they are “king of the hill, top of the heap,” everyone takes more notice and the atmosphere seems a little more electric.

The voltage starts flowing from the first batter tonight, with the opening game of the major league season, in which the Red Sox host their archrivals at Fenway Park at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

Baseball briefing: What's new this year

Although playing in daylight might be preferable, there is precedent for opening the season under the stars. In fact, the Cardinals and Pirates first did it in 1950. And surely this is better than scheduling the season opener in Japan, as Major League Baseball did in 2008, when the Red Sox and Oakland A’s squared off at an alarm-clock hour for Americans.

Yankee fans might grumble about their team having to start and finish the 162-game regular season in Fenway, which hasn’t happened since 1950. Shouldn’t the defending champions be accorded the home-field privilege? But, as we know, there's no crying in baseball.

But there are questions. And on opening day, in particular, there are lots of them, from the prospects for the hometown nine to whether the Pittsburgh Pirates will ever again field a winning baseball team.

Here are eight questions that set up what to look for during the upcoming season:

Which teams have the longest droughts between World Series titles?

  1. Chicago Cubs, 101 years (last won in 1908)
  2. Cleveland Indians, 61 years (1948)
  3. San Francisco/New York Giants, 55 years (1954)
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates, 30 years (1979)
  5. Baltimore Orioles, 26 years (1983)

Which teams have never won the World Series?

  1. Texas Rangers, who entered the league in 1961 *
  2. Houston Astros, 1962
  3. San Diego Padres, 1969
  4. Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos), 1969 *
  5. Milwaukee Brewers, 1970
  6. Seattle Mariners, 1977 *
  7. Colorado Rockies, 1993
  8. Tampa Bay Rays, 1998

* never appeared in the World Series

Can the Pirates end their record losing streak?

Probably not. Last year, the Pirates turned in their 17th straight losing season, a record not just for baseball, but for any of North America’s four major professional sports (including football, basketball, and hockey). The closest the Pirates have come to a .500 record during this stretch of futility was a .488 winning percentage in 1997. Last year, they were a miserable .385.

Are there any new ballparks?

Yes, the Twins move outdoors after playing for the past 28 years in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, aka the Homerdome, the Minnesota Twins are moving into a new open-air stadium, Target Field. Gone will be the notorious “Baggie” in right field, the plastic wrap that covered the high fence

Will there be any drug revelations this season?

There already has been one, just not for steroids. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington admitted during spring training that he had tested positive for cocaine in a 2009 drug test, the results of which were leaked. Washington, who is well respected by his players and peers, said it was a “stupid” one-time use of the drug. He offered to resign, but Rangers president Nolan Ryan declined the offer. Washington has completed a drug-treatment program.

Which players are closing in on major career milestones?

  • Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees needs 17 home runs to reach 600
  • Trevor Hoffman of the Padres needs nine saves to reach 600
  • Chipper Jones of the Braves needs 55 RBIs to reach 1,500
  • Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox needs 11 pitching wins to reach 200

Who is Matt Wieters, and why was he on the cover of Sports Illustrated?

Sports Illustrated trumpeted Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters as “The Perfect Catch” on a recent cover. Why? Because he’s the total package: an excellent switch-hitter and fielder who, at 6 ft. 5 in., has the size and strength to hit for power and guard the plate. Such multitalented backstops are increasingly rare. This will be Wieters’ first year as a starter, but he saw significant action last year, appearing in 96 games and batting .288 with nine home runs. Wieters, by the
way, has his work cut out for him in leading the Orioles, whose last winning season was 12 years ago, when Cal Ripken Jr. was four years from retirement.

Which player’s debut is most anticipated?

Stephen Strasburg’s. The overall top pick in the 2009 baseball draft, Strasburg signed with the Washington Nationals for $15.1 million, the most money ever guaranteed to a drafted player. The 6 ft. 4 in., 220-lb. righthanded pitcher had some impressive outings in spring training, but he will start the season at with the Class AA Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators. But given his 100 m.p.h. fastball and penchant for racking up strikeouts, don’t be surprised to see him called up before midseason by the pitching-weak parent club, which had baseball’s worst record last year (59-103).

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