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Finally, baseball about to be about baseball again
By Ronald Blum | Associated Press
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Published: 2/9/2008 12:09 AM

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After all the talk about the Mitchell Report, it's time for Mitchell to report.

Mitch Talbot is all set to get in his car next week and make the 36-hour drive from Cedar City, Utah, to St. Petersburg, Fla., for spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Just like everyone else, the 24-year-old pitching prospect followed all the steroid news during the off-season. But starting Wednesday, when camps begin to open in Florida and Arizona, attention will turn back to the field following months of sour headlines.

"I don't think it's going to hurt. I think they're still excited for baseball," said Talbot, who started last season with 6 no-hit innings for Triple-A Durham.

Johan Santana, Dontrelle Willis, Dan Haren and Erik Bedard will be with new teams following big trades. When position players show up, Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones will put on different uniforms.

All those fans in cold-weather cities await those magical words, "pitchers and catchers," and the sounds of fastballs popping into mitts and balls cracking off bats.

New York Mets manager Willie Randolph gushed when he thought about Santana, who'll brighten a camp in Port St. Lucia, Fla., still smarting from last September's epic collapse.

"When they announced that we got him, everybody kind of congratulated me like I just had a baby or something," Randolph said.

Acquired by Detroit at the winter meetings along with Cabrera, the excitable Willis beamed when the Tigers gave him a three-year, $29 million, contract.

"I'm so amped up about being here and knowing I'm going to stay here," he said. "It's mind-blowing to know I'm going to play for years to come for a team that had guys like Ty Cobb and Al Kaline."

Hunter will be with the Los Angeles Angels after agreeing to a five-year, $90 million contract, and Jones will be with the Los Angeles Dodgers, starting their final spring training at Vero Beach, Fla., where they've trained since 1948.

The Dodgers and San Diego Padres will leave spring training for a pair of exhibition games in Beijing on March 15 and 16. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics also head to Asia, becoming the third set of clubs to open the regular season in the Tokyo Dome.

"We want to expand Red Sox Nation and further establish it in one of the greatest baseball nations in the world -- Japan," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said.

Back at home, teams will start unloading their trucks at all those cities that fill papers each spring: Clearwater, Dunedin, Bradenton, Winter Haven and Lakeland in Florida; Surprise and Peoria in Arizona. Years ago, players used spring training to work off winter weight gains. Now they put on sun block, grab some chew and are ready to go.

In Mesa, Lou Piniella will start his second season with the Cubs. It's a special season for them -- making 100 years since their last World Series title, and they added a Japanese outfielder with a snazzy name: Kosuke Fukudome.

At this time of the year, even a Cubs' championship seems possible.

"I like our talent level," Piniella said. "I know some of the things we want to do, if we can just do three-quarters of them, I'd be really, really pleased."

While there will be some absences (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Craig Biggio), there will be plenty of others under the usual scrutiny.

Alex Rodriguez, known as much for being trailed by paparazzi as he is for postseason popups and regular-season home runs, figures to be the center of attention at Yankees' camp. Following another October swoon, he opted out of his record $252 million, 10-year contract, then returned for a record $275 million, 10-year deal.

The Yankees will head north to their final season at Yankee Stadium, and the Mets will spend their final year at Shea, both due to be razed when replacements open in 2009. In Washington, the Nationals move into their new home this April.

For now though, the spotlights are on players, especially those with injuries.

Arizona's Randy Johnson, at 44, is trying to rebound from yet another back operation. Boston's Curt Schilling, now 41, wanted shoulder surgery but reluctantly agreed to the team's request that he try rehabilitation.

Atlanta pitcher Mike Hampton has been injured for so long that he enters spring training three years shy of Hall of Fame eligibility. Juan Gonzalez, attempting a comeback with St. Louis, also would be eligible for the Hall's 2011 ballot -- unless he plays again.

And then there are six new managers who have been hired since the end of the season: Dusty Baker (Cincinnati), Joe Girardi (Yankees), Trey Hillman (Kansas City), John Russell (Pittsburgh) and Joe Torre (Dodgers).