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NINE KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE 2005 SEASON

1. Is this destined to be the "Year of Steroids"?

Yikes, it sure looks that way. Players have already trotted before Congress as Jose Canseco's tell-all book has cast the shadow of guilt over virtually everyone who posted big numbers in the 1990s. Violators of the new steroids policies will be publicly identified for the first time and there's probably good reason to do so.

Check out these numbers: From 1920 to 1994, the 50-homer mark was reached 18 times. It was reached 18 more times from 1995-2002. Hmmmm.

Nine players hit more than 40 home runs last year and 36 hit 30 or more. If those numbers drop precipitously, look for all kinds of snickering in the national media.

Factors such as smaller ballparks, tighter baseballs, diluted pitching due to expansion and increased weight training obviously have boosted home run figures. But the testing program might really give us an idea how legitimate some of these bloated numbers have been in recent seasons.

2. Is Barry Bonds finished?

Barry looked like a beaten man a few days back in Arizona when he said the media finally got him. With his son by his side wearing a Barry Sanders replica jersey (a subliminal message that Dad is planning an early retirement?), Bonds said his second knee surgery of the spring might keep him out half the year and maybe even the whole season.

Bonds enters the season with 703 home runs, 11 shy of the Babe and 52 behind Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755. At age 40, it's looking unlikely Bonds will approach Aaron or that he even wants to. He's already said 2006 would definitely be his last year. The Giants have no idea if or when he'll be back this year.

3. Yankees-Red Sox. Who has the upper hand?

The Sox have the rings to prove they were the best in 2004, but it's easy to forget that the Yankees had Mariano Rivera on the mound and were three outs away -- three outs -- from a sweep in last year's ALCS before Boston's comeback for the ages.

The Yankees are trying to become the first team in history to win 100 games in four straight seasons. But they haven't won a World Series since 2000 either, their longest drought since going winless from 1978 to '96.

The teams play six times in April, and that means Randy Johnson might face the Sox twice. Boston's Curt Schilling, on the other hand, is opening his season with Triple-A Pawtucket while on the comeback trail from ankle surgery.

Look for the Yankees to jump to an early lead in the division and take the title again. But all bets are off when the teams meet again in the ALCS come October. The Yankees should be the better team. They were supposed to be better last October, too, but some self-dubbed "idiots" made them look foolish.

4. Can the Mets steal some back-page headlines in the New York tabloids?

Probably only if Pedro Martinez continues to insist the Yankees are his daddy. The defense will be dramatically better in part because Carlos Beltran will be in center and Doug Mientkiewicz will be at first. But the pitching, especially in the bullpen, is still spotty. And Martinez better watch himself. He has to bat now and all that inside work he got away with in the AL will be quite a bit dicier in the NL.

With the bullpen a potential disaster and the offense a question mark around Beltran and Mike Piazza, there's little chance the Mets catch the Braves or Marlins.

5. Is this the breakthrough year for the Indians?

Three years ago, when he officially broke up his aging team by trading Bartolo Colon to the Expos, Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro said the Bisons' parent was going into rebuilding mode and expected to contend in 2005. The future is here and former Buffalo manager Eric Wedge appears to have the Tribe ready for an AL Central run.

Even considering C.C. Sabathia's spring abdominal injury, the Tribe seems to have enough pitching -- especially if veteran closer Bob Wickman remains healthy to key the bullpen. Juan Gonzalez, who will start on the DL, joins a lineup that includes youngsters Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Ben Broussard, who had breakthrough years in 2004. Other key additions to the lineup are a healthy Aaron Boone and the everyday debut of Jhonny Peralta, last year's International League MVP while with the Bisons. He replaces Omar Vizquel, who signed with the Giants.

6. Which old faces will succeed in new places?

After last year's ALCS meltdown, the Yankees quickly reworked their pitching staff by adding the Big Unit, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. The quest for marquee arms, in fact, proved to be the biggest nonsteroid story of the offseason.

The Mets added Martinez, the Braves acquired Tim Hudson from Oakland and signed him to a long-term deal and added closer Dan Kolb from Milwaukee to compensate for the move of John Smoltz back into the rotation. The Cardinals got Mark Mulder from the A's. The Dodgers got October hero Derek Lowe, cast aside by the Red Sox. Boston signed David Wells.

At the plate, the Mets won the Beltran sweepstakes and left the Astros immediately reeling as a middle-of-the-pack team in the NL Central. Carlos Delgado should make the Marlins one of the teams to beat in the NL.

The Mariners are hoping Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson can revitalize their batting order, and the Diamondbacks feel likewise about Shawn Green and Troy Glaus. J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent are now Dodgers while Sammy Sosa takes his 574 career home runs to Baltimore.

7. Will baseball be a hit in the nation's capital?

Bud Selig & Co. have been banking on it for a long time, and they'll finally start to get an answer this year with the berth of the Washington Nationals. No longer will they have to fret over microscopic crowds in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Of course, they still have that one minor problem of finding an owner for the club to take it off MLB's hands.

On the field, manager Frank Robinson and his players should be rejuvenated by having a legitimate home field for 81 games. No more barnstorming to Puerto Rico. And additions such as shortstop Cristian Guzman, third baseman Vinny Castilla and outfielder Jose Guillen mean the Nationals could be at least competitive in baseball's first year in RFK Stadium since 1971.

The Nats are also expected to rival the game's marquee teams in merchandising sales for their new red caps and red and white uniforms. Their home opener is April 14 against Arizona.

8. What else is new and notable?

Get used to another new team name as owner Arte Moreno got approval for the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

Closer to home, Toronto's SkyDome is now known as the Rogers Centre in honor of Rogers Cable, the new owners of the Blue Jays. They're planning many renovations to make the building more fan-friendly, including a switch from AstroTurf to FieldTurf.

The one big farewell this season will be to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which is closing after a 40-year run. The Cardinals move next season into a new 46,000-seat stadium in an adjacent parking lot. It will also be called Busch Stadium.

9. What are the best dates to mark on my calendar?

Surely, you have tonight's Red Sox-Yankees opener circled. And don't forget April 11, when the Yankees have to watch the Sox get their Series rings prior to Boston's Fenway opener. The Yankees and Sox play April 3, 5, 6 in New York and also meet in the Bronx on May 27-29 and Sept. 9-11. They play in Boston April 11, 13 and 14, July 14-17 and the last three days of the season (Sept. 30-Oct. 2).

If you want a quick trip to see the two teams, the Yankees are in Toronto on April 20 and 21, Aug. 5-7 and Sept. 16-18. The Red Sox are there April 8-10, May 24-26 and Sept. 12-14.

The All-Star Game is July 12 in Detroit. The Hall of Fame inductions of Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg are July 31 in Cooperstown. The playoffs open Oct. 4 with Game One of the World Series set for Oct. 22.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com