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It's back to keeping up with the Soxes, Jays and Yanks

The Steelers are less than a week removed from their victory parade and the torch in Turin has only been burning for a couple of days but we're happy to provide this ultimate warm-weather thought: Pitchers and catchers report in three days. Some players, in fact, are already in their Florida and Arizona camps getting early workouts in because they'll be leaving soon to join their national teams in the World Baseball Classic.12

It's been less than four months since the White Sox wrapped up their World Series sweep and were cavorting on the infield grass of Houston's Minute Maid Park. In 2004, the Red Sox ended an 86-year title drought and last year's Chicago victory ended an 88-year span between victories. Following that theme would make 2006 the year of the Cubs because they'll be on 90 years and counting since winning the 1906 Series.

Don't bet on that. Chicago's North Side heroes have too many questions to answer before they could realistically catch the Astros or Cardinals in the NL Central. Here's a quick look at some other story lines to ponder at the start of spring training.

New York, New York: Yep, there's a chance we could turn the clock back to 2000 with another Subway Series. The Mets (Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca) and Yankees (Johnny Damon) both took big steps forward over the winter, although the Yankees' starting pitching remains suspect.

Oh, Canada: Few teams made the kind of offseason splash that the Blue Jays did. First came B.J. Ryan. Then came the winter meetings-shaking, $55-million deal signed by A.J. Burnett. It didn't stop there. Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay came in trades to man the infield corners. And it continued right up until Wednesday, when Gold Glover Bengie Molina signed a one-year deal to be the catcher for one of the game's deepest rotations. For the first time since Joe Carter's home run in 1993, Toronto has legitimate hope.

Sox of a different color: With Damon bound to look strange in pinstripes, the Red Sox have only Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez left from their corps of position players that won the Series. And will Manny still be in Boston by the trade deadline or, perhaps, the end of spring training? From Day One in Fort Myers, new center fielder Coco Crisp and ace Josh Beckett will learn about the glare of the omnipresent Boston media.

Closer-less Braves go for 15th straight division title: When Kyle Farnsworth bolted to be Mariano Rivera's setup man in New York, it left Atlanta in the lurch. Joey Devine pitched well three months out of North Carolina State, even though he did allow Chris Burke's 18th-inning home run that clinched the NL Division Series for the Astros. But he'll need a lot of work this spring to see if he's truly ready to close.

Last year's winners: The White Sox kept Paul Konerko and added Jim Thome, as well as pitcher Javier Vazquez. But is prospect Brian Anderson ready to replace the traded-for-Thome Aaron Rowand in center field? He'll get everyday at-bats this spring to make sure he's the guy. And is closer Bobby Jenks really that good? While the Sox are still the favorite in the AL Central, the Astros have plenty of roadblocks on their road back to the Series.

Houston is getting into a dicey squabble with longtime star Jeff Bagwell. The Astros are betting the 37-year-old's surgically repaired shoulder won't hold up and have filed an insurance claim that would pay them more than $15 million of his $17 million salary if he breaks down.

Bagwell insists he'll be healthy this season -- even though he looked like a broken-down Willie Mays ('73 Mets version) last fall. The Astros might be looking to find some loose change to pick up still-unsigned Roger Clemens after May 1 passes. Houston has to hold off until that date because it didn't offer Clemens arbitration in December. Clemens is expected to try to pitch in the World Baseball Classic and see if his back and hamstring will hold up, with the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees all watching closely.

In the GM's office: Ned Colletti made a lot of sound winter moves for the Dodgers, such as adding Rafael Furcal and Bill Mueller. If healthy, Nomar Garciaparra will certainly put out maximum effort for his old Red Sox manager, Grady Little. Memo to Little: If Eric Gagne is healthy, use him!

Oakland's Billy Beane and Cleveland's Mark Shapiro rolled the dice. Beane signed Frank Thomas and agreed to trade for powder keg Milton Bradley while Shapiro made the controversial Crisp deal that will set up the Indians well for 2007 but may leave their lineup thin this year. And Boston boy wonder Theo Epstein is back, albeit with his reputation sullied. Once lauded as a man of principle, Epstein's three-month absence amounted to nothing more than a childish snit.


Herd growing on Web

Minor league camps, including the Bisons' workouts at the Cleveland complex in Winter Haven, Fla., open March 5 and the team's first spring game is March 17. Meanwhile, the Bisons are planning a much bigger Internet presence this season as they are relaunching an expanded on Friday.

The site is run by Major League Baseball Advanced Media and promises to have far more multimedia impact than in the past. There will be live video webcasts of some games, both home and away, as well as links to the team's live radio broadcast and audio-video highlights. Links to all minor-league teams and leagues are also included.

One feature fans will especially like is pitch-by-pitch reports and live box scores for all games, presented in a format similar to the popular interface used for major-league games on The site will also have the usual rundown of statistics, links to buy tickets and merchandise and an expanded section on the team's history.

To celebrate the site's launch, the team is sponsoring a "Night Out With the Bisons" sweepstakes. Fans visiting the site beginning Friday may sign up for the team's online newsletter and be entered in a drawing for a prize pack that includes eight tickets and sets of eight food items and souvenirs for a future game. One member of the winning group will throw the ceremonial first pitch prior to that game.


Around the horn

Bishop Timon-St. Jude product Joe Winkelsas has resigned as an assistant coach at Niagara to sign a minor-league contract with the Brewers.

This is going to be the last season for the Philadelphia Phillies in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Red Barons have been affiliated with the Phils since their birth in 1989 but the parent club announced recently it's cutting ties to move its Triple-A club to a new stadium being built in Allentown that might be ready for 2007. If it's not ready, Phils farm hands might spend that year in Ottawa. In any event, the Canadian capital is done in the International League either this year or next.

Winter expansions and renovations at Fenway Park will allow the Red Sox to have more high-priced club and roof box seats and the team continues to explore non-baseball events as revenue makers as well. Boston College officials said last week they're working on plans with the team for an outdoor hockey game next December in Fenway. Opponents mentioned include Michigan and Michigan State, who played in front of more than 74,000 fans in 2001 at State's Spartan Stadium.

One of the 39 Negro and Pre-Negro League candidates for the Hall of Fame that will be considered during a special vote Feb. 27 is shortstop Grant "Home Run" Johnson, who played from 1895-1916. Johnson spent the final 35 years of his life in Buffalo, passing away at age 88 on Sept. 4, 1963.


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