Baseball spring training is upon us, that glorious time when your favorite team heads south to get ready for the season and still hasn't lost a single regular season game. In cities across the Sunshine State of Florida (Grapefruit League) and the Valley of the Sun in metro Phoenix, Arizona (Cactus League), optimism truly reigns supreme. But thanks to the World Baseball Classic, 2013 spring training will be quite different from usual years, so here are seven sets of headlines to get you ready for your trip.
The WBC is back
Ready to watch your team potentially host an exhibition game - against a foreign country? Welcome to Spring Training 2013, where all that is good about the start of a new baseball season is all that is also, well, a little whacked. With the 16-country World Baseball Classic back for its third installment, schedules will be somewhat unusual. Take the Red Sox, for example. Boston will host spring training games on Feb. 21 and March 30 - 38 days apart. And they'll also play as many games against Puerto Rico at JetBlue Park as they will against the Yankees - one.
Go double dipping
Want to experience international baseball without getting your passport stamped? Welcome to spring training 2013. In Arizona, WBC participants, Canada, Italy, Mexico and the U.S. will go at it from March 7-10 in a double-elimination format, with two winners advancing to the second round in Miami. With a mix of day and night games, and the ballparks in close proximity to spring training sites, you could easily catch a Cactus League spring training game by day and a WBC game by night, or vice versa.
In Florida, the highlight of Marlins Park this season is the truly Latin feel that will be on display March 12-16 for second-round WBC action. Expect fans from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to turn Miami's MLB pad into a fiesta. The DR and Venezuela will likely best Puerto Rico and Spain out of their respective round one bracket to advance to round two in Miami. So too likely will the U.S. and either Canada or Mexico, out of the Arizona first-round bracket. It'll make for some great fun down Miami way.
Best time to see your starting nine
Barring no rainouts in San Francisco, March 17-19 for the semifinals and final of the WBC. The first day players on the finalist teams will be with their MLB team is March 20. So if you want to see your team's projected starting nine in a cozy, intimate setting, plan your spring training getaway sometime from March 20-30. Managers will want to see their starting lineup in the flesh during these 10 days, and starting pitchers will also go much longer than earlier in the spring, so you'll literally see the best compete against the best in essentially a minor league ballpark.
Let's go medaling in expectations
The usual suspects - Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies - aren't the only teams with huge expectations on their shoulders. So let's award some medals - based on expectations.
In Arizona (Cactus League), gold and silver expectations to two Southern California teams, the Dodgers and Angels for hauling in top-prized free agents (Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, respectively). And the bronze? Can you say Kansas City? The MLB club with the longest playoff drought, the last time the Royals made the post-season Astroturf ruled. Years have turned into decades for Royals fans. With pitching studs James Shields and Wade Davis in the fold, is 2013 the year Fountain City can go Back to the Future, aka 1985 (the year they also won it all, besting their Show Me State rivals in a thrilling seven-game series)? Stay tuned.
In Florida (Grapefruit League), bronze goes to the Nationals, thanks to Drew Storen's strike zone amnesia, with Washington adding Rafael Soriano, Dan Haren and others. Silver goes to the Braves for doubling up on outfield Uptons (BJ and Justin) to launch the Post-Chipper era. Gold? Whoa, Canada, that expectation goes to the Blue Jays (with a key assist from Jeffrey Loria). Annually, the Jays are cellar dwellers in average spring training attendance. Perhaps not this spring. The Grapefruit expectations medal winners each have among the most fairest of fair weather fans in MLB, so it will be interesting to see how much attendance spikes from a year ago.
Plenty of good seats available
Fan apathy and losing does have its benefits. Remember the good old days when you easily bought your tickets at the box office on game day? Well, if you want to experience some nostalgia, just catch any of these match-ups because there will be an abundance of good seats available:
In Arizona: Padres-Rockies; Rockies-Mariners; Mariners-Padres.
In Florida: Astros-Mets; Mets-Marlins; Marlins-Astros.
Despite there losing ways, the Mariners typically draw well but not against the uninspired Rockies or Padres. Incidentally, Seattle shares the Peoria Sports Complex with San Diego and they are the only two clubs that share a spring training facility that have also never won a World Series.
Two Cactus League ballpark headlines
The Cubs will play their final season at HoHoKam Park in Mesa this spring before debuting at a new spring training park in the same city in 2014. But all is not lost for HoHoKam as the Athletics will relocate to the ballpark starting in 2015. That means Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the oldest and most historic ballpark in the Cactus League, has only two seasons left. It's a shame because Muni is simply a better ballpark to enjoy a game at than non-descript and much larger HoHoKam. The only thing that makes HoHoKam unique is the large number of lovable losers that currently flock there. The Athletics don't draw nearly as well and will come to regret this decision.
Two Grapefruit League ballpark headlines
By the end of spring training, we'll likely find out if the Nationals will be back in Viera, Fla., in 2014, or if they'll bolt the Space Coast for greener pastures, such as Fort Myers. The club has a lease at Space Coast Stadium until 2017, but can now opt out with limited financial penalty.
Meanwhile, McKechnie Field in Bradenton, with its unique Spanish stucco facade, may be hard to recognize once inside. A nearly 20,000 square foot boardwalk, located 12-feet above the playing field, is new. So too is new, additional seating, increasing capacity to 8,500.
And then there's a new, old-style scoreboard along the right-center field wall. Now, if the Pirates can just win more games than they lose.
Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online spring training travel guide, "A Fan's Guide To The Ultimate Spring Training Experience" which is available for purchase exclusively at his web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.