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Sports fans rejoice -- pitchers and catchers report this week

Here we sit in the great gray middle of February, the dead zone on the annual professional sports calendar. The Super Bowl is in the rear view mirror, the NHL has taken a break for the Olympics, and all the big gyms are dark during the interminable NBA All-Star break.

Help is on the way, my friends. Pitchers and catchers report this week. There will be baseball.

Boston is my hometown and we anticipate pitchers and catchers the way teens look forward to getting their first car.

Start with "Truck Day.''

Last Friday outside Fenway Park fans gathered and television crews assembled to watch the loading and launching of a giant green van filled with baseballs, bats, mitts, helmets, golf clubs, baby carriages, sanitary socks and everything else the Red Sox will need to get through spring training. Sox pitchers and catchers report to the ball club's minor league complex in Fort Myers, Fla., on Thursday and the first workout is scheduled for Saturday, but "Truck Day" is Boston's official Groundhog Day.

Six more weeks of winter. It will stop snowing. It will get warm. The ground will soften. There will be baseball.

It's fashionable to mock metaphor-overloaded stories of baseball's annual rites. Boston's fascination with Truck Day has been ridiculed as a "Pink Hat Holiday" and indeed sometimes the themes are a little sappy and stretched. I'm not sure it was necessary for Wally the Green Monster to make an appearance to wave goodbye to the equipment truck and the notion that "Truck Day" has its own sponsor was a little off-putting.

But we need baseball. We need the sight of Red Sox pitchers and catchers bursting out of the clubhouse and doing one ceremonial, grueling, lap around the minor league complex at the end of godforsaken Edison Road.

We need those videos of pitchers fielding practice ("PFP"). It's just not springtime in New England unless we see ancient Tim Wakefield staggering from the mound to cover first base. If you are a NESN subscriber, you can watch workouts live from Fort Myers.

Spring training may not be a big deal if you live in San Diego and follow the Padres, or if you live in Phoenix and follow the Diamondbacks, but those of us living in Frostbite Falls and Snowmageddon need to hear the sound of the crack of the bat around the cage. Folks in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and New York are hungry for baseball..

Thirty teams open camp this week, 15 in Florida and 15 in Arizona.

Fans in Philadelphia are wondering if the Phillies can be the first National League team to win three straight pennants since the 1942-44 wartime St. Louis Cardinals, and fans in the Twin Cities are anxious to get a look at newcomers Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome. New Yorkers are putting the pressure on Jason Bay (Mets) and Curtis Granderson (Yankees). Everyone in St. Louis wants to know how reclusive cheater Mark McGwire is going to get his work done as the Cardinals' hitting coach in Jupiter, Fla. The Dodgers are no longer in their fabled digs at Vero Beach, but Dodger fans wonder about the impact of the split of Frank and Jamie McCourt. We're all curious to see where Johnny Damon will end up.

In Boston we're wondering how much weight David Ortiz has lost (bet he takes the old Bob Stanley approach and arrives announcing that he is in the best shape of his career) and how awkward it will be when Mike Lowell shows up after his bosses tried to trade him again all winter. Will Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon rebound from his playoff flameout against the Angels?

It won't be like the old days of Sox spring training, that's for sure. Before flatline GM Theo Epstein rebuilt the team in his button-down, corporate image, the Grapefruit League Sox were the stuff of Jerry Springer. Wade Boggs once fell out of a moving Jeep when his wife wheeled out of a Winter Haven Parking lot after a spring training dinner. Boggs proudly displayed tire tracks on his elbow. When Winter Haven cops harassed Oil Can Boyd about overdue videos, the local paper ran the titles of Boyd's outstanding tapes (all pornos) and the X-rated episode was dubbed, "The Can's Film Festival.''

In 1992, Butch Hobson's first day as manager, Daddy Butch arrived to learn that his first baseman (Carlos Quintana) had suffered a career-ending injury in a car crash in Venezuela, team owner Jean Yawkey was near death, and ace pitcher Roger Clemens was AWOL. When Clemens finally made it to camp the new manager went out to run a lap with the Rocket to smooth things over. The photograph of Hobson and Clemens jogging -- Clemens wearing earphones -- was an instant spring classic.

You can't make this stuff up and you don't have to. Pitchers and catchers report this week. There will be baseball.

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