Spring training’s here

The most reliable reminder that we’re closing in on spring came last week, when Major League Baseball teams opened their spring training camps.

For fans of the sport, it’s tough to beat this time of year. It’s that seven- or eight-week period when we’re able to believe that all things are possible, that with the right combination of hard work and just a little luck, our favorite team will be able to prove the experts wrong and emerge as a contender by the time the calendar flips from August to September.

That’s what made Wednesday special — that was the day that pitchers and catchers held their first workouts at the Pirates’ spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. Monday will be even more special — that’s when the first full-squad workout of the season will be held.

Plenty of questions surround the Pirates as they work to improve on last year’s record of 82-79. They’ll be looking to fill a couple of significant gaps after losing Jordy Mercer, who signed with Detroit as a free agent, and Josh Harrison, who parted ways with the club at the end of last season.

We’ll begin to get a glimpse of what the team might look like beginning Saturday, when the Pirates travel to Clearwater, Fla., to meet the Phillies in a 1:05 p.m. start as spring training games get under way. The spring home-opener for the Pirates is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. next Sunday, when the Marlins visit LECOM Park in a game scheduled to get under way at 1:05 p.m.

There are some Indians fans in our region, and they open their spring schedule at 3:05 p.m. Saturday, when they meet the Reds in Goodyear Ballpark, which they share in Goodyear, Ariz. Cleveland, which won three consecutive American League Central titles, will be looking for answers after its quick exit from last year’s playoffs.

And while we know those games don’t really count, they will offer clues as to what fans can hope to see beginning at 4:10 p.m. March 28, when the Pirates open the regular season in Cincinnati. The home-opener for the Pirates is set for 1:05 p.m. April 1 when St. Louis visits PNC Park.

Cleveland, meanwhile, opens its regular season at 4:10 p.m. March 28 in Minnesota and will take on the White Sox at 4:10 p.m. April 1 in its home-opener.

Spring training remains a special time, even though technology and ease of travel have changed the experience. No longer are we limited to just listening to Grapefruit and Cactus league games on the radio. Contests are streamed online, and many games are now telecast. And, because more and more people have had the opportunity to visit Florida and Arizona, those locations are not quite as exotic as they used to be.

Many things about baseball are continuing to change. It appears very likely that this season could be the last when fans — National League fans — will be able to enjoy the good, old-fashioned game that existed across all of the baseball kingdom before the American League introduced the designated hitter in 1973. If the universal designated hitter is adopted for the 2020 season, offense likely will be improved, but the cost will be the loss of some managerial strategies that have allowed the game to stand the test of time.

Another change likely to come will be a requirement that a relief pitcher must face three batters before a manager can remove him from the game.

That will help make the games move a little faster and would actually create new strategies for managers to utilize — and could help to increase the importance of good starting pitching.

Those potential changes are things to worry about in the future. For now, the best course of action is to sit back and enjoy spring training baseball, knowing that spring and summer are right around the corner.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)