Spring training officially gets under way this week in Florida and Arizona with pitchers and catchers reporting and position players to follow which will begin six weeks of preparing for the start of the regular season on the last day of March (providing there is no snow on the ground in selected locales).
This rite of spring has lost much of its luster through the years, due in part to baseball's own internal squabbling plus the extended seasons of both professional basketball and hockey. Further aggravating the situation this year is the tail end of the Winter Olympics going up against the start of baseball.
But while many casual fans will not pay much attention to spring training and exhibition games this season, collectors will -- or should -- pay extra attention due to the phenomena of the "rookie" card.
A generation ago, manufacturers didn't worry so much about printing cards for first-year players unless they were locks to make the roster. Even then, it was a hit and miss proposition to land an authentic rookie card when in fact, the player had probably had ample service time the previous year.
Major league baseball eventually established rookie "criteria", standardizing the number of games, innings or at-bats a player could participate in before he no longer carried the rookie tag. These requirements are generally ignored by card manufacturers and collectors alike when purchasing and trading rookie cards.
Rookies in baseball, unlike basketball or even football, are hard to gauge. A first-round draft choice in the NBA is a certain rookie card priority, same for football. But because baseball's draft doesn't carry the same weight and players can often languish in the minors for several years before making it to the parent club, spring training games provide the best gauge for whether a rookie is going to make it.
Check the boxscores, now provided in great detail by publications like Baseball America, USA Today Baseball Weekly and USA Today. They often print details of how much action rookies are getting in regular and "B" exhibition games and will print team stats so collectors can chart the progress of individual players.
Warning: some teams will play rookies more than others during the exhibition games with no thought of taking those players north for the regular season. Those are usually the established teams with predominantly veteran rosters who are using the exhibition games to get a look at future prospects rather than wearing out veterans.
Teams that fall into that category this year include Atlanta, St. Louis, San Diego, Colorado and Houston in the National League; the Yankees, Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland and Toronto in the American League.
Best bet to look for rookies, based on previous years, include the Dodgers, who have produced more rookies-of-the-year than any other major league franchise. This year is no exception: first baseman Paul Konerko is rated a can't miss prospect this season for the Dodgers while pitcher Dennis Reyes -- at age 20 -- may make the Dodgers' rotation.
Worst bet in the past to look for rookie card sensations: the Pirates, who have never had a player selected as rookie of the year since the award began 51 years ago.
It could change, however, this year. The Pirates' farm system is one of the best in the majors and a couple of players, shortstop Abraham Nunez, first baseman Ron Wright and pitcher Kris Benson all are solid prospects. The world champion Florida Marlins, who dismantled their veteran team over the season, are also a team worth watching in exhibition games. Outfielder Mark Kotsay and pitcher Rafel Medina will get a hard look by Jim Leyland who has numerous holes to fill for the departed high-salaried players he lost during the winter.
Every year the Montreal Expos face a similar situation to the Marlins; they develop outstanding young players only to lose them to free agency or trade because players don't want to play north of the border. The Expos, like the Marlins, unloaded top players during the winter meaning Manager Felipe Alou will be looking long and hard at rookie prospects in the spring.
The trickiest situation revolves around Cleveland, the defending American League champion which came within an inning of notching its first World Series title in nearly 50 years. The Indians have had the best farm system in the American League in the 1990s which has led them from the basement to the penthouse in the junior circuit during that time.
They are loaded again with top rookie prospects this year include infielder Enrique Wilson and first baseman Sean Casey and Richie Sexson. The trouble with putting much stock in Indian rookies is they have a club loaded with veterans and while this trio and other Tribe prospects may bloom down the road, they may wind up sitting on the bench and get limited playing time this year. That will diminish their value as a hot rookie card.
There are other talented rookies who could shine in the spring and make their presence known early: outfielders Ruben Rivera of the Padres, Michael Coleman of the Red Sox, Danny Clyburn of the Orioles, Jeff Abbott of the White Sox, Dante Powell of the Giants; infielders Damian Jackson of the Reds, Tom Evans of the Blue Jays, David Ortiz of the Twins, Juan Encamacion of the Tigers and Miguel Tejada of the A's and pitchers Brian Rose of the Red Sox, Kerry Wood of the Cubs, and Jim Crowell of the Reds are also players to watch in the box scores in the spring to determine if they post good enough stats to make it to the 25-man roster.
The wild card in all of this are the two new expansion teams in Arizona and Tampa Bay. They both went for younger players during the expansion draft last fall and could bring along some players more quickly than the established teams, particularly if both the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays stumble out of the gate.