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Next Time, For Real

MESA, Arizona -- The next time I step into a ballpark, it counts.

Not anything I do, of course -- but I'm not going on to see the Cubs in Las Vegas this weekend (Jeff, Krista, Brian and crew are heading up the road to Sin City tomorrow morning and have promised to file reports by phone/e-mail while there, which I will pass along to you), and so the next time I step into a ballpark will be Monday at Bank One Ballpark; I'm staying here in Arizona for the opening series.

Today, a team of miscellaneous Diamondbacks beat the Cubs at the Ho Ho Kam Park finale 8-6. It was so miscellaneous that the first thing I noticed in the first inning was that their third base coach -- a guy named Hale who's not even listed on their website coaches list was wearing #6 -- the same number as leadoff hitter Quinton McCracken.

It was so miscellaneous a team that some of the minor leaguers who were late-inning subs didn't have the names on their backs match the typestyle of the regulars -- it looked like they had them ironed on by their moms before the game.

"Hale", whoever he is, also made the pitching changes for the Diamondbacks, and this is because the rest of the D'back squad, and manager Bob Melvin, is in downtown Phoenix for the first of two exhibition games at the BOB with the Red Sox -- for which they are charging regular season prices, nothankyouverymuch.

The Cubs started their likely Opening Day lineup today, and they couldn't do much off Arizona's fifth starter Mike Gosling, scoring two runs in five innings, though they did smack four extra-base hits off him. Meanwhile, sacrificial lamb pitcher John Koronka had to be yanked in the bottom of the fourth after allowing eight hits, and he might have gotten away with only two runs allowed, but Matt Kata hit Jon Leicester's very first pitch for a three-run homer.

After five innings Dusty pulled all the starters, probably to get them packed up for the short flight to Vegas, and the scrubs put on a spirited rally, which would have made the game close in the 9th inning, except that new acquisition Cliff Bartosh also gave up a home run. This one was hit by Alan Zinter, a nearly 37-year-old career minor leaguer who was in camp with the Cubs a couple of years ago.

Nomar Garciaparra hit an opposite-field double in the 5th inning that appeared to be a home run, but the D'backs CF and RF came running in with their arms upheld, and after a conference the umpires ruled that it had bounced off the top of an advertising sign and into the seats -- this after Nomar had circled the bases and was back in the dugout. He sheepishly came back out, and wound up scoring anyway.

That led to shouts of "Double!" from the crowd when Zinter hit his HR, though there was no doubt about that one.

Bartosh, for his part, is tall and skinny, throws across his body with an easy motion, and did record a strikeout. In addition to his homer, the other two outs in the inning were deep fly balls. This is not an auspicious debut. For now, Bartosh has been issued #56; we'll see if that changes on Monday.

The crowd of 12,763 today brought the season total at Ho Ho Kam park to 193,993, an average of 12,124 per game and broke the all-time spring training attendance record of 189,692 that was set by... last year's Cubs (not just a Cubs record, but a record for ANY team in spring training). This is a tribute to Cub fans -- after last year's disappointment, and the fact that the weather wasn't quite as nice this March as it was in 2004, to have more fans than a year ago speaks volumes.

Either we're dedicated. Or nuts. Or both.

And it shows that interest in baseball, steroid scandal or no, is at an all-time high, confirmed by this article which says that merchandise sales are up 100% over this time last year, mainly due to the Red Sox championship. They also list the top 15 bestselling jerseys -- in alphabetical order. Two Cubs are on the list -- Nomar Garciaparra and Mark Prior.

Finally, I thought it would be good luck today -- I spilled my drink over for the first time this year, and usually that presages a Cubs win. Not today, so I hereby declare such things only work at Wrigley Field. Incidentally, apologies to the couple from Green Bay, Wisconsin who got a bit of my drink spilled on them. Don't worry -- even though they are from Green Bay, they are Cubs fans.

We are everywhere.