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Originally published April 2, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified April 3, 2012 at 12:10 AM

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The 2012 baseball season has a tough act to follow

The major-league season starts Wednesday (well, OK, resumes, after two games in Japan last week). There are some big changes this year and hopefully as many thrills as the 2011 season produced.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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So, where were we?

The 2011 regular season ended with the most exciting single day of baseball anyone can remember. (I asked Jamie Moyer, and he confirmed it surpassed anything in the 1800s, too.)

Game 6 of the World Series was one of the most thrilling in recent memory, with the Cardinals down to their last strike not once, but twice. Somehow, the Cards stole an inconceivable victory, and the next day, won the title over the shellshocked Rangers, absolving David Freese from ever paying for a meal again in St. Louis.

As the North American version of the 2012 season kicks off Wednesday night in Miami, there's clearly a lot to live up to. And it will all commence in an MLB landscape that has been vastly reconfigured since everyone went home for the winter.

Take Wednesday night's showcase game. The Marlins will be playing in a beautiful new ballpark that many thought would never come, bringing Bud Selig one step closer to his master plan of repopulating the baseball world with new stadiums.

Only two more to go: Tampa Bay and Oakland, one of which features a team with a groundbreaking general manager who has figured out the secret formula to thrive despite unfair small-market disadvantages, a sleight-of-hand worthy of a movie. The other one's run by Billy Beane.

The Marlins have a new manager, the expletive master himself, Ozzie Guillen. Anticipating the revenue ramp-up from their new stadium, they loaded up on pricey new ballplayers, a total departure from what had been one of the most penurious organizations in baseball. Their mega-talented right fielder even has a new first name, changing from Mike to Giancarlo Stanton.

The Marlins will face those aforementioned champion Cardinals, who are light one genius (Tony La Russa retired after the World Series) and one hitting savant (Albert Pujols, who signed with the Angels for what MLB sources termed "an insane number of years and an obscene amount of money").

La Russa's replacement, Mike Matheny, is one of two new managers to get hired this winter with absolutely no experience. The other is White Sox skipper Robin Ventura, who has been headlocked by Nolan Ryan one more time than he's ever filled out a regular-season lineup card.

The final new manager is Boston's Bobby Valentine, who seems to foster controversy and turmoil wherever he goes. But that shouldn't be much of a problem in Boston, where everything tends to be calm and sedate, and fans aren't really that invested in their team. Last year ended pretty smoothly, except for the total collapse down the stretch, the explosive revelations of a clubhouse in disarray, and the purging of once-beloved manager Terry Francona and once-revered general manager Theo Epstein.

Francona is now in the much calmer world of television broadcasting, having essentially switched jobs with Valentine. Epstein takes over the Cubs, knowing that if he leads them to their elusive World Series title, absent in the Windy City since 1908, he will be acclaimed as the most accomplished slayer of jinxes in baseball history. But he's still got Alfonso Soriano for three more years, so I wouldn't hold your breath.

While Pujols was jumping to the Angels, another NL Central slugger, Prince Fielder, was leaving for the American League. He signed with the Tigers for what those same anonymous sources termed "a boatload of money for a few too many years, given his body type. Dude's huge."

This season could feature the unleashing of a major new slugging talent, 19-year-old Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, who begins the year in the minors but will probably end it in D.C. If all goes according to the Nats' master plan (they, too, have a semi-new, high-profile manager in Davey Johnson), Harper and a healthy Stephen Strasburg will be the most dynamic young duo in the sport.

This year also features the return of a player 30 years Harper's elder — the amazing Moyer, who at 49 has made the Rockies' rotation after missing last year from Tommy John surgery. Just to put things in perspective, Moyer pitched four seasons in the majors while John was still active — and for seven years before Harper was even born.

Pending approval, the Dodgers will have a new owner, Magic Johnson, who hopes to restore Showtime to Chavez Ravine after Frank McCourt did everything he could to drive away one of the most loyal and populous fan bases in all the land. All it cost Magic was $2 billion, which converts to about 500 million Dodger Dogs.

As a childhood Dodgers worshipper, I'm behind Magic 100 percent (but it's only fair that Sandy Koufax now buys the Lakers). Baseball desperately needs sanity restored to one of its showcase franchises — and that goes as well for the New York Mets, who have been reduced to operating like a small-market team while Fred Wilpon tries to disentangle himself from the Madoff mess.

MLB rolls out a new format this year as well, adding a wild-card team to each league and an extra round of playoffs. But that "round" will really just be a one-game, winner-take-all showdown that's designed to increase the importance of winning a division title. That, and add a lucrative new revenue stream.

Sounds pretty exciting, if not a little contrived. If this year's ending — not to mention its middle and beginning — is anything like last year's, it should be a heck of a ride.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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