Opening Day means much more than just the return of baseball. Nowhere is that truer than in the Southern League, where Hurricane Katrina brought an abrupt and premature end to the 2005 season in Mobile, Ala., and Pearl, Miss.
"The most affected ballclub we had was Mobile," Southern League president Don Mincher told MLB.com. "They had quite a bit of damage and flooding, tore down some signs. It wiped out their last week of the season last year. But they have spent the winter getting their ballpark back together. It's in good shape."
That's music to the ears of BayBears media relations director Tim Hagerty.
"The way last season ended with the hurricane, everybody that lived in Mobile, myself included, just needed a breath," he said. "The first few weeks after the season, it was nice to organize things and sleep in the same bed and not be on the road all the time. But I love broadcasting games, and late in the fall I kind of wished I could be on the air again."
Hagerty will get the chance on April 6, when Mobile hosts the Carolina Mudcats at Hank Aaron Stadium. Ironically, the BayBears were playing a series at Carolina when Katrina forever altered the Gulf Coast landscape.
"I guess there hasn't been any baseball played in Mobile since late August," Hagerty said. "[Opening Day] will add some excitement, show that the community has rebuilt itself and, in a more general sense, is ready to have fun again."
There could be plenty of fun at Hank Aaron Stadium this summer, thanks to a starting rotation that should have the BayBears fighting for the Southern Division title just a year after finishing 22 games under .500.
Among those pitchers slated to start the season in Mobile are Jared Wells, Cesar Carrillo, Sean Thompson and Jose Oyervides. Wells was named the San Diego Padres' 2005 Minor League Pitcher of the Year after combining to go 13-8 with a 3.69 ERA between the hitter-friendly California League and the BayBears.
Thompson will bring his big-breaking curveball -- as well as a 28-16 career Minor League record -- back to Hank Aaron Stadium after going 4-5 with a 4.67 ERA in 20 Southern League starts last season.
Oyervides was fifth in the SL with 130 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings last season, going 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA over 27 starts.
The BayBears can only hope to dominate the Southern League like the Jacksonville Suns did a year ago. With a roster that boasted Joel Guzman, Andy LaRoche, James Loney, Delwyn Young and Russell Martin, and pitchers Chad Billingsley and Justin Orenduff, Jacksonville captured its second SL title in five years.
Mincher called last season's championship team "one of the strongest clubs I've ever seen." Suns manager John Shoemaker doesn't disagree.
"It's going to be a while before you see a team as talented all the way through the lineup as we were fortunate to have in Jacksonville," said Shoemaker, who also guided Jacksonville to a share of the crown in 2001. "We are fortunate [because] it looks like we're going to have some good players coming up who played in Vero Beach [last year]."
Among those expected to help Jacksonville defend its championship are outfielders Matt Kemp and Tony Ragliani, infielders Tony Abreu and Chin-Lung Hu, and pitcher Greg Miller.
Other top prospects who should begin the season in the Southern League include Tennessee Smokies shortstop Stephen Drew, Mississippi Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Montgomery Biscuits left-hander Chuck Tiffany, Huntsville Stars third baseman Ryan Braun, Birmingham Barons left-hander Ray Liotta and Chattanooga Lookouts right-hander Homer Bailey.
Shoemaker is one of four returning Southern League managers. The others are Chattanooga's Jayhawk Owens, Mobile's Gary Jones and Montgomery's Charlie Montoyo. The newcomers are Birmingham's Chris Cron, Carolina's Luis Dorante, Huntsville's Don Money, Mississippi's Jeff Blauser and Pat Listach of the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.