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Long, winding road starts here

Rematches, showdowns, farewells dot Minor League schedule
April 4, 2007
We are about to embark on the 2007 Minor League season, a five-month odyssey that is as unpredictable as any in all of sports.

That unpredictability is, in fact, a hallmark of Minor League baseball. Who knows what will happen over the course of over 12,000 ballgames, spanning 16 leagues and six levels of play? The possibilities are endless.

Nonetheless, the 2007 Minor League schedule includes a wealth of interesting matchups. On the eve of Opening Day, let's take a look at several dates worth circling on this year's calendar:

April 5 -- Opening Day
Hope springs eternal on Thursday as the 12 full-season leagues kick off their 140-game schedules. There is just too much going on to pinpoint specific highlights, but expect plenty of schedule magnet giveaways and fireworks shows as fans flock to ballparks to welcome back Minor League Baseball. Indianapolis' Sean Burnett will deliver the first official pitch of the season when the Indians take on the Columbus Clippers (in their first game as a Nationals affiliate) at 2 p.m. ET.

April 13 -- Fort Wayne Wizards at Dayton Dragons
The Midwest League's Dayton Dragons played their first season in 2000, after relocating from Rockford, Ill. Not surprisingly (given all the hoopla that surrounds the arrival of a new professional team), they sold out the first game they ever played at Fifth Third Field (capacity 8,200). What is surprising is they have sold out every home game they've played since. In fact, April 13 will mark the Dragons' 500th consecutive sellout, a feat that is extremely rare at any level of any sport.

May 5-8 -- Tulsa Drillers at Wichita Wranglers
This Double-A Texas League matchup most likely will feature Luke Hochevar and Greg Reynolds, the first two players taken in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Hochevar, selected by the Royals with the top pick, is a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a fastball in the mid 90s and a devastating curve. Reynolds, is a 6-foot-7 righty out of Stanford who figures to work his way into the Rockies' rotation by 2008 at the latest. With any luck, these two will go head-to-head at some point in the series.

May 17-20 -- West Michigan Whitecaps at Swing of the Quad Cities
From May 18-20, the St. Louis Cardinals will be taking on the Detroit Tigers in a rematch of last year's World Series. But for those interested in the future of the two franchises, a similarly interesting series will be taking place almost simultaneously. The Whitecaps and Swing, the Class A affiliates of the Tigers and Cardinals, respectively, go head-to-head for the first of two regular-season series. Each team's roster is loaded with top prospects. West Michigan boasts 19-year-old outfielder Gorky Hernandez and New York-Penn League batting champ Scott Sizemore, while Quad Cities has Appalachian League home run champion Mark Shorey as well as 19-year-old flamethrower Blake King.

June 19 -- Opening Day, Part II
The Minor League season kicks into high gear on June 19 as four short-season and Rookie leagues enter the fray: the New York-Penn, Northwest, Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues. The teams in these four circuits are comprised largely of recent draftees and play 76-game schedules. This season, the Appy League's schedule is particularly noteworthy. The Toronto Blue Jays' decision to pull out of Pulaski, Va., left the league with nine teams, creating a quirky schedule with a preponderance of off days and two-game series. Doubleheaders abound, including day-night sets in each squad's home stadium as well as twinbills in which the home team hosts two different clubs.

June 16-July 11 -- All-Star Games galore
The Class A Advanced Florida State League's annual All-Star Game will take place on June 16 in Daytona. This marks the first of what will eventually amount to eight midseason classics, with the final two occurring on July 11 (the Triple-A contest in Albuquerque, N.M., and the Eastern League game in Norwich, Conn.). The Minor Leagues' best and brightest will come out to shine during this period.

July 12-15 -- Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees at Louisville Bats
Provided one (or both) aren't in the Major Leagues by then, this International League series will feature the Bats' Homer Bailey and the Yankees' Phil Hughes, the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Both Bailey and Hughes are hard-throwing 20-year-old righties with seemingly limitless potential. To see them go head-to-head would be the stuff of which Minor League dreams are made.

Aug. 25-27 -- Tulsa Drillers at Wichita Wranglers
This series marks the end of the line for Minor League Baseball in Wichita. The Wranglers are moving to Arkansas for the 2008 campaign and changing their name to the "Naturals." Expect a huge turnout as fans and players say goodbye to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which opened its doors in 1934.

Aug. 31-Sept. 3 -- Syracuse Chiefs at Ottawa Lynx
If you just shed a tear for the Wranglers, then go ahead and shed a few more for the Lynx. This four-game set against Syracuse marks the final series for the Triple-A Phillies' affiliate, who will become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in 2008. Ottawa's departure from the baseball scene is especially meaningful, as the Lynx were the last full-season Minor League team left in Canada. In fact, the International League no longer will be able to live up to its moniker, as all 14 teams will be located on American soil.

Sept. 17 -- Bricktown Showdown
Last year's inaugural Bricktown Showdown, a winner-take-all Triple-A battle between the champions of the International and Pacific Coast Leagues, saw the Tucson Sidewinders defeat the Toledo Mud Hens, 5-2. The game, which fittingly takes place at Oklahoma City's AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, drew a near-sellout crowd and was televised nationally. The 2007 contest will take place on Sept. 17, marking the final game of what is sure to be a long and, of course, unpredictable season.

It all starts now.

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to