The grueling and wholly unpredictable five-month odyssey that is the Minor League Baseball regular season kicks off tomorrow.
In anticipation of this exciting event (which should be a national holiday, in our opinion), let's take a look at some of the many, many dates that are worth circling on the 2008 calendar:
April 3 -- Opening Day
The excitement begins Thursday as the 10 full-season leagues kick off their 140-game schedules. There is just too much going on to pinpoint specific highlights, but suffice to say our great nation will be awash in schedule magnet giveaways, fireworks displays and stirring renditions of the National Anthem. It all begins in Syracuse at 2 p.m. ET, when the hometown Chiefs take on the Louisville Bats.
April 10 -- Opening Day in Northwest Arkansas
April 11 -- Opening Day in Lehigh Valley
2008 will mark the inaugural season for both the Texas League's Northwest Arkansas Naturals and the International League's Lehigh Valley IronPigs. On April 10, the Naturals (who relocated from Wichita following the 2007 campaign) will host the San Antonio Missions in the first-ever game at Arvest Ballpark. The very next day, a new era of baseball will begin in Lehigh Valley, Pa., when the IronPigs open their home slate at Coca-Cola Park with a 7:05 p.m. contest against the Richmond Braves.
May 18 -- Cooperstown Classic, Doubleday Field
The International League turns 125 this season, and the venerable circuit will be commemorating the occasion in a variety of ways. One of the most notable will take place May 18, when the Syracuse Chiefs play the Rochester Red Wings in Cooperstown, N.Y. (the mythical "birthplace of baseball" and home of the Hall of Fame). These two clubs, the oldest rivals in all Minor League Baseball, will go head-to-head at historic Doubleday Field. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that this game is not a mere exhibition and will count in the standings.
May 28 -- 13th Annual Rickwood Classic
For one game each season, the Southern League's Birmingham Barons return to their former home for the Rickwood Classic. The annual contest takes place at Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910 and is now recognized as the oldest ballpark in America (the Barons played there through the 1987 season). Each Rickwood Classic honors a different era in Birmingham baseball history, and the 2008 version will pay tribute to Jimmy Piersall and his 1951-52 Birmingham Barons.
June 17 -- Opening Day, Part II
The Minor League season really gets going on June 17 as four Class A 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 home openers for two of these clubs are particularly noteworthy. So noteworthy, in fact, that they get separate write-ups. Please keep reading...
June 20 -- Pro Baseball Returns to Pulaski
The 2007 season was a trying one for the Appalachian League in general, and for the town of Pulaski, Va., in particular. The Toronto Blue Jays' decision to pull out of the circuit deprived Pulaski of a team and resulted in a convoluted schedule as the league was forced to compete with just nine clubs. Fortunately, all is well in 2008: the Seattle Mariners signed a player development contract with Pulaski this past December. The Pulaski Mariners play their home opener on June 20, a joyous day for the small Virginia city.
July 1 -- Dehler Park Opens in Billings
After a 14-game road trip to begin the season, the Mustangs will finally arrive in Billings for what is sure to be a memorable home opener. On July 1, the Pioneer League franchise will play its first game at Dehler Park, a $12.5 million stadium that was built to replace since-demolished Cobb Field. The naming rights for the park were purchased by local businessman Jon Dehler, who christened it in honor of his family. Dehler Park has a capacity of more than 3,000 fans, along with a Picnic Pavilion and a Kids Zone play area.
July 13 -- Futures Game
The annual Futures Game takes place each year as part of MLB's All-Star festivities and features a team of top U.S. prospects taking on a squad comprised of players from outside the United States (the "World" team). This year's game will create lifelong memories for all involved as it will be played at Yankee Stadium during the historic ballpark's farewell season. In the 2007 Futures Game (held in San Francisco), Dodgers prospect Chin-Lung Hu led the World Team to a 7-2 victory over the U.S.
Aug. 28 -- Last Game at Ernie Shore Field
There'll be nary a dry eye in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Aug. 28 as the Warthogs will be playing their last-ever game at Ernie Shore Field. The 6,000-seat ballpark, which was named for former Red Sox pitcher (and North Carolina native) Ernie Shore, first opened in 1956. The Warthogs will compete in a brand-new, as-yet-unnamed stadium in 2009.
Sept. 1 -- The Richmond Braves' Final Game
After this season, the International League's Richmond Braves will relocate to Gwinnett County, Ga. (a suburb of Atlanta). This will end the city's remarkable 43-year run as the host of the Atlanta Braves' Triple-A farm club. On Sept. 1, Richmond's sizable population of baseball fans will pack into The Diamond to say goodbye to the hometown team.
Sept. 16 -- Bricktown Showdown
Last year's second annual Bricktown Showdown, a single-game Triple-A battle between the champions of the International and Pacific Coast Leagues, saw the Sacramento River Cats defeat the Richmond Braves, 7-1. The game, which took place at Oklahoma City's Bricktown Ballpark (hence the name), drew a near-sellout crowd and was nationally televised. In 2008, the IL hopes to finally emerge victorious after suffering two straight defeats at the hands of the PCL.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com.