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Editorial: Hope Comes to Mudsville; A New Season Begins

These are heady days for the hope-springs-eternal crowd — that is, baseball fans. With spring training in the rearview mirror and the open road of the regular season stretching out ahead, the game is poised at its annual moment of true equilibrium: Every team’s record is unblemished, the sky is the limit for every prospect, and every aging slugger promises to be rejuvenated. The 162-game grind will ruthlessly expose these illusions for what they are soon enough, but for a little while at least, we can all believe.

This year, Red Sox fans find themselves in an unaccustomed position on the eve of Opening Day. Having shed itself last summer of several overcompensated, underachieving and malcontented stars, the front office has apparently decided to field a team this year that we have come to think of as The Replacements, or perhaps more accurately, The Placeholders. That is, the Sox have signed several “character”guys — solid citizens and good teammates — to man several key positions. Experience tells us that a journeyman’s good character is no substitute for timely hitting, deft fielding and solid pitching, but in combination with those attributes, it can be a big help in keeping the fans happy, not to mention winning games.

Speaking of characters, Bobby Valentine’s day is over in the dugout and John Farrell, the team’s longtime pitching coach, returns to Boston as manager after a two-year out-of-town audition in Toronto. He’s reputed to be not only of sound character but also a favorite with the players and a knowledgeable baseball man.

But the real point of the exercise may be to put a respectable, if not formidable, team on the field for a couple of years until several bright young prospects are ready for The Show. And if lightning strikes in the meantime, the fans will have a chance to root for a bunch of overachievers amid diminished expectations, which is its own special kind of pleasure.

Of course, change is a constant in baseball, as in life. What’s different in baseball is that the life cycle is compressed. Prodigies generally arrive in the big leagues in their early 20s, reach baseball maturity in a couple of years, and by their mid-30s imperceptibly begin the slow decline into baseball old age. By 40, most are ready for the nursing home. Thus does it seem only yesterday that Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera arrived on the scene in the Bronx, heralding a golden era for the Yankees. Now in the seeming blink of an eye — where did those seasons go? — both enter the twilight of their stellar careers. Both are coming off injuries suffered last year, but one suspects they will have enough left to torment the Red Sox a few more times before they exit the Broadway stage a final time, amid nearly universal applause, their ticket to Cooperstown long-since punched.

As a team, the Yankees seem to have gotten old in a hurry, with the result that dynastic power appears to be flowing from New York to Washington, where the young Nationals seem poised to establish themselves as baseball royalty. They are loaded with talent, play in a beautiful new ballpark and are managed by a shrewd veteran. Of course, only time will tell if they are princes or pretenders, but it will be time pleasantly spent in an endless summer full of promise.