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SportsMonday: The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Baseball! And playoff hockey starting next week, and probably playoff basketball right after that.

It's the most wonderful, time, of the year, except for the opening of the football season. Maybe.

Surely we can agree that both times are sweet and given that this one is accompanied by the promise of spring weather . . . enough said.

We enjoyed a preview of the next month (or two, come on Hawks!) on Sunday: The local hockey team lost 3-2 to the haven't-clinched-a-playoff-spot-yet Bruins, the Bulls pulled out an impressive 117-110 victory at New Orleans (we can be impressed with a specific win and still be completely skeptical that a team will have any sort of success in the playoffs), and the Cubs opened their season with an exciting 4-3 loss to the Cards.

It was almost 10 hours of awesome sports entertainment in one day.

(Quick note: yes White Sox, this column is going to proceed as if you don't exist. You should be used to that by now. You can always check out Roger's new White Sox Report.)

April and May were not the most wonderful time of the year on the Tribune agate desk when I worked there in the '90s. I was part of a part-time crew (we never officially worked more than 29 hours in a given week because that meant we were owed no benefits - ah, the good ol' Mothership) and our jobs were to answer high school sports calls and write game briefs, along with the agate.

That was the small print stuff of course - the box scores, the standings, the transactions - that made up and still makes up, the most efficient parts of the sports section. And once we had been there long enough, we would get some shifts as agate editor. And that was about the worst job in journalism in April and May.

When I started at the Trib, we were still in the "green letters on a green, hard-wired screen" stage of newspaper technology. Things progressed a bit while I was there but during my couple dozen shifts as editor, there was still about a 20-step process we had to do with each box score to prepare it for publication. Then we had to stack them and make sure they would fit into the space allotted. Meanwhile, the standings and results had to be updated and oh yeah, the basketball and hockey playoff agate had to be processed.

I learned that a person can actually experience a cold sweat when I found myself trying to finish that work on deadline and realized that pretty much the whole paper was waiting for me.

Now of course everything is much more streamlined. Today is the first day with something resembling a full baseball schedule and so Tuesday morning will bring a Tribune sports page with the latest edition of the baseball page with standings, pitching match-ups, statistics to fill space if needed and of course box scores. Now the page is nationalized and I wonder if there even is an agate editor. (Editor's Note: Or you could just online right now and see it all in many expanded versions, without any space limitations at all without having to wait until tomorrow!)

Anyway, this morning's section contains all sorts of great stuff about yesterday's local games. (Editor's Note: Stuff that was online yesterday and is already stale today!) The Hawks contest didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, the Bulls took a big step toward potentially qualifying for one of the last few spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the Cubs started the season as DEFENDING WORLD SERIES CHAMPS.

Because the Cubs lost, both local and national commentators weighed in quickly that the magic is gone. That's probably a wee bit premature. The team actually did a bunch of things right and a glorious bit of clutch hitting by future star Willson Contreras - a one-out-in-the-ninth three-run home run - almost brought the Cubs all the way back.

Jon Lester made it through his first post-David Ross start reasonably well, giving up only one fluky run in five innings, Joe Maddon handled the bullpen perfectly (it wasn't his fault that Mike Montgomery choked the game away in the ninth) and Cardinal manager Mike Matheny exhibited some comforting goofiness.

Many pointed out that Matheny's refusal to pinch-hit for pitcher Carlos Martinez in the seventh was a mistake, but the big screw-up was bringing in closer Seung Hwan Oh to go for a five-out save in the eighth inning - in Game 1 of 162! Sure enough, the Cubs made him work, and with his 31st pitch of the game (the usual breaking point for a closer that usually goes one inning is around 30 pitches), Oh gave up the blast to Contreras.

It will be a long season for Cardinals fans if Matheny can't do better than that. And it will be a long stretch of exciting sports in the coming month or two if the winter teams can come through - I'm still feeling quite confident about the North Side baseball club).

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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