Major League Baseball has everything covered

It might not be America's national pastime anymore, but Major League Baseball deserves its sporting place.

The baseball season is here, sooner than you think. (Sooner, too, than the sporting gods, who prefer that the boys of summer hold off until April, would like.)

Such eagerness to begin, with six games on tomorrow, is understandable. Despite the best efforts of its administrators at times to muck it up, America's former national pastime - ousted by the runaway train that is professional football - has stumbled into a good place on the sports spectrum.

Let's take a leisurely jaunt around the bases, stopping at each one to admire the view.

• First base. Like no other sport, baseball lends itself to eccentric personalities, and we were treated doubly by the champions, the San Francisco Giants, last season.

Tim Lincecum owes his nickname, The Freak, not only to a violent pitching motion that seems to subject his limbs to snapping like twigs. With long, stringy black hair and a vampire's complexion, Lincecum looks as if he wandered out of a Goth convention. If the stadium janitors misplace their mops, they can turn Lincecum upside down and use him.

Lincecum is Mr Normal next to Brian Wilson, the Giants closer, who wears orange cleats, a Mohawk (on occasion) and a beard bushy enough in which to hide a baseball.

Among Wilson's claims: he can levitate, his dog speaks two languages (including Russian) and he aspires to dress up as himself or a vampire (or Lincecum) for Halloween. (Behind the antics is a brainiac. Wilson can knock off a crossword puzzle within minutes, so maybe he belongs in the category of mad genius.)

Baseball also offers such characters as Dirk Hayhurst, the Tampa Bay Rays pitcher (who sketches a fire-breathing cross between a giraffe and a moose, called a "garfoose," with his autograph), Nick Swisher, the New York Yankees outfielder (who offers a different home-run handshake to each teammate) and Ozzie Guillen, the Chicago White Sox manager (whose profane rants are typified by one about the alleged rats at Wrigley Field, so large "that they must lift weights.")

Then there is Jeff Moutzas, the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen catcher, who will eat anything (except for two substances that will go unmentioned here) and any amount on a bet. What a blessing that, in baseball, flakes are found in places other than in Moutzas' cereal bowl.

• Second base. The team owners' puppet Bud Selig, the commissioner, is blinded by a wrong-headed system of payroll disparity that tilts the playing field toward the big spenders.

The Yankees, projected to dispense checks worth US$207 million (Dh760m) to players, have missed out on only one post-season since 1994. The Boston Red Sox, spending $162m to keep up with the team in pinstripes, have reached six of the past eight play-offs.

The Philadelphia Phillies, fourth among the free-wheelers at $142m, have won four successive National League East titles. Fans of those teams can block out October on their calendars, certain they will experience some bonus baseball.

In Pittsburgh, they can now safely book Justin Bieber concerts, motocross events and Steelers autograph shows at PNC Park for October. The Pirates have devoted about $35mto payroll, all but assuring them of outside-looking-in for the play-offs.

Somehow, though, the stars align each year for a tight-fisted team to make the play-offs, even if it barely has any stars in uniform. Last year, the Texas Rangers overcame a No 27 payroll ranking, pinching enough pennies with its $55m roster for a World Series run, which ended when the Giants made Texas toast out of them.

The delightful anticipation: which low-budget team will step up this time to crash the upper-class party?

• Third base. The ongoing trial of Barry Bonds is a bittersweet reminder of the steroid era. Bitter, that it ever happened. Sweet, that it is fading in the rear-view mirror.

Pitching ruled last season, with 15 full-time starters south of a 3.00 earned-run average, the most since 1992.

But rising young (and, presumably, drug-free) sluggers - the Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward, the Florida Marlins' Mike Stanton, the Cincinnati Reds' Drew Stubbs, for starters - are helping restore the balance.

• Home plate. As the NFL locks out its players while suspending business and an NBA labour dispute brews, there is peace and love in baseball. Well, mutually grudging respect, anyway.

Though the owners-players agreement soon expires, the only mention of strike involves a swing and a miss, and collective bargaining means you and your buddies negotiating with ticket brokers for cheaper seats.

In October, when America's four major sports overlap, baseball might be the only game in town this year not played on ice.

After we cross home plate, may we accept high-fives from our low-payroll teammates, one of whom sprays us with shaving cream. And none of whom has a Barry Bonds big head.

Also, may an absence of rain storms allow the World Series to end, as scheduled, in October for a change. Avoiding that November creep will get baseball back on the good side of the sporting gods.