With March Madness in the past, the time has come for America to return to its pastime.

The Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and 2002 and 2003 International League champions, begin their season today against the Toledo Mud Hens at Durham Bulls Athletic Park at 1 p.m.

Scorecards will be a hot commodity this afternoon. Like any other minor league team, the Bulls will start the season with a roster full of fresh faces—they bear little resemblance to the team that lost the final three games of its five-game playoff series against the Buffalo Bisons last year.

A pair of corner infielders are the club’s biggest acquisitions. Casual fans may recognize the Bulls’ most recent free-agent pick-up, Eric Munson.

Munson played 246 games with the Detroit Tigers since 2000, but he never really matured into the type of hitter the Tigers expected when they chose him third overall in the 1999 amateur draft. Munson hit 37 home runs over his last two seasons with the Tigers.

The Bulls will also receive an additional offensive boost from former Pawtucket third baseman Earl Snyder, who led the International League with 36 homers last year.

Snyder said the Bulls are a fun team to play with, and all of his teammates in the infield have the ability to make it to the majors.

“I just want to stay consistent,” Snyder said. “I want to be consistent at the plate—I don’t want to go through too many low streaks. Everybody slumps, but I’d like to cut that to a minimum this year.”

Brian Sweeney will be the Bulls’ Opening Day starter. Last year the Yonkers, N.Y., native was named the Pacific Coast League’s top righthanded pitcher. Sweeney has experienced a taste of the major leagues, playing five games with the Mariners in 2003 and seven games with the Padres in 2004. In his second stint in the majors, Sweeney recorded a win over Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks June 29.

The 29-year old Sweeney described himself as a fastball and changeup pitcher who relies more on control and changing speeds than on pure velocity. He said he was extremely relieved to leave the Pacific Coast League behind him and take the mound on Opening Day.

“It’s always great to start things off—hopefully on a positive note—and get the ball rolling, so I’m very excited,” Sweeney said. “I heard a lot of good things, that [Durham] was a great place to play and that the fans were great.”

The Bulls also welcome back top-prospect B.J. Upton, who left Durham last fall and went on to hit .258 in 45 games with the Devil Rays.

Catcher Tim Laker returns to the Bulls this year as well after spending the last two seasons with the Cleveland Indians. A career .224 hitter in the majors, Laker will split time behind the plate with Pete LaForest, a Hull, Quebec, native. LaForest hit .308 for the Canadian Olympic team that advanced to the bronze medal game last summer in Athens, where it lost to Japan.

Hitting coach Richie Hebner said LaForest might be poised to have a breakout season.

“I’d like to see Pete LaForest turn it up a notch,” Hebner said. “He had a rough year last year, going to the Olympics, he missed a lot of games here. But Pete swung well the last two weeks of spring training. If Pete gets going, this could be a fun club to watch.”

This off-season the Bulls lost three of their four 20-home run hitters. Utilityman Jorge Cantu is currently the Devil Rays’ starting second baseman. Midre Cummings is now on the Orioles’ disabled list after slamming his hand against the outfield fence in a spring training game. Outfielder Matt Diaz, who last season led the International League in doubles, is now in the Kansas City farm system.

Jonny Gomes, who hit 26 home runs last season, is the sole power hitter to return to the lineup. But the additions of Upton, Munson, Snyder and ex-Richmond Braves outfielder Damon Hollins appear to be more than enough to keep the Durham lineup potent.

“We have a good offensive club. You look down the lineup, we have some good pop,” Hebner said. “We definitely have more power this year. We’re capable of hitting a lot of three-run homers. That makes the manager happy and that makes a lot of people in the stands happy.”


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