It’s just about that time of year again.

All of the newspapers have come out with their “capsules” on the Major League teams. Pitchers and catchers are set to report to most spring training camps this week. And, every so often, a hint of sunshine and a temperature above 40 degrees reminds us baseball season can’t be far away.

Sure, the Super Bowl took place only a few weeks ago, March Madness and the NCAA tournament still await and the NBA playoffs will still linger four months from now. But make no mistake — this is the time of year when baseball fans get that itch. Whatever weaknesses our teams displayed last year, however disappointed we were with our front office’s off-season maneuvers and no matter how low the so-called experts predict our favorite squad to finish, we still can’t help but get excited at the prospect of another baseball season.

If you’re more of a football fanatic, basketball buff or hockey hanger-on, you might not quite understand why spring training or opening day is such a big deal. Some of you can’t figure out why we think baseball is so intriguing. I can come up with the usual explanations — the complexities, the history, the relaxing elements — but I can’t totally put my finger on it. For those same reasons, I can’t completely explain to the unknowing the reason for the incredible excitement I feel when baseball season nears.

Major League Baseball has plenty of problems these days — most notably, the grave economic disparity between its small and large-market franchises. But, for everyone that loves the game, early spring is a time for hope.

On that note, here are my three wishes for the 2001 season:

1. People will stop talking about the “juiced ball” as being the major cause of the rise in home runs. Ever watched an old game on ESPN Classic? The reality is players these days are much bigger and stronger than they were in the 1980s and before. The dilution of the quality of pitching has played a role as well, and it is possible that the physical make-up of the baseballs is slightly different. But the main reason for the power surge is the increase in the physical stature of the hitters and their heightened incentive to swing for the fences. Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy were toothpicks compared to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. That’s one of the main reasons the standard of excellence has risen in many fans’ minds from 30 to 50 homers. And with home runs being rewarded with sky-high salaries, incidences of big swings and strikeouts are up. The difference is in the players, not the balls.

2. Underdogs will prevail. While I respect the Yankees’ top-to-bottom organizational competence, many other teams have fans that deserve to celebrate in October. Of course, no one would relish a World Series more than die-hard Red Sox or Cubs followers, and dedicated fans in places like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Cincinnati have rarely tasted postseason success as of late either. Every man, woman and child that commits a significant amount of time to his or her team deserves to have reason to strut once in awhile. Yankee rooters have had their fun, and now it’s time for others to get a chance. As long as the Series does not involve New York or Atlanta, I’ll be satisfied that the wealth has been spread sufficiently among fan constituencies.

3. Owners and players will agree on a labor contract. MLB’s collective bargaining agreement expires after this season, and some insiders have already speculated a labor stoppage is a realistic possibility by next off-season. The fans have been remarkably patient and forgiving, but the owners and players have yet to figure out a way to keep each other happy. Large-market owners don’t want to share the wealth, small-market owners are crying poor and the incredibly powerful players’ union won’t agree to a salary cap, the folding of franchises or any similar cost-saving measure. The last thing the game needs is another blow to the fans resulting from rich people’s inability to divide hundreds of millions of dollars.

Those wishes don’t seem too outlandish, especially considering that this is spring. As any die-hard fan knows, there will be plenty of time for brooding later on. Along with all the other baseball nuts, I’m allowed to be as optimistic as I want.

Batter up.