With March just around the corner, I can gladly proclaim: It’s that time of year again!

Baseball season is here. I bet you thought I was going to discuss March Madness, right? But no, America’s Pastime reigns supreme in this columnist’s eyes. I have finally been able to stop my countdown to the date when pitchers and catchers report — that happened over a week ago; now, we are on the precipice of the first spring training games of the 2002 season.

Records are meaningless in the spring, but for millions of baseball fans around the country, the games that are played in Florida and Arizona give hope — if even for just one fleeting moment — that their team can win it all. Of course, only one squad can realize this dream each fall. Autumn seems far off now, and the World Series is seven months away, but a full month of spring ball, and before you know it, it’s the trading deadline in the 162 game season. From there, the pennant race heats up, and then it’s time for the playoffs.

To avoid any allegations of band-wagon jumping, I have decided to go public with my forecast for this upcoming baseball season now. Timing is everything, they say, and, well, if I am right, my stellar handicapping skills will be confirmed. And if I am wrong, no one will ever remember.

So, without further ado, here are the top four contenders — two from each league — for this season.

The American League will once again be decided between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. The Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox figure to be the best of the rest. But the Mariners will not have the stars aligned perfectly for them this year, the Indians will be plagued by inconsistent pitching, and the Red Sox, well, they’re the Red Sox.

The A’s came close to knocking off the Bronx Bombers last year, but Joe Torre’s club was able to pull it out and advance to the World Series, which they eventually lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a thrilling seven games. But Jason Giambi now lives in the Bronx and is sure to develop a certain affinity for Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. He’ll help the Yankees cruise to the AL East title once again, backed by an enhanced offense and excellent pitching. Without Giambi, the A’s will teeter on the brink of a World Series berth, but once again fall just shy.

Who will the Yankees face, you ask?

The National League Championship Series will feature the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals. The L.A. Dodgers could be a sleeper, and hopes are high at Chavez Ravine, but the Dodgers will once again fall well shy of expectations. The Atlanta Braves will again be in the thick of it, but when all is said and done, it will be Mets-Cardinals.

Neither team has top-notch pitching, but in a seven game series, give the edge to the Cardinals, as they have a more balanced attack. The Mets’ rotation, aside from Al Leiter, will probably be more of an offensive asset than a pitching plus. And that’s not a compliment to their batting ability. The Cardinals will be National League champs, setting the stage for a Fall Classic between two of baseball’s most storied franchises.

It will be another riveting World Series, with St. Louis entering another set against a team from the Big Apple. The teams will split the first two at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees will take two out of three in St. Louis. Then, back in the Bronx, the home team will be clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and Tino Martinez — the ex-Yankee first baseman — at bat for the Cards. Martinez, who was underappreciated by the Yankee front office, especially for his defense, will hit a dribbler up the first base line that finds its way through the legs of Jason Giambi, for whom he was run out of town. The Cardinals will go on to win Game Six, but never will the Yankees lose a Game Seven in the house that Ruth built. You heard it here first: Yankees in seven.