By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Cries of "Play Ball" warmed the hearts of Major League Baseball fans on Friday as big league teams squared off for the first time in 2017 on Spring Training diamonds in Arizona and Florida.
Game action is starting a week earlier than usual to make room for this year's edition of the 16-team World Baseball Classic, a welcomed early thaw for those eager to shake the winter doldrums with a return of the Summer Game.
The Boston Red Sox, who added hard-throwing lefty Chris Sale this offseason to a sterling starting rotation, host the New York Mets in a meeting of championship contenders in one of Florida's four Grapefruit League contests.
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Arizona's Cactus League schedule opens with the Cincinnati Reds visiting the San Francisco Giants, before a full schedule of games on Saturday.
Hope springs eternal for all clubs at this time of year,
with young prospects training alongside seasoned veterans for five weeks of fine-tuning ahead of the 162-game, six-month regular season that opens on April 2.
Twenty-nine teams will set their sights on dethroning the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, who waited 108 years before claiming the crown for the first time since 1908 with a Game Seven victory over the Cleveland Indians.
The Cubs will try to end another record drought this season by winning again, as it has been an MLB record 16 consecutive years without a repeat champion.
Spring Training provides a taste of what is to come and a hint about some question marks hanging over contending teams.
Chicago lost closer Aroldis Chapman and centerfielder Dexter Fowler to free agency, but traded for former Kansas City closer Wade Davis and obtained St. Louis outfielder Jon Jay.
The Cubs also expect further growth from their core of emerging stars including National League MVP Kris Bryant and slugger Kyle Schwarber, returning from injury.
The frustrating Fall Classic loss for the Indians, who led the best-of-seven series 3-1 before Chicago charged to victory, had them replace the Cubs as the team with the longest dry spell since their last World Series title (1948).
Keen to shed that label, Cleveland added one of the biggest bats available this offseason by signing former Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion.
Boston, meanwhile, will be campaigning for a fourth MLB title in 14 years without power-hitting David Ortiz. The big Dominican, a key member of their last three title teams, has retired.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York)