It's time for America's annual rite of spring today, as the baseball season opens in ballparks from coast to coast. Realistically, the pennant races don't figure to be as closely contested as those of a year ago, when three of the four divisions went down to the final days. And clearly, no individual story can match Pete Rose's fascinating 1985 pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. But unpredictability is a big part of baseball's charm, and it's a safe forecast that there will be plenty of excitement from one quarter or another before it all comes to a close on some chilly late-October night in New York, Kansas City, Los Angeles, or wherever. Five games in scattered locations get the seven-month show under way today. The Cincinnati Reds, launching their 102nd season, play host to Philadelphia in their traditional National League curtain-raiser, while a second NL contest features San Diego at Los Angeles in a battle of prospective West Division contenders.
Tom Seaver, who was the subject of trade rumors all spring and is still widely expected to wind up on some other team before too long, will start his 16th opening game -- a major-league record -- when he takes the mound for the White Sox at Chicago against Milwaukee. Cleveland is at Baltimore and Boston at Detroit in two other American League openers today, with the other 16 teams in the two leagues -- including the world champion Kansas City Royals and the defending National League champion St. Louis Cardinals -- in debuts tomorrow. ``You can't tell the players without a scorecard'' has come to be a real truism in the modern era, with the combination of trades and free-agent signings creating a veritable game of musical chairs for many of the sport's top stars each season. Actually, 1986 has been pretty quiet in this department compared with most other recent years, but of course there are still a number of uniform changes to note.