Sunday marked an official end to the football season as the National Football Conference rolled over the AFC 30-21 in the final National Football League’s Pro Bowl played in Hawaii.

Now the sporting world will be focused on the end of the college basketball season and the NCAA Tournament and the start of major league baseball’s spring training which begins this weekend in either sunny Florida or humidity-free Arizona.

Our own Houston Astros will get spring training started as the pitchers and catchers report to their training site at Kissimmee on Saturday. They are the only National League team to begin on Valentine’s Day, but three American League  teams—the Angels, Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians–will also have their pitchers and catchers report on Saturday.

But the 2009 major league baseball season promises to be different than most because of the tough economic conditions that have beset our nation.  “We’re living in very tough economic times, obviously—the toughest economic environment I think since the Great Depression,” Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told the Associated Press in a telephone interview last week.

Management executives predict the impact soon will be felt at the gate and in their sales offices where advertising and sponsorships are bound to be off when current contracts expire.

Although several teams say season-ticket sales are at or above 2008 levels, their executives are concerned that the impact of the recession will be felt more with individual tickets, which haven’t been put on sale yet.

Clubs are beginning to wonder whether there will be cutbacks on spending for ballpark signage, yearbook and program advertisements and individual-game luxury suite rentals.

“We won’t see the full impact until at least 2010,” Boston Red Sox owner John Henry told the Associated Press. “None of us know to what extent we will be impacted by this continuing crisis. But we all know we will. Clubs have good reasons to be cautious this year.”

One of the teams convinced that current economic conditions will affect their bottom line is our own Houston Astros, who already lost a couple of players they really wanted for the 2009 season.

The Astros offered crafty left-hander Randy Wolf a $27 million, three-year contract in mid-November, but a week later realized they couldn’t afford him. They contacted Wolf’s agent and rescinded the offer. Last week Wolf agreed to a $5 million, one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Houston would have loved to land him at that figure.

The Astros decided to keep their payroll at the 2008 level of $100 million rather than boost it to $120 million as they had planned and lost another key starting player because of it.

Third baseman/outfielder Ty Wigginton was eligible for salary arbitration and was projected to earn $5 million to $6 million. Instead Houston set him free and Wigginton agreed to a $6 million, two-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles.

And on the other side of the coin is the New York Yankees, who last year failed to buy a playoff berth for the first time since 1993.
The Yankees are completing their new $1.5 billion stadium, where a steak house and martini bar are among 13 restaurants, lounges and food courts for the public and tickets are priced at up to $2,500 per game.

They must not feel any recession because the Yankees payroll for 2009 is estimated at $423.5 million, after adding such high-dollar talent as pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

The Yankees’ recent spending spree sparked Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio to recommend baseball push for a salary cap when the current labor deal expires after the 2011 season.

The Philadelphia Phillies, coming off their first World Series title since 1980, made only a few major moves, the biggest was signing Ryan Howard to a $54 million, three-year contract, which gave the slugging first baseman a hefty raise and avoided a potentially contentious arbitration hearing.

Howard, who was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2006, will earn $15 million this season, $19 million next year and $20 million in 2011. He was rewarded for leading the major leagues with 48 homers and 146 RBIs last season and helping the Phillies win their first World Series since 1980. He was runner-up to Albert Pujols for MVP.

Baseball fans will be able to watch more baseball games from home this season because of the MLB Network, which launched Jan. 1 with all-baseball, all-the-time programming, much like the NFL Network where not many people from our area are able to see the scheduled games.

KWICKIES…Former Atlanta Falcons running back and ESPN’s “First Take” analyst Jamal Anderson, who created the “Dirty Bird” touchdown celebration dance, was probably doing the “Jailbird “ dance last weekend after being charged with felony cocaine possession and misdemeanor marijuana possession. He was arrested at an Atlanta nightclub early Sunday morning. Anderson, 36, helped the Falcons to their first NFC title in 1998 when he rushed for 1,846 yards and set an NFL record for carries in a season with 410. His career was cut short by a knee injury in 2001. He worked for ESPN last football season.

The Lamar Cardinals men’s basketball team ran into another roadblock on their quest to make the Southland Conference playoffs by losing to Stephen F. Austin 74-62 Saturday in Nacogdoches. The loss dropped the Cards record to 3-6 in the SLC and 12-10 overall. The team left early Monday for a non-conference game at Utah Valley that night in hopes of getting back on the winning track.

Tiger Woods became a father Monday for the second time when his first son, Charley Axel Woods was born.

It was discovered Monday that Pittsburgh Steelers’ winning Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the entire game Feb. 1 with two fractured ribs that did not show up on the X-Rays taken the week before the big game.

The Lamar Lady Cardinals recovered from an opening 11-0 deficit and throttled the Stephen F. Austin Lady Lumberjacks 71-52 in a Southland Conference basketball game at the Montagne Center Saturday. The Lady Cards strung together runs of 15-0 at the end of the first half and 24-5 over the final seven minutes of the game to run their record to 6-3 in the SLC West Division and 15-7 overall.

Former Little Cypress-Mauriceville and LSU golf star Scott Sterling finished 10 strokes behind winner Nick Watney to collect a check for $48,760 in last weekend’s PGA Buick Invitational. Sterling fired rounds of 69-72-75-71—287 and finished the tourney one-under par. Watney came from five strokes off the pace to overtake John Rollins, who shot a 64 Friday and led the event by three strokes after Saturday’s third round. Rollins had a three-stroke lead with five holes to play but bogeyed Nos. 14 and 16 and failed to hit the green on the par-5 18th hole. Watney birdied the final hole to win by a stroke over Rollins and collect the $954,000 first prize.

Rollins earned $572,400 for finishing runner-up. Tourney-favorite Phil Mickelson, playing on his home course, finished three shots behind Sterling at 290 and won $17,053.

JUST BETWEEN US…Perhaps Joe Torre’s tell-all book “The Yankee Years” was right-on when it referred to Alex Rodriguez as “A-Fraud” after A-Rod admitted to ESPN Monday that he did use steroids between 2001-2003 when he played with the Texas Rangers. “That was really stupid,” Rodriguez admitted in the interview. What this Korner doesn’t understand is why A-Rod’s name was the only one revealed from a list of more than 100 major league baseball players who reportedly experimented with steroids BEFORE they were banned by major league baseball. That list was supposed to be destroyed without anyone being named.