It’s surprising how many major league baseball fans really look forward to the start of the exhibition season in Florida’s Grapefruit League and Arizona’s Cactus League.

Many of these people are “snowbirds” from the North who plan their spring vacations to these two sites where the major league baseball teams are getting ready for the start of the 2012 season in less than four weeks.

There also are many fans from the Houston area who have ventured down to Kissimmee, Fla. to take in a few of the Astros’ spring training games, probably out of curiosity as much as allegiance to the team.

Anyhow, those fans who expect the Astros to duplicate last year’s miserable season because of a roster void of high-dollar superstars were pleasantly surprised when Houston won their first two exhibition games last weekend against the Washington Nationals.

A barrage of home runs and two strong mound performances got the Astros off to 3-1 and 10-2 victories over Washington Saturday and Sunday. Fernando Martinez, Chris Snyder and J. D. Martinez clouted round-trippers in Sunday’s rout to go with two great pitching outings that allowed three runs and only two walks.

I realize that winning two straight Grapefruit League games does not deserve national headlines, but it certainly is a step in the right direction for a team that suffered more than 100 losses in 2011, especially with a brand new owner and a cadre of front office folks unfamiliar to both the Astros and them winning.

Before the exhibition season began last weekend, new owner Jim Crane, new general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Brad Mills spoke to the team, ushering in a new era for the Astros, who will play their final season in the National League Central Division before moving to the American League West Division next year.

“We feel very fortunate to own the team,” Crane said. “We take that with a lot of pride and expect them to do the same thing. I told them something my dad used to tell me: ‘The harder you work the luckier you’ll get.’ ”

Last Friday, according to the Associated Press, Major League Baseball expanded its playoff format to 10 teams, adding a second wild card to each league.

The decision establishes a new one-game, wild-card round in each league between the teams with the best records that are not division winners, which means a third-place team could win the World Series.

This is the only change in MLB’s playoff structure since wild cards were added in 1995. For the 2012 post-season, the five-game Division Series will begin with two home games for lower seeds followed by three home games for the higher seed. After that it will return to the 2-2-1 format previously used.

Ties for division titles will be broken on the field with a tie-breaker game under the new format, and not by head-to-head record.

Also, according to USA Today Sports Weekly, in an attempt to turn television’s least-watched night into a showcase for sports, Fox’s Saturday regular-season baseball will move to prime time (6 p.m. CST) for eight weeks in a row.

The move will start May 19 with regionalized coverage of five games, led by the Boston Red Sox-Philadelphia Phillies matchup. Fox’s idea is to package five or six games in prime time, compared with three in the network’s afternoon slots.

Fox won’t face competition from baseball on local TV because other MLB games can’t start within three hours of the beginning and end of its coverage window.

And last but not least, former Astros ace pitcher Roy Oswalt, who in mid-2010 demanded Houston trade him to a winner and was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies, currently is a free agent without a team.

Oswalt appears to be following what fellow right-handed pitchers Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez did in the latter stages of their careers.

Roy O. has told MLB teams he intends to sit out the first half of the 2012 season, but remain in shape to return at mid-season if an opportunity materializes, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.

Astro fans remember when Clemens followed such a course in 2006 when he returned in June to pitch for Houston and again in 2007 when he came back to the New York Yankees.

Martinez did the same thing with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 and made two starts in the World Series that year.

Oswalt, 34, failed to land a job this off-season, although several teams such as the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals did express an interest in him.

Oswalt’s agent Bob Garber explained Oswalt’s reasoning, “After much thought and careful consideration, Roy has decided to continue to evaluate his options. He is in great health and will continue to stay in shape while throwing regularly off the mound. Roy has every intention of pitching for a contending club at some point this season.”

The three-time All-Star is 159-93 with a 3.21 Earned Run Average over 11 seasons.

KWICKIES…One of my New York Giants heroes while I was growing up, running back Alex Webster, died Saturday in a Florida hospital. The 80-year old Webster played for the Giants from 1955-64 and was their head coach from 1969-1973. He was fifth in team history with 4,638 yards rushing and also ran for 39 touchdowns.

After continuing his mediocre play for three rounds in the PGA Tour Honda Classic at Palm Beach Gardens, FL., Tiger Woods played like his old self Sunday by firing the lowest final round of his career–an eight-under par 62—and tied for second place with Tom Gillis. But he couldn’t quite catch winner Rory McIlroy who shot a solid one-under par 69 for the victory and the $1.026 million winner’s share. Tiger and Gillis each netted $501,600. Former Lamar University and Port Neches-Groves star golfer Chris Stroud shot 70-69-67-69—275 in ninth place and earned $153,900. It was his second straight top 10 finish and fourth top 15 finish this season.

Look for the New Orleans Saints to receive some kind of sanctions from the NFL in the form of suspensions, fines or loss of draft picks for having a “bounty pool” to reward players for inflicting game-ending injuries on opposing players. The NFL revealed that “knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cartoffs” $1,000 with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs. The program was administrated by Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with the knowledge of head coach Sean Payton. Of course Williams is now gone from the Crescent City and is the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams.

It doesn’t seem economically feasible for the Indianapolis Colts to give quarterback Peyton Manning the $28 million roster bonus he is due tomorrow (Thurs.). According to this week’s issue of USA Today Sports weekly, if the quarterback leaves Indy as a free agent, Miami Dolphin fans are so intent on landing Manning, they are using a South Florida billboard to further their cause. Quarterback has been a revolving door in Miami since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season.

JUST BETWEEN US…The recent ranting by first-year Lamar Cardinals head basketball coach Pat Knight that went nationwide really paid off as the team finished its regular season with three wins and the Southland Conference East Division championship. This was the first 20-win season for Lamar since 1988 and its first post-season qualification since 2000 when the Cards reached the NCAA Tournament. The No. 3-seeded Redbirds open the SLC Tournament 2:30 p.m. today (Wed.) against No. 6 Northwestern State with the winner playing tomorrow (Thurs.) against either No. 7 Sam Houston State or No. 2 Stephen F. Austin. The eight-team single-elimination tournament is being played at the Merrell Center in Katy with the championship game set for 2 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA. If the Cards don’t win the SLC championship, it already has post-season bids to two lower-level tournaments, the College Basketball Invitational and the Postseason Tournament.