The Major League Baseball Season
At the highest level of baseball, the Major Leagues, the baseball season can last from February until late October. It's generally broken down into three parts: preseason, regular season, and post season.

The preseason, or spring training, is really not much more than practice. The players report to a warm climate (Florida or Arizona) to get in shape for the coming season. Since pitchers have the bulk of the duty during a game, they also need a little longer to prepare. And since a pitcher is not much good without someone to catch the ball, pitchers and catchers report to spring training a week or so before the rest of the players do. In early February, you'll hear die-hard baseball fans counting down the days until "pitchers and catchers." To them, this is as much an indication of the end of winter as birds flying north.

Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves pitcher Russ Ortiz

Once all the position players have arrived, spring training is composed of weeks of practice sessions, exhibition games and other scrimmages. It's during that time that the coaching staff makes a final determination of which players should go with the team to the regular season of the Major Leagues, or be assigned to the various levels of the Minor Leagues (see How Minor League Baseball Teams Work).

Regular Season
Major League Baseball is broken up into two leagues, the American League and the National League. Each of the leagues is also broken into three divisions: East, Central and West.

The regular season is a grueling 162 games, played from early April until the last week in September. Over that time, teams play a large number of games within their division, virtually all within their own league, although in recent years they have also played a handful of games against the opposite league. These 162 games are played with the intention of determining the best team in each division, for purposes of playing in the post season. At the end of the season, the teams with the best records in each of the six divisions qualify for the playoffs. In addition, one additional team from each league qualifies as a wild card. The team with the best record that has not won a division is declared the wild card in each league.

The Post Season
The post season generally begins in the first week in October with the Division Championship Series -- four separate series of games, two in each league. The division champion with the best record usually plays the wild card from its own league in a best-of-five series, and the remaining two division champions play each other in a similar five game series. All four of these series are structured so that the team with the better regular season record has home field advantage, essentially meaning that either two or three games -- the first two and, if necessary, the final game -- are played in that team's home stadium. In each of those four series, the first team to win three games advances to the next round of the playoffs, called the League Championship Series.

Each League Championship Series is a best-of-seven series. The home field advantage goes once again to the team with the best regular season record, which means in this case that that team will host the first two games, as well as the last two games, if they are necessary, with the middle three games being played at the opponent's stadium. The first team in each league to win four games is declared League Champion, and advances to the World Series for the chance to become World Champion.

The World Series
Called the Fall Classic, the World Series pits the two league champions against each other in a best-of-seven-games series, structured much like the Championship Series in the round before. Home field is not determined based on record, but on the result of the All-Star Game, which is played in mid-July. Whichever league's all-star team wins the All-Star Game becomes the host team for the World Series. This is a very recent change, used for the first time in 2003. Prior to 2003, the home field was determined simply on a rotating basis -- one year the American League would host, the following year the National League, and so on.

The other major difference between the World Series and the other games is the application of rules. The two leagues have a few subtle differences and one major difference: the designated hitter. The American League uses the designated hitter and the National League does not, meaning that National League teams have to use their pitchers to hit. In the World Series, the designated hitter is used by both teams when they're playing in the American League park, and by neither team when they're in the National League park.

As in the Championship Series, the winning team is the first to win four games. That team is declared World Champion.

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