SEATTLE (AP) _ For the first time in the 127-year history of professional baseball, the season starts in March when the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox play Sunday night in the Kingdome.

In order to avoid having the World Series stretch to Nov. 3 for a possible seventh game, baseball officials moved up the start of the season a week.

Randy Johnson, last year's AL Cy Young Award after going 18-2, starts for the Mariners against Alex Fernandez, who was 12-8 last season for the White Sox.

Baseball's previous earliest opening date was April 2, 1984, when three games were played. Openers were scheduled on April 2 in 1990 and 1995, but they were scrapped because of a lockout and a strike.

Seattle is coming off its most successful season ever. The Mariners finished over .500 for only the second time, beat California in a one-game playoff to win the AL West and defeated the New York Yankees in a five-game series before losing to Cleveland in six games in the AL championship series.

``Who's going to catch Cleveland this year?'' said Seattle center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., rewarded with a $34 million, four-year contract extension. ``They beat some teams to death last year. I'd like to be in that position.''

The Mariners' 1995 success earned them a $320 million outdoor stadium that is expected to be ready for the 1999 season. The new retractable-roof stadium with grass should guarantee the future of baseball in Seattle.

In contrast, the White Sox had one of their worst seasons in '95. Chicago led the AL Central when the strike began in 1994 and was expected to contend last year. But a slow start led to the firing of Gene Lamont on June 2. Terry Bevington took over, and the White Sox finished 32 games behind Cleveland.

After taking Monday off, the Mariners and White Sox complete their three-game opening series. Seattle will go with Sterling Hitchcock against Wilson Alvarez on Tuesday night, and 22-year-old Bob Wolcott against Kevin Tapani on Wednesday.

In the Mariners' final exhibition game Friday night in Las Vegas, defending AL batting champion Edgar Martinez of Seattle sustained a bruise behind his right shoulder during a second-inning bench-clearing brawl against Toronto. Martinez, the Mariners' designated hitter, will play Sunday night.

The Mariners and the White Sox each staged two-hour workouts in the Kingdome Saturday and about 12,000 fans turned out to see the Seattle team that captivated them last season.

Each team made a roster move the day before the season opener.

The White Sox purchased the contract of left-hander Joe Magrane, who was a non-roster invited player during spring training. Magrane, who has had four elbow operations, did not allow an earned run in 14 innings this spring.

``He got everybody out,'' Bevington said. ``He pitched extremely well. Right now, he's going to be a vital guy for us this season.''

While Chicago added a pitcher to its 25-man roster, the Mariners subtracted one. After the Seattle workout, manager Lou Piniella summoned right-hander Rafael Carmona into his office and told him he was being optioned to Triple-A Tacoma.

That will leave the Mariners with nine pitchers at the start of the season. Seattle will have three off days in the first nine days of the season.

Martinez, last season's AL batting champion, took part in the Mariners' workout.

``It's a little sore,'' he said of his right shoulder. ``But it'll be fine tomorrow night.''

Griffey, who missed 73 games with a broken left wrist last season, drew the biggest cheers from the crowd when he hit a batting-practice home run into the right-field seats.

Piniella said he will start Darren Bragg in left field and as the Mariners' leadoff hitter against the White Sox. Bragg won a spring battle with veteran Luis Polonia for the job. Polonia was released last week.

``He earned a spot on our roster,'' Piniella said. ``We didn't give it to him.''

Piniella announced his starting opening night batting order as:

Bragg; Joey Cora, second base; Griffey; Martinez; Jay Buhner, right field; Paul Sorrento, first base; Russ Davis, third base; Dan Wilson, catcher, and Alex Rodriguez, shortstop.

Bevington went into a closed-door meeting with his coaches for about an hour after his team's workout. Afterward, he admitted the Indians would be tough to beat in the AL Central this season.

``They're the American League champions,'' he said. ``So they're definitely the team to beat.''

Frank Thomas, the White Sox's slugging first baseman, didn't want to be reminded about last season's dismal Chicago performance.

``'95 was '95,'' he snapped. ``'96 is 96.''

With Johnson pitching for Seattle in the opener, the White Sox know they have a good chance of starting off 0-1. The Mariners were 27-3 in games Johnson started last season.

``He's the best pitcher in the game,'' Thomas said. ``But, who knows? He might run out of gas early.''

Bevington said he wouldn't make out his starting lineup until Monday morning.

``That's just the way I do things,'' he said.

Against left-handers, Bevington has been starting a batting order of Tony Phillips, left field; Darren Lewis, center field; Thomas; Danny Tartabull, right field; Lyle Mouton, designated hitter; Robin Ventura, third base; Ron Karkovice, catcher; Ray Durham, second base, and Ozzie Guillen, shortstop.