In case you didn’t notice, baseball’s annual opening day was a little unusual this year. Oh, I’m not talking about the one most fans greeted with joy earlier this week. That day was just fine, even if one score (14 – 10) looked like it was a football result from last November.
No, the opening day I’m referring to took place ten (or eleven, depending on how you construe the international date line) days earlier in Sydney, Australia, where, for reasons that only Bud Selig can explain, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks were required to play two games that counted. To say it was weird doesn’t do the macabre scheduling justice. Consider that both teams had to give up almost two weeks of normal spring training games to make the trip and play the games. Consider that Australia has virtually no fan base of note for the game (certainly not one that compares for example to Latin America or the Far East, to name two far more ripe geographic locations worthy of exploration). Consider that the rules regarding eligible players had to be drastically amended for the games (with 28 players potentially active, instead of the normal 25). Consider that even with all the hoopla and buildup, neither game was a sellout (average attendance was 38,000, about what the Dodgers draw at home on a bad night), and that the first of the two aired at 4:00 in the morning in New York and the rest of the East Coast.
And finally, consider that since most fans expect the season to open with fanfare and mass media coverage, as was the case this week, all but the most die-hard Dodger and D-Back fans probably didn’t even know the games counted, if they knew they had been played at all. (It also didn’t help that the games were scheduled during the second big weekend of March Madness, which tends to take all the oxygen out of other sports fare anyway.)
But no matter; Selig, who is, thankfully, retiring after this season, apparently wants to go out with a bang, and this sideshow was his idea of at least an overture to his swan song. For the record, the Dodgers won both games, meaning they led the league for ten days without even needing to scoreboard watch. And when the D’Backs lost their home opener to the Giants this past Monday, they had the distinction of being 0-3 after one day of the real baseball season.
Hopefully the sport will quickly move past this silliness as the real games take hold of the nation’s attention. And fans definitely will have some new things to contemplate as the home runs and strike outs pile up. Here’s a brief summary of what is new this year, along with a prediction or two.
For openers, instant replay has finally arrived full force. After allowing all too many wrong calls to decide the outcome of critical games for far too long, the major leagues will finally allow state-of-the art technology to be used to check on controversial calls and to correct those that were clearly wrong. To be sure, the rules for the use of the “on further review” concept will be experimental for the first few years. This year, managers get to use it a max of two times per game (and then only if they are correct on the first appeal).
But the fear that the procedure will be too time-consuming seems ill-founded, as most replays will be resolved in no more time than most managers yelled and screamed about bad calls (before being ejected by abused umpires) in the old days, i.e., last year.
The other big rule change is an attempt to reduce the number of collisions (between runners trying to score and catchers trying to prevent them from scoring) at home plate. As ever-larger salaries are paid to these super athletes (more on that point in a moment), the owners are finally seeing that injuries that threaten careers are not good for their bottom line. And so, this year, a new set of rules will prohibit runners from trying to crash into the catcher (thereby to dislodge the ball that might be in or approaching his mitt) and catchers from blocking home plate from on-coming runners, unless they already have the ball in their possession.
How this rule will work in actual game-deciding situations remains to be seen, but the guess here is that the players will find ways to enforce it themselves once they get used to the idea of not sacrificing their bodies for one run (especially since that run will quickly be taken away or added, depending on which player, the runner or the catcher, is the offending party).
As for the salaries that are now being paid, it’s probably safe to say that we are in completely insane territory. Witness Clayton Kershaw, a great pitcher, no doubt, but still only a guy who plays once every five days, getting seven years at $30-plus mill a year. Witness Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera (superstars both, but each already over the age of 30) receiving ten-year contracts that pay them similar amounts (as to Kershaw) for the next ten years. Giving any pitcher a contract as long and costly as Kershaw’s is nuts (and, sure enough, Kershaw is already on the disabled list and not expected to pitch until June). And no one can expect Cano and Cabrera to be anything but shells of their former selves in the out years of their contracts (in their late 30s and beyond). But the owners have the money (courtesy of gigantic television contracts and exploding attendance figures) and the players are represented by cagey agents who are going to make sure their clients get their share of the pie.
As for the game itself, it will remain the great clock-less wonder it has always been. It will still take 27 outs to end one and still take more runs scored than the other team to win one. Predictions at the beginning of a 162-game season (with injuries and trades unforeseeable) are always ridiculous, but so are most ardent fans. And since I most definitely am one of those, I’ll make a couple. I see the Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins as the surprise teams in both leagues, with the Orioles making the playoffs with over 90 wins, and the Marlins pushing the top teams (Washington and Atlanta) in the NL East before ending slightly above .500. In the end, I see a St. Louis-Tampa Bay World Series, with the Cardinals winning it all.