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March 31, 2008

Baseball Rises Above Steroids, Etc., Because the Game Is Still the Game


Major League Baseball’s 2008 season gets underway Monday, following an offseason marked more by steroid reports, congressional hearings and other scandals than anything related to the game itself. Baseball junkies such as myself, much as we enjoy the “hot stove” of free agency and trades, are thrilled to finally have some, you know, games to watch.


And that has been the paradox of baseball in the new millennium: Nothing makes more news than steroids and other off-the-field scandals. But despite all that, the game itself is more popular than ever. The papers may be filled with tales of the juiced exploits of Barry Bonds, the latest tell-all from Jose Canseco and the never-ending Roger Clemens/Brian McNamee soap opera, but it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on the game’s popularity.


There’s no question that the way the game’s steroid era was handled was an embarrassment for everyone involved. The players cheated, the managers and owners looked the other way and the media did little to expose the situation either. But despite all that, most fans just don’t seem to care.


Attendance is at an all-time high, with fans jamming into new, beautiful ballparks all over the country. Thanks to attendance, TV contracts and the sport’s super-lucrative Internet operation, Major League Baseball is also more profitable than ever before. And after the sport at one point experienced eight work stoppages in 25 years, baseball is now going on 13 years of uninterrupted labor peace.


Contrary to the belief among many that baseball, the only major North American sport that lacks a salary cap, is hopelessly tilted towards the richer teams, competitive balance has at last reached a sensible level. Prior to last year, seven different teams won seven different World Series, and while the Boston Red Sox captured the 2007 title to go with their 2004 crown, the small-market Colorado Rockies charged into the Series despite never having previously won a playoff series.


The other fascinating development in baseball this decade has been the rise of sabermetrics, generally defined as the use of statistical analysis to better understand the game, both historically and in the present day.


The discipline was begun in the 1980s by Bill James in his series of Baseball Abstract annuals, as well as by the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), with stats eventually finding an audience with Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and later by other teams – including the world champion Red Sox, who hired James himself in 2003.


Now, the mantle has been picked up by numerous bloggers, who often find themselves at odds with media members who have little time for on-base percentage or VORP. Not only are the battles highly entertaining, but we can learn a great deal about the game from new statistics constantly being dreamed up.


The 2008 season begins with quite a few fascinating storylines. Can the New York Yankees win their first championship in eight years with new manager Joe Girardi, the returning Alex Rodriguez and three rookie starting pitchers? Can the Red Sox keep it up? Can the Chicago Cubs win that elusive World Series on the centennial of their last title? Can the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals come back from years of futility and finally contend?


And what of Barry Bonds? The all-time home run leader remains unsigned. He’s still capable of hitting lots of homers and driving in lots of runs, but will any team risk bringing into their clubhouse a man known as one of baseball’s consummate selfish jerks, and who also happens to be under federal indictment?


Bud Selig, in his first few years in power, looked like one of the sport’s all-time disasters. He came to power by illegitimate means, and then went on to preside over the 1994-’95 strike and cancellation of the World Series, the loathsome 2001-‘02 contraction scheme, the 2002 All-Star Game tie and, of course, the steroid era.


But despite all that, Bud seems to have righted the ship, for one really big reason: The game is still the game. And the game itself trumps any and all off-the-field calamities. Opening Day is Monday. See you at the ballpark.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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