The term "golden age of baseball" has been used so often as to have wrung most meaning out of it, at least when prescribed to a fixed era of the game. In truth the golden age of baseball is a floating concept. It happens to be the era whenever you were between 8 and 12 years old, that sweet spot when you were old enough to understand and young enough to dream. And the moments when baseball most succeeds -- when it's not about the money or the marketing -- it is because we can see the game through the eyes of our younger selves. No sport relies on tapping into this child-like belief more than baseball.
Few people have tossed around the "golden age" imprimatur as often as commissioner Bud Selig. But today, upon the announcement of a five-year collective bargaining agreement with the players, Selig truly can say with pride and substance that the game is more competitive, better played, more stable and consumed by more people in more ways than ever before, certainly since the players association was formed in 1953 and began negotiating CBAs in 1968. If it's not the latest golden age, it is at the least a golden opportunity.
Baseball has surpassed other sports in labor peace and cutting edge drug testing. The CBA includes the first provision in North American pro sports to collect blood samples from players to test for human growth hormone. It also extends the window for uninterrupted labor peace to 21 years. An entire generation is growing up with a game they can believe in and count on -- and that means its players, too.
Labor and drugs once were the twin scourges upon the game not long ago. Of the 23 seasons between 1972-95, nine of them, or almost 40 percent, were affected by a strike or lockout. And it was just six years ago that Congress, fed up with how slowly and toothlessly baseball and the union responded to steroids, threatened Selig and union leader Donald Fehr with imposing a drug policy upon them. So this CBA is the latest triumph of how owners and players have moved the game forward in a partnership.
The lead negotiators, Rob Manfred for the owners and Michael Weiner, Fehr's successor, for the players, cut a deal without rancor, leaks and name-calling because neither side wanted a fundamental change to the economic system. The owners not only gave up the quixotic fight for a salary cap years ago, but also understood they don't need it to make great gobs of money, thanks to revenue-sharing, advanced media, ballpark income and huge gains in regional television rights. In a world where content is king -- especially content almost always consumed without time-shifting -- baseball has content with quantity and value.
The players, meanwhile, long ago lost the need for militancy. Trust, something that never tethered players to owners, is now a budding concept as money flows and shared initiatives such as the World Baseball Classic give the promise of more. In a strange way, drugs helped bring the two sides closer; the owners and players realized that recovering from the Steroid Era could only happen collegially. Both sides had to rehabilitate their image and they needed one another to do it.
Players now will provide urine and blood samples to prove they are clean (necessary disclaimer: the teeth of any drug policy is in the details of testing, i.e., how often and when). Owners will kick out stars such as Manny Ramirez to show it works.
As commissioner, Selig is the face of this recovery. He is 77 years old and has vowed to step down after next season, which puts him in position to begin negotiations for the next national television deals, which expire with the 2013 season. Many in the game do not doubt Selig's intention but do doubt whether he can follow through on it, given that no succession plan is in place and how highly owners regard him.
Whether he stays or goes, Selig is at a stage of his life and career when he is acutely aware of his legacy. And while the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the Steroid Era happened on his watch, he has succeeded in so many ways as to be considered the most impactful commissioner in history. So, too, on his watch did we see expansion, interleague play, an expanded postseason, instant replay, drug testing, the WBC and other international ventures, a ballpark construction boom, industry leadership in advanced media, one of the most successful cable network launches in history (MLB Network, where I am an analyst) and enormous growth in revenue and attendance.
If indeed Selig is on his way to retirement, this CBA helps put his legacy in neat order. The blood testing for HGH ties up one of the few loose threads. Two major issues remain beside the important business of the next big TV deal, and they both involve the two places that missed the boom of building or renovating baseball-only ballparks: Oakland and Tampa Bay. After much stalling in the form of a study commission, Selig seems to be actively addressing whether to allow the Athletics to move to San Jose, where the Giants hold territorial rights only because they were given to them by . . . the Athletics. The Rays are stuck in a long-term lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where not even exciting, winning teams can draw two million fans (other than the honeymoon of Year 1).
In the meantime, this CBA has much to like other than the blood testing for HGH. For instance, the expanded postseason should be a hit, especially once you see the excitement of the one-game wild card knockout, in which every year we are guaranteed to get two win-or-go-home games on a date we'll know far in advance -- heightening the promotional value. Players will get more money earlier in their careers, with the minimum salary rising to as much as $500,000 and more players eligible for salary arbitration before three years of service.
Realignment sounds like a good idea -- the symmetry of six divisions with five teams -- but I need to hear the schedule before I can judge it. The risk is that every day of interleague play and the possibility of even more interleague games continues to reduce the distinction of leagues -- giving baseball an NBA-style "conference" feel.
The one piece of this CBA that doesn't make sense is how the owners swung their hammer at amateur players -- specifically, penalizing teams for overspending on draft bonuses according to newly established thresholds. Tamping down the ability of teams to evaluate the value of draft picks is a strike against the heart of competitive balance. This rule doesn't harm the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies. It harms teams such as the Pirates, Nationals and Royals, who spent the most money on draft bonuses over the past three years and are better positioned because of it. (The Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies rank 10, 16 and 20 in bonuses over the same period.)
Moreover, the reward for small- and middle-market teams that do well, such as Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, is to be given less money to spend in the draft because they will be drafting later. And if they do exceed a threshold, they can be penalized with the loss of draft picks -- the very important currency that helped create parity. And are not some drafts -- such as 2005 (perhaps the best ever) -- stocked with more great players than others? Of course. So why should spending be treated the same every year?
It makes no sense, and it is why many teams, such as Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, consider this cap on draft spending to be counterproductive.
"These are the very teams the system works for," agent Scott Boras said. "And now [Selig] has handcuffed them? This is not [coming from] the union. It's not the major league players. They were told that to get a deal done this was needed. GMs tell me they don't understand this at all. Why is Bud damning the scouting industry? . . . It makes no sense for parity."
It's easy to dismiss Boras' complaints as self-serving as an agent who has made great sums of money off the draft and wants a free market in place. But Boras always has been sensitive to the scouting community. He also knows the enormous value is at the top of the draft -- he doesn't mind protocols after the first round -- and teams and their scouting departments should be establishing the value of those picks, not a one-size-fits all schematic from the commissioner's office.
The Nationals, for instance, spent $25 million combined on Boras clients Stephen Strasburg (the No. 1 overall pick in 2009) and Bryce Harper (No.1 overall in 2010) "and now their value is 75 to 100 million dollars less than three years later," the agent said. The days of teams passing on players because of "signability" issues have been replaced with an understanding of the investment return of elite players.
"In the end," Boras said of the cap on bonus money, "it's modeled in clay. It has no logic to it."
The inference of the clay model is that baseball and the union can reshape draft rules as needed in the lifetime of the CBA, and the clamping on bonuses is for now a concession to something of personal importance to Selig. The union was too smart and the game too robust to cause a labor stoppage over draft picks.
It's possible that enough pushback from baseball people -- especially the ones in smaller markets -- could provoke a change to the new system. One of Selig's great strengths, in fact, has been as a facilitator, someone with a global understanding of the game. He has proved that by strengthening his partnership with the union and by listening to his special on-field committee, with people such as Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Mike Scioscia, Mark Shapiro and Andy MacPhail.
In fact, when it came to the expanded postseason, Selig at first leaned more toward a best-of-three series between the two wild card teams in each league, a scenario that would have caused more off days and more non-decisive games in the postseason calendar -- which are exactly what the sport does not need. Give him credit. He thought beyond the self-serving complaints of some teams whining about "having my season come down to one game" (best response: you had 162 games to win your division, Jack). He kept an open mind and came down on the side of the drama of the one-game knockout.
Let today stand as a triumph of the partnership he has fostered with the union, and let tomorrow stand as more opportunities to listen and to keep growing the game.