Baseball 2012: Dawn of a new era

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In 1982, scarred by a brutal players strike of the previous season, the game sometimes seemed incidental to the warring between owners and players, which wrought collusion and ultimately the cancelation of the 1994 World Series. The earth was scorched. Baseball never again saw World Series TV ratings like those from 1980, the last before the War of '81.

In 1992, Camden Yards opened with the blueprint for upward mobility in the economic marketplace: a retro-styled stadium that deftly camouflaged commercialism with the gauzy comfort of nostalgia. Copycat ballparks popped up like crocuses. Revenues exploded.

In 2002, a group led by John Henry purchased the Boston Red Sox and almost immediately set about challenging the modern dynasty of the Yankees, turning the New York-Boston rivalry into the biggest economic engine in the game. Nine of the 10 highest rated World Series games since 2003 have involved the Yankees or Red Sox. (The lone exception is Game 7 of the World Series last year between Texas and St. Louis.)

In 2012, we are off somewhere else completely. Labor peace, not war, rules the game. This is the first year of a five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement that assures 21 consecutive seasons without a work stoppage. The retro ballpark boom is played out, with Marlins Park, and its signature phantasmic 73-foot home run machine out of the imagination of Red Grooms, taking sheer delight in bringing it to a thudding stop. And Yankees-Red Sox takes a back seat to Angels-Rangers when it comes to the most interesting rivalry in the game. The Yankees or Red Sox appeared in nine of the 14 World Series played between 1996 and 2009. But over the past two seasons, those two teams have combined to win just one postseason series.

So where are we off to this time? The destination may be uncertain, but what seems to be clear is the game is flush with money, poised for tremendous growth and, to borrow from a retailing trend, more pop-up champions.

Five major economic issues have been nagging commissioner Bud Selig for at least the past year: the threat to the New York Mets, and the hold of the club by owner Fred Wilpon, by a $1 billion lawsuit stemming from the Bernie Madoff scandal; the decline into bankruptcy of the Dodgers under Frank McCourt; the underserved South Florida market by an irrelevant Marlins franchise, and the stadium issues of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.

Then, in one stunning window of just 17 days, starting last March 19, three of Selig's problems just disappeared: Wilpon settled his lawsuit to such a favorable extent that he may actually emerge with getting more money than he must pay, the Dodgers were sold for a sports franchise-record $2.15 billion, and the Marlins will open Marlins Park with a strong foothold, a season ticket base of 15,000, and an exciting team in South Florida -- at least for now and especially if shortstop Jose Reyes keeps his legs healthy. The distresses of the Athletics and Rays seem less urgent. Fittingly, the season (stateside) begins Wednesday night at Marlins Park, the spaceship of a ballpark that looks forward, not back, when the Marlins host the defending world champion Cardinals.

The sale of the Dodgers may become the key event to what happens in the next decade. The stunning sale number not only verified Selig's mantra to owners that the true health of the game lies in growth of their franchise values, but also underscored the value of sports programming in general and baseball -- with its vast inventory of content -- in particular. The Angels signed Albert Pujols and the Rangers signed Yu Darvish last winter because of enormous local TV rights packages that essentially tripled their annual haul. Now the Dodgers are positioned to hit the next TV jackpot, especially because of a game-changing deal the Los Angeles Lakers recently signed in the same marketplace.

Indeed, under McCourt, the Dodgers have sat out the revenue bonanzas that have been there for the taking. They missed the explosion in ballpark revenues -- not that Dodger Stadium needed replacing, but as the Henry group proved in Boston, there is money waiting to be extracted from existing, iconic ballparks. And they watched down the freeway how Angels owner Arte Moreno refurbished his ballpark and renegotiated his television deal. The result? Last year, for the first time ever, more people went to Angels games than Dodgers game and this year the Angels will spend $50 million more on payroll than will the Dodgers. Little brother finally beat big brother in driveway one-on-one.

Under new ownership, however, the Dodgers will leverage the ballpark with needed upgrades, sponsorships and promotions and sign a new TV deal that likely will one-up the Angels. The result could be a team that spends aggressively (under McCourt, the Dodgers cut the payroll three straight years and virtually ignored Latin America) and competes for a championship. Local TV money could be more important to the next decade than ballpark revenue was in the decade after Camden Yards.

"The separation is going to grow," said one GM, referring to the haves and have nots. "There is only so much room for growth in small and middle markets. St. Louis is a great baseball town with great fans, but they can't generate this kind of [TV] money because the market isn't big enough. Markets like that have a ceiling. Places like L.A. have incredible room for growth."

The Dodgers haven't won a pennant in 23 years, a franchise-worst drought. Only three of the past 20 World Series have been played on the West Coast. Selig's dream is that not only does Los Angeles become a major player, but also that his National League franchises in New York, where Wilpon looks to regain his financial footing, and Chicago, where president Theo Epstein was brought in to execute the Boston turnaround plan, also become relevant again.

Meanwhile, Selig is sitting on another potential gusher of money: the national network TV package. MLB officials will begin negotiating a new deal this year to replace the one that expires after next season. These negotiations are happening not only as regional sports networks have bid up the value of baseball programming, but also as national networks engage in dogfights to secure exclusive sports programming. Owners are already spending the coming windfall (see extensions for Matt Cain, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, etc.).

Even before the package is put up for bidding, baseball sweetened the pot with an expanded postseason, with Selig personally making sure to ram the extra wild cards -- originally slated for 2013 -- into a condensed postseason calendar this year. The change is more enormous than most people realize. It will change how the trading deadline plays out and extend playoff hopes deeper through the summer for more teams than ever. For instance, if the format were in place last year, the Blue Jays, Indians, Mets and Pirates -- nobody's vision of a classic contender -- would have begun August just four or fewer games out of a playoff spot. What team dares to dump players when it stands four games out with 50-60 games to play?

The conventional wisdom has been that television was the driving force behind an expanded postseason. But television wanted no part of more non-decisive playoff games. Nobody wants to watch the first two games of a best-of-three series between two second-place teams with two more rounds of playoffs before we even talk about the World Series.

March Madness, the NFL playoffs, the last night of the 2011 regular season and tiebreaker games work because the concept of consequence is brutally harsh: win-or-go-home. Until baseball lucked out last year with four series played out to their full complement of games, between 2005-10 baseball staged 42 postseason series and wound up with only five win-or-go-home playoff games. The one-game wild card knockouts -- the AL and NL in a doubleheader of madness Oct. 4 -- guarantee two sudden death games every year to start the postseason with a bang.

The format does put a premium on winning your division to stay out of the one-and-done scenario, but it also continues the trend in modern sports of the tournament method of determining champions: the more rounds, the more chance the so-called "best" team doesn't get all the way through. That might be particularly true this year. Because of the condensed schedule, the number one seed in each league must play Game 1 and 2 of the Division Series on the road.

In 2010, the Giants were six games out on Aug. 28 -- and won the World Series. On the same date in 2011, the Cardinals were 10 ½ games out -- and won the World Series. Whose turn is it next to get hot at the right time as the axis of power moves further out of the Amtrak corridor of Philadelphia-New York-Boston?

Detroit has the easiest path to the postseason. The Tigers play only 56 games against teams that played .500 or better last year. (The Yankees have 86.) They also have the best 1-2 punch in the game with Prince Fielder signed to bat behind Miguel Cabrera and one of the best aces in the game, Justin Verlander. The Tigers haven't won the World Series since 1984.

The Marlins share a distinction with the Rockies and Boston manager Bobby Valentine: none of them ever have finished in first place. But the Marlins, with a real homefield advantage, will push the creaky Phillies all year, as might the Nationals, whose 30-year playoff drought, which dates to the franchise's Montreal roots, is the longest 0-fer in baseball.

Kansas City is a sleeper, with first baseman Eric Hosmer joining a deep group of elite first basemen in the AL. (Can't wait for the All-Star balloting among Pujols, Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Paul Konerko and Hosmer.) The Reds could continue the yearly trend of at least one team making the playoffs in the season after a losing record.

The Red Sox and Braves face the arduous task of trying to pick up the pieces after monumental collapses. Just ask the 1965 Phillies, '79 Red Sox, '87 Red Sox, '96 Angels, '08 Mets, etc. about how hard it is to shake infamy.

This season begins with nearly as much fuss about managers as teams. Valentine in Boston and Ozzie Guillen in Miami make sure a plethora of stories come out of the manager's office -- sometimes by calculation but oftentimes simply because they can't stop talking. Neither Robin Ventura (White Sox) nor Mike Matheny (Cardinals) have even big league coaching experience, never mind managing experience, but are well known and well respected assets in their organizations. And Dale Sveum was hired to bring a no-excuse toughness to the Cubs at a time when the organization is thin on talent.

Huge changes to the amateur draft and international free agency, both of which have a cap on spending, will wreak consequences both intended and not. The players association agreed to such changes because they won on so many other fronts (more arbitration, increased minimum salary, etc.) and they might well have figured it would mean more money re-allocated to free agency and locking up actual union members. Still, the dirty little secret around baseball is that as the economic pie grows, players get a smaller percentage of it. In 2002, the players gobbled up a record 67 percent of revenues. That percentage dwindled to 51 percent in 2010 and, according to one baseball insider, dipped below 50 percent last year. Owners have done such a good job generating money that it is coming in faster than it is going out.

A good chunk of MLB's growth in revenues since 2002 has occurred internationally, and a year that began with regular season games in Japan will end with November World Baseball Classic qualifier games in Taiwan and Panama. And if that's not enough baseball buzz, the Hall of Fame ballot that goes out that month figures to be the most controversial ever assembled; it will include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.

Think about the changes afoot: the expanded postseason; baseball in Miami; the rise of the Dodgers; the new spots for Pujols, Fielder, Reyes, Darvish, Valentine and Guillen; the surge in television revenue and the upcoming national TV negotiations; the overhauled draft system; the expanded WBC; the hot-button Hall of Fame ballot and we haven't even mentioned the arrival of young stars most likely to influence the game on the field over the next decade: Jesus Montero of Seattle, Matt Moore of Tampa Bay, Mike Trout of the Angels and Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper of the Nationals.

The game has ready-made storylines in place before a game is even played (well, at least this side of the Pacific). And remember, baseball confounded history last season when attendance went up (slightly) in a season in which offense was dialed back to numbers we hadn't seen in 19 years (back in ancient times when only four teams made the postseason, not 10.) The general rule of thumb throughout history has been that offense and attendance are directly related; when one goes up, the other follows, and vice versa. But baseball in the Testing Era seems to have found a nice equilibrium: just enough offense to keep the games compelling and, more importantly, close.

Today I think as many as 18 teams have a legitimate chance at going to the World Series, with another two or three qualifying as extreme longshots. So where are we headed when it comes to this October? An all-Florida World Series? A Freeway Series in So Cal? A third straight chance for Texas to finish the job? Whatever the matchup, there is just as good a chance that the Fall Classic is again held outside the Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor as the chance that it returns there. That, too, is a statement about the health of the game. We are headed toward a year of change -- and a decade that will surprise us. Time to get on board and let the game take us there.