We stand now onthe cusp of not just another season but of another era, as vulnerable as loverson the rebound. What was sold and bought as a "golden age of baseball"in the restorative years after the 1994--95 strike--all prettied up by wildcards, flirtatious new ballparks and, mostly, the almighty home run--turned outto be a lie. A cheat, both in matters of the heart and pharmacology.
Golden age, myasterisk. It was pyrite, what we now and will forever call the Steroid Era. In1998 a 70-year-old man would have seen a major leaguer hit 60 home runs in aseason only once in his lifetime. By the time the man was 74, the feat hadoccurred six more times, all by players accused in the court of public opinionof having used performance-enhancing drugs.
A glowering BarryBonds, closing in on Babe Ruth while under review of the commissioner's officefor alleged steroid use, is our daily reminder--like the ex who works a fewcubicles away--of the betrayal. And you know what? It doesn't hurt one bit. Weare so over it. In fact, now we're falling hard for a game that is cleaner,more nuanced and more competitive than it has been in a generation. It's ayoung man's game, belonging to new stars who, certified by the sport's tougherdrug policy, have replaced their juiced-up, broken-down elders who aged soungracefully. It is baseball as it ought to be. A fresh start.
Such young starsas Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins, Ryan Howardof the Phillies, Grady Sizemore of the Indians, Joe Mauer of the Twins, FelixHernandez of the Mariners, Bobby Crosby of the A's, Prince Fielder of theBrewers and, soon, Delmon Young of the Devil Rays can play with a kind ofgood-faith guarantee in the person of the man with the specimen cup. Baseballnow has the harshest penalties for steroid use in pro sports: suspensions of 50and 100 days for first and second offenses, respectively, and a lifetime banfor a third. Also, baseball for the first time has banned amphetamines, whichproliferated in the game for decades with winking acceptance.
No sports drugpolicy is airtight. Baseball does not, for instance, test for human growthhormone. But at least gone are the lawless days when drugs were to baseballwhat bullets were to Dodge.
Baseball in 2006is a confirmation of faith, never more evident than one night in February whenBrewers fans camped overnight in Milwaukee's subzero windchill to buy ticketsfor this season on the first morning they went on sale--all to watch a teamthat hasn't had a winning record since Bush 41 was in the White House.
Before winter waseven over, anybody who called looking for season tickets to the White Sox,Angels or Cardinals games was too late, landing on waiting lists for 2007. Fiveteams (Angels, Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox) will have virtually soldout their entire home seasons before Opening Day. When the Cubs, a fourth-placeteam and losers of 83 games last year, put single-game tickets on sale, theysold about as many in one day (a major league--record 600,000) as they did intheir entire 1966 season. The overall major league--attendance record set lastyear will be broken again.
"I believetoday, by almost any criteria you choose, the sport has never been morepopular," commissioner Bud Selig says.
Baseball is on anunprecedented 11-year run of labor peace between owners and the players'association, giving young fans and young players alike the righteous notionthat such sweet uninterrupted play is the norm. (The collective bargainingagreement expires in December, though the gloomy prelude of hawkish talktypical of past expiring deals is not evident. The two sides expect tonegotiate mostly on modifications to the revenue-sharing system in place.)
Competitivebalance, the sticking point of the last negotiations, in 2002, is virtually anonissue. Five teams--none of which are the filthy-rich Yankees--have won thepast five World Series. Those same five champions previously had combined forone title in 216 cumulative seasons since 1918.
The World Series,which once seemed headquartered in New York, is more like a Shrinersconvention, booking new locales all the time. The past 26 World Series havebeen played in 23 of the 28 current major league cities, with only Arlington,Texas; Seattle; Denver; St. Petersburg; and Washington left out of therotation.
The product onthe field, fueled by the expanding pool of international players and thedrifting away from the dumbed-down powerball of the Steroid Era, has never beenbetter. The wildly successful World Baseball Classic celebrated both trends,what with the champion team from Japan, populated with bodies more likely foundin a library than in a bodybuilding gym, transforming pitching, defense and batcontrol into artistry.
The major leaguegame, though still more powercentric than the Asian version, has rediscoveredthose roots. Forced into a home run diet last season by suspensions forfirst-time steroid offenders, the majors lost 434 dingers off its 2004 total,and nobody cared much about it.
One of the mostexaggerated dicta about baseball is that home runs drive fan interest. Moreimportant to the game's broad appeal are closely contested games. Routs, nomatter how many home runs are hit, are baseball's bad flicks: They send peopleto the exits early and don't create watercooler buzz the next morning. A 4--3game, though, is the sport's cliffhanger that gets people talking and bringsthem back. Baseball captivates us so deeply that the anticipation of action isas compelling as action itself. The 20 seconds between pitches with the basesloaded, two outs, down a run in the eighth are Agatha Christie chapters untothemselves.
With thepowerball version of the game subsiding, fans are getting more of theseworth-the-price-of-admission moments. For instance, 47.9% of games last seasonwere decided by one or two runs, up 9% from the slugfest apex in 2001 and thehighest such percentage since 1993. Athleticism, not just brute power, matterswhen games are decided by thin margins.
In springtraining last year an AL general manager promised me, "The Yankees aren'tgoing to win [the World Series]. They might not even win their division."When I asked how he could be so sure, the G.M., who did not want to beidentified, replied, "They're too old. It's a young man's game now."New York barely won the AL East (edging out Boston in the tiebreaker) and wasbounced from the postseason in the first round by the Angels.
The White Sox wonthe world championship with players in the traditional sweet spot for a majorleaguer's career: 24 to 32 years old. In the World Series they used just oneplayer older than 34: pitcher Orlando Hernandez, 39, and then for only oneinning.
Go back threeyears more. The world champion Red Sox, Marlins and Angels fit the same profileas the White Sox. Of the 89 players those four teams used in the World Series,84 of them were 34 and younger, or 94%. No player 34 or older has driven in arun in the Fall Classic for the winning team since Tim Salmon, then 34, did sofor the 2002 Angels. Managers and players have speculated that ridding baseballof amphetamines, the popular clubhouse pick-me-ups to endure the grindingschedule and boozy late nights, will further increase the importance ofyounger, fitter players.
Last season 13players hit more than 35 home runs, led by Andruw Jones (51), who was born in1977, and Alex Rodriguez (48), David Ortiz (47) and Derrek Lee (46), all ofwhom were born in 1975. Twelve of the 13 home run leaders were 30 or younger,the exception being 33-year-old Manny Ramirez. The torch has been passed. Thisnew generation has inherited the game from a prolific generation that has beendrummed out of the game or cut low by injuries, including Bonds, Mark McGwire,Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, FrankThomas and Bret Boone. All players of their generation and the numbers theybring to Hall of Fame ballots are under suspicion. The ruin of a blubberingMcGwire, for instance, and the sudden bankruptcy of Palmeiro'sreputation--seven months apart last year--remind us of how much can belost.
"We've seenthe terrible price of shame and embarrassment," said the commentator GeorgeWill, a member of a joint committee created by the players and owners in 2002to study and discuss the game's issues. "No modern athlete wants to gothrough what Mark McGwire did in front of Congress."
Baseball's canonis written not in verse but in numbers, yet the numbers of the Steroid Era lacktruth--66? 70? 73? What do they mean? A new generation playing under a drugpolicy with some teeth should not have to answer to that question. Dare we hopethat this is the golden age?
For now we'lltake good, clean baseball. The golden age is largely mythic, anyway. It isvariously defined in print and film as 1904--42, 1930--69, 1934--57, 1941--64,1947--57 and so on. It's illusionary and relentlessly revisionist, the way youremember the sweet and salty air of an ocean beach, but not the sand in yourshorts or the sunburn on the back of your neck. Bobby Thomson's Shot HeardRound the World, for instance, the nexus for many golden agers, was hit infront of 20,235 empty seats. That same year, 1951, the St. Louis Brownsaveraged fewer than 4,000 fans per game. And you thought the Marlins haveissues.
Baseball is toobig in 2006 to think it will not have big problems. Just when you getcomfortable there is, maybe, gene manipulation, designer steroids or a laborimpasse to smack you upside the head. Not this season, though. Not when a newgeneration of stars takes the stage in a new age--an era to be named later. Allthose tickets sold, cash down on the anticipation of action, say we are, all ofus, ready to move on. Ready to love again.
For Tom Verducci's weekly Internet column go toSI.com/baseball.