Sports

A Season That Seemed Out of Reach Lands Safely in Our Gloves

My daughter sent me a poem this week called “The Catch,” by Simon Armitage, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom. I have not studied poetry in years, so there might be a deeper meaning or symbolism here. But it seemed fitting enough for opening day:

This Major League Baseball season, too, was seemingly beyond us. For 99 grim days, the club owners and the players bickered and postured and threatened to take it away. Yet here it is, back again, our annual symbol of growth and renewal and the promise of warm days ahead. To quote another Englishman, Sir Paul McCartney: It’s coming up, like a flower.

Baseball has flaws. It always has and always will. These days it often deals in extremes: lots of strikeouts, home runs and pitching changes. All of those aspects of the game, on their own, can be appetizing. At its best, though, a baseball game is a more balanced meal.

Alarmists have concluded that this lack of action has doomed the poor old game. But if you study baseball history, you find that people always conjure reasons to criticize the sport. Every generation considers itself faster-paced than the last, so baseball, which makes you wait for the action, is an easy target.

“For a game supposed to typify America and the American spirit, baseball is pretty slow,” Damon Runyon wrote, in 1922. “It is certainly one of the slowest of sports. An actual play is fast enough. The preliminaries leading up to that play drag. It takes an average of two hours to play a baseball game.”

It was chilly in Chicago on Thursday, but thousands of boisterous fans still made it out to Wrigley for the Cubs game against the Pirates.Credit…Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

A century later, it takes a little more than three hours. In any case, Runyon was not in such a hurry that he avoided the sport: He covered it with such distinction that he was among the first writers to be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

People just like to complain about baseball. It’s a pastime of its own, and I understand. I wish players stole more bases. I wish teams developed pitchers to work deep into games. I wish baseball cards were cheaper and World Series games started earlier and advertising patches would never be allowed on uniforms. (They’re coming next season.)

The 2022 M.L.B. Season Begins

Baseball is back after a labor dispute delayed the start of the season.

  • Money Dominates: Amid a contentious lockout and record spending, the gaps between the richest and poorest clubs have only grown wider.
  • American League: Despite a shuffling of stars, the power still resides in the A.L. East, which has four teams capable of winning 100 games.
  • National League: A new challenger has emerged as the once-thrifty Mets went on a spending spree — and they are willing to spend even more.

But baseball is thriving. In 1975, when Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on “The Baseball Boom,” more than half of the major league teams (14 of 24) averaged fewer than 14,500 fans per game. In 2019, the last season with full capacity crowds permitted throughout, only one of the 30 teams, the Miami Marlins, failed to clear that threshold.

Attendance has declined steadily the last few seasons; in 2019, it was down about 2,000 fans per game from five seasons before. Yet baseball still drew more than 68.5 million fans in 2019, dwarfing the combined totals for the N.B.A. in the 2018-19 season (about 22 million) and the N.F.L., with full capacity, in 2021 (more than 18 million).

Baseball has many more dates to sell, of course, but that is the point. Whatever the spoilsports say, the league is popular enough to sustain an average crowd of more than 28,000 (in 2019) across 81 regular-season home games for each franchise. Many millions take joy in the daily companionship that only baseball offers.

“I think both for the people in the clubhouse and for the people who love the game — who follow it on a daily basis — baseball is with you every day,” Rocco Baldelli, the Minnesota Twins’ manager, said this spring. “And it’s not just part of what you do, it truly is who you are, in some ways. I love showing up to the ballpark every day, and I think people love turning on the television and having a baseball game to enjoy every day.”

Baseball can often feel like a time machine, a feeling that was multiplied several times by the setting and uniforms at last season’s Field of Dreams game in Dyersville, Iowa.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Baldelli spoke at the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., where the minor league clubhouse has a giant image of Kirby Puckett scaling the wall for a catch in the World Series. In 1989, the Twins made Puckett the first major leaguer with an annual salary of $3 million. Now, their new shortstop, Carlos Correa, makes $35.1 million per year, a record for an infielder.

Correa has an opt-out clause in his three-year, $105.3 million contract, so he might leave after this season. But the fact that he got his deal from the small-market Twins speaks well for the health of the industry. The Twins struggled last season and spent money to get better. Other teams that had losing records in 2021 — the Colorado Rockies, the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers — also committed nine-figure contracts to free agents: Kris Bryant for Colorado, Javier Báez for Detroit, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for Texas.

The Mariners, eager to snap a 21-year postseason drought, lured the 2021 American League Cy Young Award winner, Robbie Ray, to Seattle for five years and $115 million. Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Pittsburgh have made franchise-record contract agreements with homegrown players: the Rays with Wander Franco, the Guardians with José Ramírez, the Pirates with Ke’Bryan Hayes. Even the Miami Marlins signed the World Series Most Valuable Player, Jorge Soler, away from their division rivals in Atlanta.

That is how the market should work. Some teams, like the Cincinnati Reds and the Oakland Athletics, have made several cost-cutting trades. The Baltimore Orioles and the Arizona Diamondbacks have done little to improve their 110-loss rosters. But almost every team can reasonably expect to contend — right now.

There is almost always a compelling reason to watch: a top prospect making his debut, a veteran back where it all began, an ace returning from injury — and that was just at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, with Bobby Witt Jr. (the rookie Kansas City infielder), Zack Greinke (the former Royal back in blue) and Shane Bieber (the Cy Young Award winner for Cleveland in 2020).

Among the reasons to be excited for 2022’s opening day: The major league debut of Bobby Witt Jr.Credit…Ed Zurga/Getty Images

There are changes this season: the designated hitter in all games; 28-man rosters through May 1; in-game announcements of replay reviews by umpires; a third wild-card playoff team in each league; and the introduction of PitchCom — a wearable communication device that allows catchers to send encrypted signs to the pitcher and fielders.

Some innovations, like bigger bases, a shift ban and the automated ball-strike system (let’s just say robot umpires, for fun) are not here yet. Some have been dropped, like seven-inning games during doubleheaders, and some persist, like the automatic runner on second base to start extra innings.

Television viewing is evolving, too, as baseball climbs onto streaming platforms. Two games each Friday will be available only on Apple TV+ (starting with the Mets’ game against the Nationals and the Astros’ matchup with the Angels this Friday). Another weekly game, starting May 8, will be exclusively shown on Peacock, the NBC streaming service, on Sunday mornings, sometimes as early as 11:30 a.m. Eastern time.

TBS will air a game every Tuesday night, ESPN every Sunday night. Fox will broadcast its usual buffet, including regular-season telecasts, the All-Star Game, the Field of Dreams Game and the World Series.

Those networks are not stupid. They are drawn to baseball because people still care about it. Baseball is easy to love, if you let it — as easy as catching an apple off a branch at the start of a new season.

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