First balls were thrown out all over the country Tuesday (except for Baltimore's Camden Yards, which didn't get the message that winter is over) with the usual Opening Day hoopla and misty-eyed romanticism about what it all means.
Banished only temporarily were more sober thoughts about whether Major League Baseball has anything left to give that America still wants. The nation's oldest professional sport, which has acted like a spoiled brat in recent seasons -- including a prolonged strike in 1994 -- needs to put things right fast or be relegated to the backwaters of lacrosse and curling.
Any reason to be hopeful is easily dimmed by the sport's recent track record of incredible stupidity.
Sure, baseball will survive. Millions of kids -- of all ages -- will continue to tramp through stone-filled, balding fields with rickety fences to play ball, whether the Bigs go on or not. College baseball has plenty of juice left. But the high-paid pros don't have much time to prove to the fans that they get it.
There are reasons to be hopeful. Chief among them are:
- Inter-league play. For the first time, all the teams in the National League will play teams from the American League during three one-week periods in June, July and August. This is one of the best -- and longest-overdue ideas -- in the history of the game. Cities and metropolitan areas with multiple teams -- like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco-Oakland -- will see fan interest soar with cross-town combat. This three-year experiment is pretty timid -- the same pairs of teams play each other only once every three years, which kills the idea of building serious rivalries between the leagues -- but it's an important step nonetheless.
- Marketing. Teams are finally spending serious money on advertising, knowing they must start getting kids back into the park again or they'll be dead, regardless of what else they do well. That suggests owners are no longer taking the fans for granted, which in itself is an encouraging sign.
- Fan support. The fans are starting to edge back to baseball. According to a recent Gallup poll, major league baseball has recovered about half the fan base it lost in the last two years. Some 38 percent of adults identified themselves as fans in the poll, up from the 32 percent last year. But that's still well below the pre-strike 44 percent level.
- No more strikes. At least until 2000, that is, thanks to the painful agreement wrung out of player-management negotiations.
But there are still some daunting problems to overcome: overpaid, underachieving players; players with bad attitudes; players who move around from club to club -- thanks to free agency -- making it hard for fans to identify with a team because the lineup changes so frequently; and, of course, greedy owners.
Ticket prices are way too high. Some parks are charging close to $20 for admission alone, which is insane. During the 1994-95 strike, when desperation was the order of the day, teams slashed prices, particularly on youth tickets. The game needs those cuts now more than ever. It ought to be possible for a parent and a child to take in a ball game -- complete with hot dogs and sodas-- for under $20 in any American city. It isn't today.
But one of the most urgent needs is to hire a real commissioner to replace the owners' puppet, Bud Selig, who has held the position for the last five years. It is absurd that baseball is the only major league sport without a truly independent commissioner -- independent, that is, of the wishes of the owners. Of course, getting any kind of full-time commissioner to replace Selig would be an improvement. Once in place, the need for an independent commissioner ought to be the next big agenda item.
Finally -- and this is the trickiest one -- the fan-player connection needs shoring up. Between the strike and free agency (along with its tag-along ugly duckling cousin, stupid trades by money-hungry owners), there's very little reason for fans to identify with the players. Restore that link and you've gone very far toward saving the game. Fail, and the other measures are only Band-Aids. Each team should use some of their marketing bucks to encourage players to get to know the fans, to spend time in their communities -- not just doing high-profile charity work with the United Way but schmoozing with the hard-core loyalists in the bleachers.
Both owners and players have to realize that their vocation, their careers, their profits are all at stake if they fail to step up to the plate in the truest sense of the phrase. Still, for the moment at least, baseball is back, and for all the carping, I'm damned glad it is.