Over in the sports section they greet each baseball season with rankings, predictions and detailed summaries of off-season roster moves. Here on the opinion page we usually prefer to wax about emerald green grass, the crack of the bat and the vernal reawakening of our Great American Pastime.
But this season, words of caution are needed - about technology, marketing and ways in which the baseball experience is changing for the worse.
Short of playing games on Mars, Major League Baseball managed to move Opening Day about as far away as possible, physically and emotionally. The first two games were played a week ago between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in Australia. Due to the time difference, few Americans watched, and since all the other teams were still romping around at spring training, even fewer fans cared.
Baseball’s been doing this for several years, with openers in Mexico and Japan, but the trip to Sydney was the most ill-conceived yet. This global outreach might be good for MLB’s marketing department but it offers no benefit whatsoever to fans here who support the game. After that contrived opening came a night game March 30, scheduled to please only ESPN. Oddly, it featured the Dodgers, meaning the L.A. team completed three games before most teams had played any. And thanks to TV scheduling, the Yankees and Astros didn’t even take the field until April 1 - the fifth day of the 2014 season.
This year television will also affect the outcome of games, with the introduction of an expanded replay system to review a wide range of umpiring decisions. Some see this as a welcome ingredient - especially after a few egregiously bad calls in recent years.
But be careful what you wish for. Much of baseball’s charm is rooted in the frailties of those who play it; a hitter is considered a superstar even if he fails 65 to 70 percent of the time.
To many lifelong fans, myself among them, umpires are part of this imperfect process. They make the calls, usually with great skill, and occasionally managers kick up a fuss, and fans boo, but we accept it.
Among the oddities in the new system is that managers are allowed only one challenge per game - unless it’s proved correct, in which case they get one more. What sense does that make? As in the NFL, you should either use TV technology to confirm calls or skip it. Letting a bad call stand because a manager has already used his challenge undermines the entire process: it’s bad for the sport.
Baseball probably isn’t quite as popular as pro football nowadays, but we still consider it the nation’s pastime because it mirrors our spirit, our dreams and our values in so many ways. But just as society is becoming seriously divided between haves and have-nots, baseball is heading down a dangerous path, segregating fans according to economic status.
In many baseball stadiums, particularly the newer ones, elite fans buy their way into separate parking, private entrances, exclusive clubs and seating in sections of the park where ordinary fans are not allowed to trespass. The San Francisco Giants are taking it to a gaudy extreme this season with the Gotham Club, an ultra-private compound at AT&T Park that includes billiard tables, a bowling alley and private lounge.
Even without such lavish sanctums, most teams segregate fans more than ever in a misguided attempt to curb rowdy behavior and drunkenness. Teams find it easier to separate fans by class, allowing the riffraff to cause trouble in confined zones. That’s not how baseball should be marketed.
Joe DiMaggio said the thrill of Opening Day for players and fans should feel much like birthday parties do for little kids. The people who run baseball are entitled to maximize profits, but not to spoil this great American party.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.