But this Opening Day, without major coronavirus contagion concerns or lockout-induced off-field frenzy, carries a different kind of symbolic weight. If all goes according to plan for Major League Baseball, it could prove the start of a revitalized era.
Thursday will mark the regular season debut of MLB’s new rules and updated schedule. For the first time in baseball history, the game would be played against a clock — a pitch clock, more specifically — which dramatically shortened spring training games and encouraged a more exciting pace of play.
Svrluga: The Nationals’ most important task this season: Get better
A new broadcast infrastructure is likely to arrive, and it could fast-forward MLB’s streaming era, spurring long-needed change to eliminate long-standing blackouts for fans in local markets.
The World Baseball Classic, MLB’s attempt to capitalize on global interest, has finally, really, really caught on: Just ask the players who played for their countries for two weeks in March, then returned to spring training camps. The history of the keeled approach 162 regular season games suggests this may not be the best approach for this game.
Yet the promise of change requires a fresh look at old issues, and people at every level of the game are revisiting them. The Forbes ratings were released last week The Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, and others — some of the sport’s most unsuccessful owners — suggested they were making more money from certain operations than investing in their field preparation. Owners around the major leagues, including Steve Cohen of the New York Mets and Peter Seidler of the San Diego Padres, have expressed frustration with the spending spree.
Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander: Aces in Queens
Meanwhile, uncertainty over the long-term viability of the regional sports network model, franchise values and major league revenue continue to rise, fueling a new public fight between players and owners a year after signing a collective bargaining agreement. A negotiated agreement. At a time when MLB seems more ready than ever to react to changing times, there may be more reason than ever to believe that new solutions to old problems may emerge.
But of course, this could all be opening day hopes talking. All those changes will be on display and scrutinized, for better or worse, in the moments before the 2023 regular season baseball begins.
For example, some of the best Thursday afternoon matches wouldn’t even have happened under the old schedule. Jerryd Cole and the Yankees take on Logan Webb and the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium. Jacob deGrom’s Texas Rangers will host the newly loaded Philadelphia Phillies in Arlington.
Jacob deGrom, Texas Danger?
Under the old schedule, with 19 games against each division’s opponent and interleague series with a division’s worth of teams each year, star-studded interleague matches were rare. This year, MLB introduced a “more balanced” schedule in which each team plays at least once and division opponents play 13 times.
And after years of testing in the minors and tinkering in the majors, the new rules will limit the time between pitches, ban excessive changeups and limit the number of pickoff throws in important games. MLB sent a memo to teams last week that clarified some things about those new rules in response to player feedback. But the regular season is no time for testing — at least not on the field.
Outside the field, further tests begin. For example, the baseball world will get another look at Seidler’s grand plan for the small-market Patres — a “if you build it, they’ll come, they’ll spend” model — in which Seidler is determined to lose money this season. To recover it in the spoils of the October victory. As some owners argue, can Cohen really break baseball with his spending — or, like last season, will his spending result in a good team, but the Mets aren’t guaranteed anything come October?
Boswell: The pitch clock saves baseball — by returning it to the past
Most importantly for the future of baseball, MLB will certainly be forced to experiment with the way fans watch games. Earlier this month, Diamond Sports Group, which owns all of the broadcast rights to 14 MLB teams and operates Bally Sports Networks, filed for bankruptcy. Commissioner Rob Manfred said if Diamond fails to pay any of those 14 teams, MLB will try to reclaim the rights by arguing its contract is void. Anticipating such a situation, MLB hired additional staff to assist in local markets that had to take over broadcasts from Bally Sports on short notice.
If that happens, Manfred said he hopes MLB will be able to stream those games directly to fans, avoiding market blackouts caused by complicated cable deals Diamond Sports has with distributors in those 14 markets.
24 hours before the first pitch of the regular season, Poly Sports was expected to broadcast all the games it had rights to on opening day. Diamond was due to pay the Padres by midnight Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the payment calendar. They paid that fee, which means, for now, the Padres will continue to be televised by Poly Sports.
However, the television landscape could change — and immediately — for nearly half of baseball’s teams. If Diamond fails to pay, some of them may receive expected television revenue. If that happens, Manfred acknowledged, those teams won’t recoup lost short-term revenue. However, a streamlined streaming service run by MLB could facilitate revenue in the future.
For MLB, that different and evolving version of the future begins Thursday. What follows could be a season that gives reason to believe the game is ready and able to adapt to new realities, a step in the right big-picture direction. Then again, maybe outsize confidence is the inevitable annual side effect of opening day.