If we were to concoct the perfect preamble to a baseball spring training, what would it entail?
What would have to happen to get us even more excited than usual at the prospect of pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona this week?
For starters, it would be great if the offseason had been filled with stunning free agent signings and big trades. Teams that looked a little too good last year would have to be knocked down a notch, while appealing clubs on the rise or franchises making a comeback would have to be helped.
We'd want the New York teams -- Mets and Yankees -- to come up with new catalytic stars such as (just imagine the hype) Gary Carter and Rickey Henderson.
Of course, we'd also get a charge out of seeing perennial near-miss teams acquire just the missing links they needed; like if the Atlanta Braves could steal Bruce Sutter from the St. Louis Cardinals for $9 million or the Toronto Blue Jays could somehow trade for a bullpen of Bill Caudill and Gary Lavelle.
What a bonus it would be if the dethroned world champions of '83, the Baltimore Orioles, finally found it in their hearts to buy a bunch of flashy free agents such as Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase.
On top of this, it would be a big help if, after the disappointing pennant races of 1984, it seemed almost impossible to handicap any of the four division races for '85. It would certainly spark fan furor if, say, 19 or 20 of the 26 teams in the sport could make a rational argument that they might end up in the playoffs. This could only happen if something strange transpired, like most of the best teams ending up in one division (say the AL East) and most of the worst clubs stumbling into another, like the AL West, and all the in-betweeners happening to be in the nobody's-too-good National League.
Everybody would be happy if the game's defending world champion were a classic, yet not completely proven team -- for instance, a squad like the Detroit Tigers, who might be great, but might also be a one-year flash in the pan. Add for spice one enormously popular ball club -- maybe a team that still played in a quaint old park without lights -- that had to atone for a monumental collapse which cost it the pennant.
What more could we want?
Well, since we're being greedy, since we're talking optimum fantasy, why not put the whole game under the double dark cloud of a possible player strike and a continuing stratospheric salary explosion that jeopardizes the very economic foundations of the game? What stakes could be put on the table? How about divvying up a billion-dollar six-year network TV deal between the owners and players? We could ask how far apart the two sides were on basic dollar differences and get back a nice succinct answer: $200 million. We could also introduce a whole new set of key labor-management negotiators.
We could have a player (Jim Rice of the Red Sox) sign a contract that works out to $2.5 million -- per season. And we could have a three-year player (Wade Boggs of the Red Sox) who'd never hit more than six home runs or driven in 75 runs, be awarded a $1 million annual contract by a federal arbirator. That combination of factors ought to be a perfect recipe for total economic chaos and possible panic.
Let's get silly and keep piling on more phantasmagorical subplots. Why not have a new commissioner -- a charismatic young fellow with enormous political potential who is riding a wave of fabulous success in other areas but who has no inside knowledge of baseball at all. Say, just for a joke, that the guy had taken the Olympics, which is supposed to lose about a billion dollars, and, instead, turned a $200 million profit with the thing, despite a boycott by the Russians. Could he stabilize the old national pastime in its hour of financial delirium tremens?
Sure, sure, let's have more. Let's have it become a virtual certainty that the sport is on the verge of expanding by two more teams within a couple of seasons. That would entice dormant fans from Denver to Washington, D.C., from Tampa to Indianapolis to start dreaming of a new NL club in 1986 or 1987. All those cities could form a stampede to convince baseball to take them first.
Just to make sure that no baseball fan anywhere would be able to keep from twitching at the thought of the new season, we could jam-pack the sport full of the greatest influx of young stars that the old game had seen since the 1950s.
Such players as batting champions Don Mattingly and Tony Gwynn would have only a year or two under their belts. Strikeout champions such as Dwight Gooden and Mark Langston would be facing the sophomore jinx; heck, this Gooden, only 20, would make people daydream about whether or not he might become the greatest pitcher ever.
New stars would appear so fast that fans would constantly be catching up on the life histories of players with fewer than four years of experience in the majors. Tell us more, they'd say, about: Cal Ripken Jr., Wade Boggs, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky (32 homers), George Bell (26), Alvin Davis (116 RBI), Julio Franco, Rich Gedman (24 homers), Ron Kittle, Greg Walker, Mike Boddicker, Bud Black (17-12), Storm Davis, Frank Viola (18-12), Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Roger Clemens, Ron Darling, Ernie Camacho (23 saves), Chili Davis, Ryne Sandberg (MVP), Johnny Ray, Kevin McReynolds, Juan Samuel, Darryl Strawberry, Alejandro Pena (ERA champion) and a dozen more.
You could even add to the load and talk about the phenoms in the wings. We already got a peek at some winners last year, such as Mike Young of Baltimore, Jeffery (Light Speed) Stone (.362 in 185 at bats) of Philadelphia and Duane Walker (slugged .538) with the Reds. In another six weeks, a new crop could already be underfoot like dandelions: Shawon Dunston, the Cubs' shortstop of the future; Mike Bielecki (19-3 in AAA) for the Pirates, and the man whose name might someday make us all forget Van Lingle Mungo -- utility man Razor Shines of the Expos.
Obviously, all of this is truth, not fiction.
Yup, it's 'bout time to truck on down to the camps and see what's up.
Maybe it's always this way in the midst of every raw unforgiving February. Maybe it always seems as if each spring training offers more than any other. Maybe the letdown from a mildly anticlimactic '84 season makes us even more susceptible to the charms of a new year. On the other hand, maybe this new season is just as savory and promising (and tinged with danger) as it sounds.
Wonder how Rickey Henderson will be as the Yankees' center fielder? An heir to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio? Or now that pitchers can throw him letter-high fast balls and dare him to go deep, will he be another victim of long fly-ball outs to Death Valley? Remember, Steve Kemp hit three homers in two years in Yankee Stadium and is gone.
How many stories will be written about the reunion of the Berras -- infielder Dale and Manager Yogi -- in Yankee pin stripes?
Will Dwight Gooden hold out and risk messing up one of the most promising early careers in history? Fernando Valenzuela got soured on the business side of the game after his fabulous rookie year and has never won 20 games.
Seldom has baseball entered a season when so many teams seemed dramatically changed and when so many had a legitimate chance within their divisions.
If the Tigers slide just a notch, and they could after a basically stand-pat winter during which Milt Wilcox (17-6) had major shoulder surgery, any of four teams could pass them. The Howard Johnson-for-Walt Terrell trade with the Mets might help; and it might have to help. If both Willie Hernandez (MVP and Cy Young) and Aurelio Lopez (12-1 counting postseason) fail to duplicate seasons more fabulous than anybody ever thought they'd have, Detroit's 15-game edge on the AL East could disappear in a hurry.
For the first time, the Orioles have mega-free agents; and a budget-busting payroll that might mean win-now-or-clean-house. For the first time, the Blue Jays have a bullpen. For the first time, the Red Sox have re-signed their superstars -- Rice and Bob Stanley -- at modern (ie., ridiculous) prices. For the first time, the Steinbrenner Yankees have some charm as well as talent.
There's probably never been a division as wide open as the AL West because there's probably never been a division as bad. The Kansas City Royals might be the defending chumpions (sic), but almost anybody could win here. Spring ought to be a boring time for followers of such teams as the Angels, Twins and even White Sox, but when 85 victories and a hot week in the playoffs in October could catapult you into the World Series, everybody pays more attention.
Of all the divisions, the NL East is the true prognosticators' nightmare. There's enough talent here so that you want to take the division seriously, but every team has enough huge question marks that it could go top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top. The Cubs have great power, but far too much age. The Mets look better, but they might have played over their heads on enthusiasm last year. The Phillies have a sharp new manager in John Felske and "the Pope" (General Manager Paul Owens) might have his youth movement in place if his old pitchers hold up. But who knows? For every tit, there's a tat.
The Cardinals shouldn't win without Sutter, the Expos without Carter and the Pirates without hitting. But then who spotted the Cubs and Mets last season when they were coming off fifth- and sixth-place finishes? When you talk about the NL East, the best way to look smart is to play dumb.
That's how it goes everywhere you look. The San Diego Padres make it to the World Series, then go out and shuffle so many players, getting former Cy Young winner LaMarr Hoyt among others, that nobody, not even General Manager Jack McKeon, knows whether they made themselves better or worse. The Dodgers never stay down two years in a row and the Braves are Sutterized against late-inning defeat.
Heck, this is even a banner year for corny back-from-injury tales. Will Dickie Thon's vision ever completely focus again ? What about Tippy Martinez's sore arm, Pete Vuckovich's shoulder, McReynolds' wrist, Carlton Fisk's torn stomach muscle, Bill Madlock's ailing shoulder and Steve Howe's drug rehabilitation? From surgery to soap opera, it's all waiting for us.
Baseball has reached the point -- after a decade of remarkable increase in general interest -- where it seems to feed off an odd internal dynamic.
The more complex and fascinating and controversial the sport's plots and intrigues -- both on and off the field -- the more tickets get sold, the higher TV revenue becomes and the more exposure and wealth the game accrues from such new sources as cable TV and improved marketing.
However, the richer the game becomes, the more money the players make. This surely titillates public interest, but it also increases the distance -- while decreasing the sympathy -- between the average fan and the average player.
As players get richer, they tend to become more, rather than less, conscious of money. For centuries, this has been a characteristic of rich humans, not just rich athletes. Owners are veterans at this matter of being obsessed by wealth. The curious result is that, as more and more money gushes through the game, the haggling and threatening between players and owners seems to rise exponentially. The more that's on the table, the less goodwill there seems to be when it's time to split it all up.
And the less empathy the fans have for either side.
The almost diabolical result is that, at the same moment that the game is experiencing its maximum prosperity it might also be nearing its moment of maximum danger. The same fans who are drawn toward the game and thus make it healthy might, at one and the same time, be perilously close to rejecting the sport violently if it should have another prolonged strike.
As spring training draws nigh, baseball has never had a stronger grip upon the American public.
Yet, strange as it seems, that grip might never have been more slippery.