As the '85 season begins, baseball's dominant mood is a blend of enthusiasm over the state of the game on the field plus a guarded optimism that the sport's basic order off the field might soon start to be restored.
The day might not be far off when, after a decade of distracting turmoil, fans might be able to focus on the game itself, rather than strikes, lawsuits, drug busts, franchise defections, exorbitant contracts, congressional testimony and Supreme Court decisions.
Don't hold your breath. But it's conceivable.
When spring training began, fear of a strike was real. That possibility is seldom mentioned now.
New Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's decision to "open the books" has completely changed the climate of the game's labor-management talks.
The owners now admit, and are willing to document, their genuine money problems -- problems almost entirely self-inflicted but real nonetheless.
The players union, after 15 years of pressure to find the limits of the owners' deep pockets, now realizes that a $350,000 average annual salary is all that the traffic will bear.
Thanks to record attendance, better marketing under Ueberroth, some sharing of cable-TV revenues and a $1 billion network TV deal, baseball has far more money than it needs to make everybody involved rich beyond their dreams.
A new labor contract probably will not be reached before June, but, for the first time, owners and players are negotiating sensibly. And both sides are looking at the same numbers.
The owners have confessed that they can't manage themselves and the players surely don't want to kill their golden goose.
With luck, baseball is on the verge of saner and more equitable financial times. Another step in that direction already has been taken by Ueberroth in his work in getting such superstation teams as the Braves, Cubs and Mets to agree to indemnify clubs whose markets they penetrate with their signals.
Ueberroth also has made himself a hero with the umpires by settling that October strike entirely in their favor. He's even set a tone of reconciliation by reinstating old stars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. That could have been a grandstand play and a kick in Bowie Kuhn's pants, but it was strong public relations.
Baseball also made progress with its new drug-treatment plan, agreed upon since last season. Perhaps we won't see any more batting champions in jail for a while.
Of course, further down the road, the game still has tough choices to make about its long-range structure. This summer's owners meeting could, for instance, be a first-round showdown on whether the game really needs to expand by two teams in the near future and by six teams within a few years.
Naturally, such towns as Denver and Washington, which have high hopes for new National League teams in '86 or '87, can be excused for playing down the severity of this issue.
Nonetheless, it's a moot point whether baseball needs 32 teams -- which would probably bring divisional realignment and an eight-team postseason in its wake. Also, does AAA ball have enough quality players to provide 100 to 150 more "big leaguers?"
While fans now can daydream about a time when baseball's hard news issues might stop dominating headlines, it's no pipe dream to speculate that '85 could be a banner season between the white lines.
If appetites were ever whetted for a new spring, this ought to be the year.
In 1984 the pennant races were a dud, the World Series was a yawn and the only game all year that made everyone's hair stand on end with anticipation -- the Padres against the Cubs with the National League flag at stake -- went the wrong way. Unless you live in San Diego or like to see the better team lose.
Now we enter a season in which at least 18 of the game's 26 teams can make rational claims to be contenders. This is baseball's age of free-agent parity. Last year's runaways -- by underdogs -- were very likely an aberration.
In the last six years only two NL teams -- the Mets and Giants -- have not been to the playoffs. And in the AL, eight teams have won division flags in the last four years.
If anything, this might be a time for the return of a couple of small dynasties. When world champions collapse as quickly as those of the last five years have done -- for example, the Pirates, Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals and Orioles finished 18th, 11th, 9th, 16th and 8th in victories last year -- it can be as disorienting as it is exciting.
Fortunately, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs, who won 200 games between them last year, look far too solid to drop from contention.
When did baseball ever begin a season in which so many players will be scrutinized so closely? Last year's MVPs, batting champions and Cy Young Award winners were all fellows who performed incalculably above what was expected of them.
What will Ryne Sandberg, Willie Hernandez, Tony Gwynn, Don Mattingly and Rick Sutcliffe do when the spotlight is on them from the start?
The magnificent rookies of '84 -- one of the most auspicious crops ever -- also will have to prove themselves again. Dwight Gooden and Mark Langston, Alvin Davis and Juan Samuel won't sneak up on anybody any more.
Add to this the natural excitement that surrounds an all-star player who goes to a new contending team. What will Gary Carter mean to the Mets or Rickey Henderson to the Yankees?
What about Bruce Sutter as a Brave and Fred Lynn as an Oriole? Will Bill Caudill get the Blue Jays over the top and is LaMarr Hoyt what the Padres need to be world champs?
What does baseball have to offer, starting on Monday and continuing until a very cold night around Halloween?
We have, perhaps, the best five teams ever assembled in pursuit of one flag all bunched together in the AL East. We have Pete Rose on the trail of Ty Cobb's ghost; he needs only 95 hits to do to Terrible Tyrus what Hank Aaron did to Babe Ruth.
We have a resurgent American League that threatens to dominate the All-Star Game and World Series in the future as the NL did in the recent past.
We probably have more young stars who have been in the game fewer than three full years than at any time since the mid-1950s. Such names as Cal Ripken, Kent Hrbek, Wade Boggs, Bob Brunansky, Ron Kittle, Julio Franco, Greg Walker, Bud Black, Frank Viola, Roger Clemens, Ron Darling, Mark Gubicza, Chili Davis, Storm Davis, Jesse Orosco, Johnny Ray and Ron Romanick have all come into our consciousness since the strike of 1981.
No, not one had played a game in the big leagues before that dark episode.
The arrival of Ueberroth as commissioner is only one sign of a new era in baseball. The reign of Bowie Kuhn from 1968 until 1984 coincided almost perfectly with baseball's traumatic leap from an old-fashioned, slow-paced era into a troubled and controversial period of force-fed modernity.
Now, under Ueberroth, it's time for baseball to shake down, get its bearings, sort out that must be kept and what discarded from the revolutionary period that could be ending.
Now that the designated hitter and artificial turf, domed stadiums and free agents, arbitrators and superstations, $2-million annual contracts and drug abuse, competitive balance and imminent expansion, record attendance and record red ink are all here, what do we do with them?
The 1985 season should provide some answers and perhaps even mark the start of a new age of baseball sanity.