The eve of opening day ought to be a moment of exaggerated optimism if there ever was one. So, as a working hypothesis, let us assume that baseball -- so troubled in recent years -- now has moved into a temporary state of grace in which almost every factor is tending toward increased harmony.
What would such a baseball world look like?
First, the game would not (for a change) be threatened by any serious labor problem, nor any immediate scandal. We would have, for instance, a labor agreement that would run until the end of the decade. Over the winter, the game would have stumbled on a method of getting the majority of players voluntarily to negotiate drug testing clauses into their contracts, thus showing that most big-leaguers were clean and anxious to burnish their sport's damaged image.
The game's finances would be solid. The explosive salary inflation of the previous decade would, over the offseason, have come to a halt as owners put a three-year maximum on new contracts. While players still would be rich and glamorous, there also would be a sense that an economic equilibrium finally had arrived between bosses and ballplayers. Though a few poor teams might consider city-hopping, the sport would no longer be in a rush to grab the quick fix of expansion.
The commissioner would be one of the more charismatic yet practical men in public life. Young, handsome, smart and tough enough to get things done, he would be an international celebrity who ran the 1984 Olympic Games profitably and safely. This self-made millionaire would be mentioned as a future senator, governor or whatever.
Of course, all this is reality. In fact, if we made a wish list of opening day fantasies for baseball, we'd find that they'd already come true.
Never has baseball had such competitive balance on the playing field. Nor has it had more contenders in the largest markets. These are any pro sport's top two money-making priorities -- the perfect prescription for profits.
We've seen 11 of the 12 National League teams win division titles in just seven years, while nine American League clubs have made the playoffs in five years. Anybody, even the Chicago Cubs, can win a flag. The reigning world champs -- the Kansas City Royals -- are one of the most appealing long-shot World Series winners ever. Just to prove absolutely anything can happen, the Royals -- with the likes of Buddy Biancalana, Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan, Jim Sundberg, Dane Iorg and Charlie Leibrandt playing crucial parts -- came back twice from three-games-to-one deficits to beat the two best regular-season teams in the game. That's six sudden-death wins in two weeks.
At the same moment two teams from Missouri proved you didn't need a big city or huge television revenue to excel, all the clubs in New York and the Los Angeles area -- the Dodgers, Angels, Yankees and Mets -- ended in first place or else second by two games or less. You want underdogs, overdogs, city slickers, pastoral imagery, a Subway Series or a LaLa Land Classic, you got a shot at 'em all. You want a Canadian team to take the World Series outside the United States for the first time, you've got a good shot at that, too.
Let's see, while we're daydreaming, let's lay it on thick. Let's have the old game awash in young stars so the whole sport seems invigorated by the potential for unimagined deeds. If we got to pick our Dream Team of the moment, who would be on it?
Why not: Rickey Henderson, Willie McGee and Darryl Strawberry in the outfield; Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs around the infield; a rotation of Bret Saberhagen, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela and John Tudor with Gary Carter catching and Dave Righetti and Bob James warming up in the bullpen. Except for Tudor and Carter, they are all 27 years old or younger. Statisticians say a player doesn't even reach his baseball peak until 28-29. These guys are still rising.
A slew of other children 27 or younger are now the very core of the game. The whole Toronto outfield of Bell, Barfield and Moseby. Middle infielders like Juan Samuel, Julio Franco and Tony Fernandez. Hitters like Harold Baines, Tony Gwynn and Kent Hrbek. Speedsters like Vince Coleman and Tim Raines. Pitchers like Tom Browning, Frank Viola, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, John Franco, James. There are dozens more such Brunanskys, Davises and Youngs.
Did we forget anyone? Only Dwight Gooden. At 21, he has already had the most spectacular rookie season ever followed by the best overall sophomore season. His 24-4 record with a 1.53 ERA was one of the 10 best statistical years by any pitcher in a century.
When Sandy Koufax said, "I'll take Gooden's future over anyone else's past," he defined the issue. We're watching a player who apparently has the potential to be the Babe Ruth of pitchers. Okay, so Ruth was a pitcher. Well, Gooden says he can hit, too. If he ever throws out his arm, maybe he'll come back as a left-handed hitter. You're laughing. He hit .228 last year -- from his wrong side. The Mets made him bat righty to protect his arm.
After considering the celestial Gooden, let's return to earth once more. For the next seven months, we'll naturally tend to focus on baseball's problems. The players who still are dependent on drugs or liquor. The minority of irresponsible agents who exploit athletes. The forlorn franchises in Cleveland, Texas, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The American League umpires who couldn't call a sunrise correctly. The endless DH-or-no-DH controversy. And (eternal preventative vigilance is required here) the danger that eventual expansion could, in the next few years, bring with it the curse of the wild cards, ending forever the great pennant races we've known.
Despite all this, what's most obvious about baseball -- yet perhaps too close to our eyes to see -- is that the game never may have been as rich as it is right now. For the first time in its history, baseball has an almost perfect blend of starting pitching, relief pitching, high-average hitting, slugging, base stealing and defense. This trend, begun in the late '70s, has accelerated. Never before has it seemed possible that: a pitcher might win 30 games, save 50 games or have an ERA under 1.50; a batter might hit .400, slug 50 homers or drive in 150 runs; a base thief might steal 150 bases.
In the 1980s, a Dan Quisenberry or Bruce Sutter can win and save 50 games. George Brett can bat .390 in a season and Boggs can raise his career average to .350. Gooden's career ERA is now 2.00, by far the lowest ever, and Ron Guidry has the best career winning percentage ever. Mattingly just had 145 RBI and Henderson's unimagined record of 130 steals may soon be demolished by Coleman, who says he'll swipe 200 some season. What statistical achievement is beyond reach? If Phil Niekro can win his 300th game at age 46, is it inconceivable that Eddie Murray might someday drive in his 2,298th run to pass Hank Aaron?
A team built on speed and defense, but no power, like the St. Louis Cardinals, can go to the World Series. But so can clubs like the Orioles and Brewers, built on power but little speed. If the Royals can win everything with Frank White batting cleanup, then what style of play can't succeed?
Starting with Aaron's 715th home run in 1974, followed by the classic World Series of 1975, the free agency of Catfish Hunter in 1976 and The Great Yankees-Red Sox Playoff of 1978, baseball has had a long run of great drama, vivid central stars, record performances and controversial economic traumas connected with million-dollar contracts.
By the 1980s, however, the mix was starting to sour. The strike of 1981 curdled the public's goodwill. Next, the long, cruel farcical firing of Bowie Kuhn brought all the sport's backroom ill-will to the surface in 1983. The 1984 season proved that a whole year could be an almost total competitive dud. When baseball owners finally opened their books last spring, their fiscal foolhardiness, their poor stewardship of the game, was undeniable; they had managed to turn years of record attendance and record revenue into red ink.
Finally, the cocaine trial of 1985 showed the darkest side of jock wealth on the witness stand. An MVP claimed he'd played with a drug "demon" in him for years. A frightened informer dragged the name of guiltless Willie Mays into the court transcript.
Late last season, the clouds began to disperse, the graying skies to lighten. Pete Rose refused to take himself out of a game in Chicago just so he could make his owner another million bucks by breaking Ty Cobb's hit record back home in Cincinnati; when the Reds stayed alive in the race until the last week, Rose's point was proved -- there's only one right way to play the game.
In October, baseball showed once more how surpassingly tense, strategic, emotional, controversial and exciting it could be. In the American League playoffs, George Brett defined solitary heroism, his will and his bat keeping the Royals alive to force a seventh game.
In the National League, tiny Ozzie Smith made his slender bat the fulcrum of an entire pennant chase. His home run in the ninth inning of the fifth game -- his first such blow in more than 3,000 left-handed at bats -- swung the playoffs St. Louis' way. If that demonstrated the game's capacity for complete shock, then Tommy Lasorda's decision not to intentionally walk cleanup man Jack Clark in Game 6 was one of the most brutal and memorable managerial gaffes ever.
By the time the I-70 Series was in full swing, anything might happen. If a tarpaulin didn't eat the NL rookie of the year -- that already had happened in the playoffs -- then Don Denkinger was making himself the first umpire in a century of whom it might be said that his bad call had a fundamental effect on who became world champion. With Denkinger's aid, the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 became one of the most dramatic half-innings in any Series. If Joaquin Andujar wasn't going berserk on the field, then a 21-year-old Saberhagen was closing the show with a shutout while his wife -- overdue for their first child -- watched the whole thing on TV.
We may have reached a point where the best trends of the last dozen years -- competitive and esthetic balance on the field, plus an influx of new stars -- still have their power, while some of the fiscal, labor and drug problems of the '80s are being solved.
Now, the full sun of a new season seems ready to shine once more. Perhaps, with so many shadows in baseball's recent past, it will prove to be a false spring. But, for the moment, baseball, and those who love it, can put a stop order on what has been about five years of continuous worry. The sport has seldom, if ever, given promise of being in better shape. Nor have we ever been more ready for the game to begin again.