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Note to those who cheer the season’s start: Keep your eye on the game within the game

Waxing lyrical about the pristine joys of Opening Day is a bit more of a stretch this year. Technically – and if you are a baseball nut, is there any other choice? – we didn’t have one, the season having started half a world away nearer the middle of March, after which the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons, featuring dozens more mindless exhibitions, proceeded another ten days. These are the facts and they are entirely unprecedented and in Baseball what’s truly “entirely unprecedented” invariably tends to be decidedly bizarre.
 
It wasn’t so long ago that somebody in Congress, apparently having nothing better to do, actually proposed that the day of the baseball season’s first guttural utterance every year should be made a national holiday, right alongside Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.  That was back when the importance of the occasion was underscored by the entire nation’s President and Commander-in-Chief tossing out the “first-ball,” so-called, even though he always had something better to do.  
More to the point, it was also before Bud Selig got his money-grubbing mitts on the game and set about tinkering with it more in a single generation than had been dared since Alexander Cartwright set down its basic rules and regs not long after the Civil War.

Maybe, in terms of the upheaval of Selig’s long and tiresome tenure, having the season open with the D’Backs meeting the Dodgers in the Outback while all the other teams continued concentrating on their calisthenics back in the Sunbelt is fairly minor. But it does sort of trumpet the direction of the season one senses we should expect, one that above all dramatically verifies how much this game has changed since your daddy took you on the trolley to see your first game just after the Great War.  The change may have only just begun.

This season is supposed to be Selig’s last. Not everyone believes him but he’s publically insisting as he approaches age 80 that it must be his last. Shrewder observers suggest it may be another cute ploy by good old Bud. Their  scenario would find the owners having mucho trouble coming up with a worthy successor and especially one – and this to them is crucial – who would be a Bud-clone, thoroughly dedicated to his policies and priorities and passion for profits; in other words, one of them just like him. If such a paragon can’t be found, and with such precise criteria that it would be no surprise, these cynics expect Bud would then be begged to stay on, and being the good lodge brother he truly is he’ll acquiesce, however (seemingly) reluctantly.

For sure that’s plausible, but while I lay claim no less cynicism, I think it’s likely he’d prefer to step down, if possible, having set the game’s course much to his liking. He knows what lies ahead won’t be easy. There’s lots to do, better left to a younger fellow.

Ultimately, the goal is the globalization of baseball. It isn’t necessary that America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) orchestrate that or ultimately administer it if and when global dimensions are achieved. But if you are one of the grand old game’s contemporary moguls, it sure would be desirable. Think how fabulous might the riches up for grabs be; the power, too. Think of the bonanza that franchising the game professionally all over Asia might reap, just for openers.

It’s America’s game, copyrighted here. So why wouldn’t MLB yearn to control it worldwide. But that could be tricky.  The international soccer and Olympics monoliths are operative models baseball might love to emulate.

Selig has not discussed this with me, but I’d bet the ranch it’s overridingly his thinking and he’ll certainly want guarantees that his successor is of like mind. The fat is already in the fire; steps and directions lately taken verify as much. The increasing emphasis on international talent, the greatly increased flow of it to  MLB, and the proposed controlling of it through an international draft all affirm that. World baseball tourneys, the effort to make the game an Olympics event, even such gimmickry as the opening of another season in bloody Australia, are all related to this wider scheme, all elements of the same grand design. Here in the states it’s already an international game. And the advancing of all of that stuff in this year of vital transition might be the season’s primary sub-plot, even if it seemingly has little to do with what’s happening on the old ball field.   

That Selig and his MLB cronies seek to control the direction and, indeed, the very destiny of their own game is hard to object to even if some of their motives have little to do with the mere love of said game.  Other things they are up to, however, are another matter.

Chief among them being, of course, the grave expansion of television replays over most of the action to regulate, second-guess, and flat-out correct the umpires while ultimately bringing about an influence, even control, over every game played.That I can guarantee you are not going to like, old Sport. It will be a huge issue this season.

It happened so fast. When limited use of replays to verify home runs was introduced just a few years ago, we warned you. Proponents, led by Selig, ridiculed such objections. We who worried were Luddites scared of technology, they effectively charged. Some promised the replay tactic would never be extended. They were jiving. It only took a couple of years. It was their intention all along. As is the case with every despot in any dodge, you give the Seligs an inch and they’ll gobble the entire fortune cookie every time. It has been the fundamental theme of Bud’s reign for over 20 years.  

Calling the balls and strikes will be next. Eventually they’ll use lasers. Won’t that be fun! They say it will never happen. Baloney! When it does happen you can say goodby to the umpires, except those sitting in some studio in Manhattan staring at rows and rows of TV monitors providing camera angles from every game being played. That’s the future, chum. You’ll love it!

It will be insidious at first, then gather steam. Near unlimited replays will deeply change the game, and drastically affect rhythm, texture, and mood.  Baseball can only afford to tinker with so much of its intrinsic magic before it loses that magic. You heard it here first.   

There’s much to anticipate. On the eve of the season, drug violation penalties are stiffened. Yet some will still take a chance, still get caught. Will we hear nothing this season from A-Rod? One doubts it.
Something of a crisis builds in the pitching dodge where arm injuries are swelling to epidemic level.  Kids opt for Tommy John surgery as if it were just another root canal. Five young pitchers, all of starry potential, leave spring training for surgery. Why? Baseball injuries in general have become a mounting perplexity. Yu Darvish and Manny Machado lead the parade to the DL to start the season while in Detroit, Jose Iglesias is gone for the season. Why are today’s so much better conditioned and medically serviced players so much more brittle than their predecessors? Is there an answer?

Then there’s the issue of money. On the season’s eve, the Tigers horrify the industry by giving star slugger Miguel Cabrera  a 10-year $300 million deal that seems entirely unnecessary. It’s the sort of move that alters the landscape. The owners shudder.

As ever, there will be much to bicker over from the field, too. Can the Red Sox do it again? Already they don’t look half as lucky as they were last year.  Is the Bronx revival for real? Is the AL East better than ever?  Individual tales will be fetching; Masahiro Tanaka. Yasiel Puig. Mike Trout. Jacoby Ellsbury. Billy Hamilton. Xander Bogaerts. Of this much we can be sure: Derek Jeter’s long goodby will be touching.
But in the end, what you see on the field is not necessarily what you get. You need to keep your eye on the game within the game. It’s where the real action is. It may even be, more interesting.