I have to admit I still get excited when opening day approaches. I’m talking about baseball’s opening day, of course, which is the only opening day in the world of sports that still garners national attention. True, football is now America’s game, but baseball is America’s history, and by plotting the opening days from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation, the evolution of the country can be recounted.
At least that’s my perspective, as one who fell in love with the game during its “golden era,” which is how the 1950s are thought of by those of my generation. It was a decade of transition, with the color barrier finally having been broken (in 1947, by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey) and the West Coast finally having been discovered (in 1958, with the moves of the Dodgers and Giants). It was the last decade of the traditional eight-team leagues with the 154-game, perfectly balanced schedules (each team played 22 games, 11 home, 11 away, against every other team in its league; interleague play only occurred in the World Series). It was the last decade without playoffs required to get to the Fall Classic (unless, of course, two teams tied atop their league, as the Dodgers and Giants did in 1951, and the Dodgers and Braves did in 1959).
In the years since, the game has changed dramatically. Yes, it’s still nine innings long, with no clock ticking down the seconds. Yes, it’s still runs, not points. And, yes, every team’s home field can have its own unique dimensions, unlike all the other team sports, which are played on standardized fields.
But many things are different, and the game is constantly changing. This year, the biggest change is in the institution of interleague play every day. That change was brought about by the decision to even out the number of teams in each league, a decision that was either long overdue or not at all necessary, depending on your perspective.
Okay, so a little history is in order. In 1961, the American League expanded from eight to ten teams; the National League followed suit the following year. More new teams were added (each time an equal number) until 1997, by which point the leagues had 14 teams each. That year, however, two new teams (Arizona in the NL and Tampa in the AL) were added. The result would have been two fifteen team leagues, but that would have created scheduling problems that were deemed ill-advised at the time. And so one team (the Milwaukee Brewers) was moved from the American to the National League, thereby creating an imbalance in the number of teams each league had.
In that same year, however, interleague play was introduced. Initially the teams of each of the league’s three divisions (West, Central and East) would play half a dozen games against each other. That plan was modified over the succeeding years, but the basic structure of the season limited interleague play to only a few weeks. For the rest of the six-month season, teams only played teams in their own league, which was possible because both leagues had an even number of teams.
But the thinking now is that more interleague play is better, and so, with the move of the Houston Astros from the National League to the American League, both teams will now have 15 teams, each with three divisions of five teams. And at least one interleague game will be played every day.
So that’s one change.
What won’t change is the different rule the two leagues have regarding the designated hitter, that abomination that the American League has used since 1973. It will continue to be used in all American League ballparks, including, now, the Astros’, and will still not be used in any National League parks, to include the Brewers’ (don’t ask why they and not the Astros weren’t moved to their old league).
Another change that should become apparent this year is the shift in the balance of power. This shift isn’t from one league to the other, but from one coast to the other. The East may still be where the major media interest is, but the West is where the better teams play.
The shift is partly due to the difference between the two biggest spenders in the game. The Yankees might be referred to as the Old Wealth, in that they have spent gobs of money buying older ballplayers who are now past their prime. As a result, they are not expected to make much noise in their division, probably not even making the expanded playoffs (five teams from each league) this year.
The New Wealth is represented by the Dodgers and the Angels, both of which have poured all kinds of capital into building potential powerhouses in their respective divisions. The Dodgers, with new owners who seem to have an unlimited reserve of cash, have more than doubled their payroll this year, from under $100 million to well over $200 million (the largest in the game). And they probably aren’t done, because even with the big name players they now have (Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Zach Greinke), they still probably won’t match up against the Giants (the defending World Series champs) or even the Arizona Diamondbacks (the division winners two years ago).
The Angels have been in lock-step with their SoCal rivals this off-season. While they lost their ace pitcher (Greinke) to the Dodgers, they picked up the biggest bat in the free agent market (Josh Hamilton), who, with last year’s addition (Albert Pujols), should make the team from Anaheim one to watch in the post-season.
But, of course, as the saying goes, they have to win ‘em on the field, and as any true fan of the game can attest, it’s a long season, and a lot can happen to derail a team from an anticipated ride to glory.
Hey, it’s what makes the game so great. Every day brings the possibility of a play you’ve never seen before or of a ninth inning rally that you’ll still be talking about sixty years from now.