Monday, May 18, 2009

Tending Baseball's Garden

The unmasking of baseball's latest Hall of Fame-bound cheat has resulted in the bizarre cocktail of reactions we've come to expect as the game's Steroid Era is flushed clean.

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2009 at 8:39 AM

When it was announced earlier this month that the Dodgers' Manny Ramirez would be suspended 50 games for having tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug, those who pay attention to the national pastime did one of two things: They slammed their fists on the nearest flat surface, enraged at one more hero-turned-villain, or they shrugged their shoulders at news that's become all too ho-hum since the St. Patrick's Day Massacre of 2005, when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro embarrassed themselves and their sport in front of a congressional committee in the nation's capital.

Whether your take is outrage or apathy, though, a deep breath would be valuable as the 2009 baseball season nears its third month. The game is not dying, by any stretch. And there is reason to believe -- when (or if?) the nation's economy rebounds -- that Major League Baseball can make its second century an improvement on its first.

* Despite gross disparities in team payrolls, baseball has a competitive balance that should be the envy of the top-heavy NFL or NBA. The team with the lowest payroll in the sport (Florida, $36 million) started the season 11-1. The team with the highest payroll (Yankees, $201 million) has hovered around .500 and suffered an embarrassment of empty seats in its grand new stadium. (I know, that economy thing.) Longtime also-rans like Toronto and Kansas City have shown signs of competing for the first time in more than a decade, the Royals featuring the best pitching story of the season in Zack Greinke (age 25).

* Looking at the big picture -- or at least, a decade-long picture -- a World Series championship has never been more within reach for every franchise. Over the nine completed seasons this decade, 14 teams have played in the World Series, with only three appearing more than once, and only the Boston Red Sox winning two titles. Half of the 16-team National League have raised pennants since 2000, and that group doesn't include a pair of 2009 favorites: the Chicago Cubs and Manny's Los Angeles Dodgers.

* A group of stars has emerged since that infamous testimony on steroids four years ago, young enough to have been raised in a baseball culture where doping means a scarlet letter. Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria (23), San Francisco's Tim Lincecum (24), Milwaukee's Ryan Braun (25), and Cincinnati's Jay Bruce (22) will lead a generation of new talent that would have to be considerably dim to make the same mistakes its predecessors made in soiling baseball's image. (Cynics will argue this generation will merely find a new way to cut corners, but I'm not among them.)

* Ticket prices aside, the culture of attending a baseball game has never been more fan friendly. Virtually every team in the majors has a stadium less than 20 years old, and two that don't -- the Red Sox and Cubs -- play in the most romantically popular ballparks in America. Back to the economy: Market demand has its way of controlling the cost of tickets, be it to a Broadway show or a Yankee game (those premium seats at the new Yankee Stadium are already cheaper than they were on Opening Day). My guess is that the year 2020 will arrive with clearer vision from the MLB powers-that-be regarding the cost effectiveness of paying the likes of Manny Ramirez $20 million a season. One of the most valuable lessons of this recession has been that cost-control is as important as revenue generation in keeping a business alive.

I've come to look at the outing of steroid users as baseball's version of weeding the garden. Now and then, an intruder needs to be pulled out by his roots, so the flowers and vegetables that make the garden so beautiful can flourish. And it's wise to remember the words made famous by everyone from Abe Lincoln to your own mother: This too shall pass.


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