Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2019

Despite New Economics, Opening Day Is Still About Hope

So we begin. Day one, inning one, at least for most fans. Admittedly, as dawn broke on Opening Day from the Bronx to Chavez Ravine, the faithful followers of the Mariners and Athletics had already seen their heroes play the first two official games of the 2019 season, last week in Japan. That short set half a world away was the utterly appropriate setting for the final trips to the plate of the most prolific batsman to post statistics in both the Puro Yakyu, as the Nippon Professional Baseball league is known locally, and the major leagues. Across nearly a quarter-century of play between two countries, Ichiro Suzuki set scores of records in both and heard roars that sound the same in any language. The cheers will be renewed a half decade hence, on a mid-July weekend in upstate New York, when Ichiro is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But for now the attention of fans turns to the present, because notwithstanding Seattle’s 2-0 head start on Oakland, all squads are equal in the standings on Opening Day. That appearance of a level playing field before wins and losses are recorded is an illusion that will be shattered soon enough. If the NFL strives to live up to the old “on any given Sunday” trope, the Great Game’s current era is very much about “wait ‘til next year” for far too many teams. The initial projections at Baseball Prospectus have nine teams finishing the longest season fourteen or more games below .500, with six losing ninety or more games. ESPN goes one club better (or worse), predicting that fully one-third of all franchises will essentially be playing out the string well before Labor Day, the same number as last season when a record eight teams wound up losing ninety-five or more games.

Just three clubs – the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs – are expected to have Opening Day payrolls above the $206 million luxury tax threshold, while eight, more than twice as many, look to begin play with less than $100 million in salary commitments. For the past few years the popular theory around what looked a lot like intentionally bad teams and contract frugality has been that first the Cubs then the Astros proved a model of tearing down a roster and rebuilding through the development of young prospects, enhanced with a few key veterans at just the right time, was the key to success. And there is no doubt that such a roadmap led both Chicago and Houston to the promised land of a world championship.

But the truth is that there is no single formula that guarantees success. The defending champion Boston Red Sox stormed through the 2018 season on the strength of the highest payroll in the majors, a bit of irony given the perpetual complaint of many Sox fans that their archrivals in the Bronx simply buy their titles. Even while choosing to pass on any attempt to resign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, Boston will look to defend its crown from a perch still atop the team salary rankings.

Rather the new economic reality of the game is that owners can profit handsomely without putting a winning product on the field, thanks to MLB’s multiple marketing tie-ins and an extremely active online division that includes ventures not just beyond baseball but outside of sports altogether, with the resulting revenue shared among all franchises regardless of won-loss records. Add in massive regional television deals that many clubs now have, and the quality of play, the one factor that results in increased ticket sales and more money from concessions because of more fans in the stands is becoming a progressively smaller part of each franchise’s revenue equation. Then there is the sea change in the approach to paying players because of the clear evidence from advanced metrics that younger ballplayers are far better investments than free agents in their thirties.

Much has been made of the huge contracts given to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado late in the offseason, as well as the spate of extensions signed by stars on several teams even as Spring Training was ending. But the concern on the part of players has never been about the superstars, who are almost assuredly going to get their money. Rather it has been about the far larger number of competent players who make up the Great Game’s middle class, those whose only way into the Hall of Fame will be by buying a $25 ticket. This group has seen the longstanding promise of free agency evaporate over the past few offseasons. The willingness of even recognizable stars to sign extensions rather than waiting to become free agents is simply proof that players are coming to understand the changed dynamics, illustrated most tellingly by the fact that total player salaries are down from the previous year for the second Opening Day in a row, the first time that has ever happened.

On this first day, as first innings are played across the country, the consensus is that fans in the Bronx and Boston, and in Houston and L.A., will have many reasons to cheer from now until October. Cleveland may not get deep into the postseason, but the regular season should be a joy for fans near Lake Erie, in part because of the weakness of the rest of the AL Central. The NL’s East and Central divisions are expected to be season-long dogfights, but in the end, there will be World Series games at Dodger Stadium for the third year in a row, while the other Fall Classic venue is seen as a toss-up between the three American League powers. But fans in city after city face a long and disappointing schedule.

That at least is the conventional wisdom. But for fans of all those teams that are being written off by wizened sportswriters and young statistical mavens alike, there is a ray of hope. It is now exactly half a century since the other team in New York, the expansion franchise granted Queens after the Dodgers and Giants took flight to the west coast, began the 1969 season by losing on Opening Day. That was, after all, what the Metropolitans had done every year since their first season in 1962. By late May the Mets were 18-23, about what most of the experts expected. But then came an eleven-game winning streak. It was the start of a season for the ages, that didn’t end until the final out of the fifth game of the World Series, when the Miracle Mets earned their nickname and a place in the Great Game’s history with a win over the Orioles.

Day one, inning one, and those Mets remind us that every team must still play the games, all 2,430 of them, just to get to the postseason, after which anything is possible. It’s time to play ball.

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