But this Opening Day, free of major coronavirus pandemic concerns or lockout-induced off-field frenzy, carries a different kind of symbolic weight. If all goes according to Major League Baseball’s plan, it may prove the beginning of a rejuvenated era.
Thursday will mark the regular season debut of MLB’s new rules and revamped schedule. For the first time in baseball history, the sport will be played against a clock — a pitch clock, more specifically — one that shortened spring training games dramatically and fostered a more appealing pace of play.
A new broadcast infrastructure is likely on the way, and it could fast-forward MLB’s push into the streaming era, sparking long-needed change to eliminate long-standing blackouts for fans in local markets.
The World Baseball Classic, MLB’s attempt to harness global interest, finally, really, actually caught on: Just ask the players who starred for their countries for two weeks in March, then trudged back into spring training camps newly aware that the stoic, even-keeled approach history suggests is required to survive 162 regular season games may not be the best approach to this sport at all.
Yet with promise of change comes the need for new looks at the problems of old, and people at every level of the sport are reexamining those, too. Forbes valuations released last week suggested that some of the sport’s most dogged losing franchises — the Oakland Athletics, the Pittsburgh Pirates and more — are making more money by some measures than those teams investing in their on-field product. Owners around the major leagues have expressed frustration with the way Steve Cohen of the New York Mets and Peter Seidler of the San Diego Padres are spending, making other owners look less invested by being willing to spend more to win more.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over the long-term viability of the regional sports network model, combined with certainty that franchise values and major league revenue continue to rise, are providing fodder for new public bickering between players and owners, just a year after they signed a collective bargaining agreement. At a time when MLB seems more willing to react to changing times than ever, perhaps there is more reason than ever to believe new solutions to old problems could emerge, too.
But of course, this could all just be the Opening Day hopes talking. Within moments of 2023 regular season baseball starting, all those changes will be on display and under scrutiny, for better or worse.
Some of the best matchups of Thursday afternoon, for example, would not even have happened under the old schedule. Gerrit Cole and the Yankees will face Logan Webb and the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium. Jacob deGrom’s Texas Rangers will host the newly loaded Philadelphia Phillies in Arlington.
Under the old schedule, which included 19 games against every division foe and interleague series with one division’s worth of teams each year, star-studded interleague matchups such as those would be rarer. This year, MLB debuted what it is calling a “more balanced” schedule, one in which every team will play each other at least once and in which division foes will play 13 times instead.
And after years of testing in the minors and tinkering in the majors, the new rules limiting time between pitches, banning exaggerated shifts and capping the number of pickoff throws will be in place for games that matter. MLB sent a memo to teams last week that clarified a few things about those new rules in accordance with player feedback. But the regular season is no time for experimentation — at least not on the field.
Off the field, more experiments will commence. For example, the baseball world will get another glimpse at Seidler’s grand plan for the small-market Padres — the “if you build it, they will come and they will spend” model — in which Seidler has all but committed to losing money this season to recoup it in the spoils of October victory. Can Cohen really break baseball with his spending, as some owners argue — or, like last season, will his spending result in a good team but not guarantee the Mets much of anything in October?
Perhaps more importantly for the future of baseball, MLB almost certainly will be forced to experiment with the way fans are able to watch games. Earlier this month, Diamond Sports Group, which owns full broadcasting rights to 14 MLB teams and operates Bally Sports networks, declared bankruptcy. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that if Diamond misses a payment to any of those 14 teams, MLB would argue that its contract is void and try to take the rights back. In anticipation of such a scenario, MLB hired additional staff to help in local markets, in case it needs to take over broadcasts from Bally Sports on short notice.
If that happens, Manfred has said he hopes MLB will be able to offer streaming of those games directly to fans, avoiding the in-market blackouts forced by complicated cable deals, such as the ones Diamond Sports has with distributors in those 14 markets.
As of 24 hours before the first pitch of the regular season, Bally Sports was expected to broadcast all the games to which it has rights on Opening Day. Diamond owed the Padres a payment by midnight Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the payment calendar. They made that payment, meaning that for now, the Padres will continue to be broadcast by Bally Sports.
Still, the television landscape could change — and imminently — for nearly half of baseball’s teams. Some of them may see hits to expected television revenue if Diamond misses payments. Manfred admitted those teams may not recover all the lost short-term revenue if that happens. The idea seems to be, however, that a streamlined streaming service run by MLB could offer easier paths to revenue in the future.
For MLB, a version of that different and evolving future begins Thursday. What follows could be a season that provides reason to believe the sport is ready and able to adapt to new realities, a step in the right big-picture direction. Then again, maybe outsize optimism is just an inevitable annual side effect of Opening Day.