Many MLB stories to follow in 2009
New ballparks lead top 10 storylines heading into season
Here are some headlines we all hope to see in 2009:
Parade plans revealed as our town celebrates
57 straight! DiMaggio's record finally broken
Fantasy owner wins league, hired as new GM
And then there are the headlines we expect to see.
As Opening Day arrives, here are the 10 top stories to follow:
1. New park, new park
For the fourth year in this decade, there will be multiple ballpark openings in Major League Baseball. What makes it different this time is that both new pantheons are in America's biggest city, New York. The Mets will open Citi Field first when the Padres visit on April 13, and three days later will be the last home opener on the schedule, as Cleveland is the opponent at new Yankee Stadium.
It will be a story every time a new fan visits and a new opposing team visits -- just as it was when both Shea Stadium and old Yankee Stadium were closed down in 2008. What will be the defining characteristics of each ballpark? How hard will it be to get a ticket to each? Could a decade that opened with a Subway Series end with another, and can you imagine what that would be like with two new parks?
Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium technically does not count, because it was built in 1973 (at a cost of $43 million, compared to the $2.15 billion reported combined cost of the New York facilities), but Royals fans are being treated to their own "grand opening" due to a major overhaul of that gorgeous place. A certain highlight will be the CrownVision scoreboard -- the world's largest outdoor videoboard.
The New York ballparks mark the 11th and 12th new MLB venues in this decade -- compared to eight in the previous decade during this era of fast ballpark growth. The next decade will pick up right where this one leaves off, because the Twins close out the Metrodome this season and then move outdoors to Target Field in 2010.
2. MLB Network changes the game
Now it is time for baseball's new 24/7 cable network to let the engines roar and expand to a typical 6 p.m. ET to wee-hour presentation of its signature show, "MLB Tonight." Baseball insiders say this around-the-clock cable network will be more conducive to its sport than any others due to the volume of games day and night for most of the year, and it promises to add a key new ingredient to the overall routine of baseball fans.
For Monday's traditional Opening Day schedule, the show will debut and start at 4 p.m. ET, concluding after the end of the last West Coast game. Then the typical routine for weekdays and Saturdays will be 6 p.m. to the same finish. Because Sunday is all day games except for the ESPN night game, the show will be more of a highlight format and look at the day's action, with some look-ins at the night game.
"We are all clearly excited for Opening Day around here," said MLB Network host Matt Vasgersian, who spent the previous seven years as a Padres play-by-play broadcaster. "This is kind of what we all came here for. Opening Day is going to start a different process for us, a different feel around here, and in pretty quick time, it's going to evolve -- or devolve, depending on how you look at it -- into three or four guys talking baseball for three or four hours a night. Which is really exciting for us, because it's what we all do.
"Between the live look-ins and the ballpark cams and highlights and commentary, it's going to be a constant baseball discussion. You're going to get a little of this and a little of a lot when it comes to the big leagues. It's going to be fun for us."
3. Fans finding new value to beat economy
Baseball always has been there through the good and bad times, and for many fans, now it is a relief from the constant fact of a struggling economy. Overall attendance will be under especially close scrutiny, but the most important thing is that all 30 clubs, acting on the advice of Commissioner Bud Selig, have incorporated new value pricing and deals into their offerings as a way to help keep baseball affordable.
"Throughout its long and distinguished history, baseball has always served as a diversion for its fans in difficult times," Selig said. "These difficult times are no different, and Major League Baseball is stepping up its efforts to make the game more affordable and to demonstrate to its fans how important they are to us."
See the MLB.com special Fan Value Corner for a club-by-club look at the unique approaches being taken around the game. As a typical example, consider Arizona, which just announced it will add All-You-Can-Eat Seats to a 675-seat section in left field at Chase Field. For anywhere from $25 to $35, you get a game ticket and unlimited ballpark fare, such as hot dogs, popcorn, peanuts, Frito Lay or Corazonas chips, Pepsi soft drinks and Aquafina bottled water from the time gates open until the end of the seventh inning.
"We discovered that the all-you-can-eat option was very popular with our fans when we tested it during six late-season games last year," Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said. "Our All-You-Can-Eat Seats is another example of how we are creating affordable options for our fans during these challenging economic times."
4. 'We have everything we need'
When the Yankees signed pitchers CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) and A.J. Burnett (five years, $82.5 million) last December, it turned into the expected cause célèbre, and a great hue and cry was heard from the masses. When they then gobbled up first baseman Mark Teixeira for eight years and $180 million, it was a given that Yankees tracking would be a big story all the way to the end in 2009.
The Yankees missed the postseason last year for the first time since 1993 (Note: There was no 1994 postseason). They now not only are expected back in, but they are expected by many to win their 27th world championship. If they do not come through after spending that kind of dough on three free agents, they will not hear the end of it. If they do, then that will go down as one of the most prominent examples of big-time acquisition work.
"I've always wanted to be with an organization that doesn't shy away from the big-money players, the free agents and doing whatever it takes to win," Teixeira said after signing. "The Yankees are on the top of that list. ... We have everything we need to go out there and compete."
5. Club monitors progress closely
OK, this has been one of the top 10 stories to watch ever since baseball was covered by the press. The only thing new here is the list of subjects. Here are players whose health each is of ongoing concern and crucial to the hopes of his team:
Johan Santana, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, B.J. Upton, Chris Carpenter, Max Scherzer, Joel Zumaya, Erik Bedard, Troy Glaus, Troy Percival, Trevor Hoffman, Eric Byrnes and Ryan Braun. There are many more, and the biggest name of all would be ...
6. A-Rod inspires fan reaction
Alex Rodriguez dominated a stretch of this past winter by: admitting to ESPN's Peter Gammons that he had used steroids before coming to the Yankees; trying (not so successfully) to clarify details at a major news conference attended by teammates; and undergoing hip surgery that knocked him out of the World Baseball Classic and delayed his return to the Yankees until probably early May.
Once he returns to public view, A-Rod will be back in the headlines constantly. He will hear from fans everywhere he goes all season. He did manage to homer in only his second at-bat during the Yankees' first Spring Training game, but it remains to be seen whether he can deal with inevitable fan backlash and put up the kinds of numbers people are accustomed to seeing from No. 13.
7. Next year is here
It all seemed so right last year. It was the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series title. They easily led the National League with 97 regular-season victories. They had home-field advantage in the NL playoffs, and they fizzled again, swept by the Dodgers in the Division Series. So here we are again. Some of the parts are different, with Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood now in Cleveland, and a good mixture of youth and experience has had fans asking again: Is this the year?
8. Meet me in St. Louis
For the first time since 1966 at the original Busch Stadium, the All-Star Game is coming to St. Louis. The big question is whether the National League will win the main event there, something it has been unable to do every year since 1996, but MLB president Bob DuPuy has predicted that baseball's July visit to the Arch will be something special.
"New York was a great show," DuPuy said. "But there is also something to having an All-Star Game in a city like Pittsburgh or a city like St. Louis or a city like Detroit or a city like Milwaukee, where it takes up the entire downtown. ... New York went on with the business of being New York. St. Louis won't go on with the business of being St. Louis. It will be the All-Star Game."
9. Bragging rights at stake today
What is the hottest rivalry in Major League Baseball today? While Red Sox vs. Yankees always gets the most attention and has rich anecdotal history, there are at least two other regional rivalries that can make the case of being a better modern rivalry without the incumbent hype: Mets vs. Phillies and Cubs vs. Brewers.
In both cases, it is a strong alpha and omega pull that is based on pennant-race warfare and talk of guarantees, choking and pure passion. As long as Mets-Phillies races keep going down to the line in the NL East, the intensity will be there and the arrows will be slung from Philadelphia up to the Big Apple and back. Hamels said during a New York radio interview in December that the Mets are "choke artists," and Jose Reyes is among those who have fired back, with Jimmy Rollins always eager to jump into the fray.
Just consider the scene at Wrigley Field during the last Cubs-Dodgers NL Division Series. Cubs fans were swarmed around concourse monitors that showed how the Brewers were faring in their NLDS against the Phillies. This rivalry grew white-hot last season in the division race, as the Cubs clinched and then the Brewers won the Wild Card. It figures to get only hotter in 2009, and it quite possibly has superseded the traditional Cubs-Cardinals rivalry in the true spirit of the word.
Of course, the Cubs have lots of haters on the South Side of Chicago, evident when the Interleague Play stretches arrive in May and then June. Dodgers vs. Giants remains a traditional rivalry dating way back, and these days Dodger fans love to get into it with Angels fans, as both are contenders. The Rays aren't just a rival of the Marlins in Florida anymore; they are building some solid fire with those Yankees and Red Sox factions as well. Spend time in New York, and you understand why the average person either likes the Mets or Yankees but never both of them. Something interesting always happens when the Rockies and D-backs get together, and Orioles-Nationals builds steam every year.
10. Shocker! Baseball defies predictions again
Who knew the Rays would get to the 2008 World Series, or that Josh Hamilton nearly would have 100 RBIs at the All-Star break and capture everyone's imagination at the Home Run Derby? Who knew the Red Sox finally would win it all five years ago? Or that Kirk Gibson would knock one out on a gimpy leg in 1988? Or that the 1914 Miracle Braves would beat Connie Mack's mighty Philadelphia A's?
Baseball is built on the tradition of surprise, of playing a game in which absolutely anything can happen and always does. The same thing will happen in 2009. The competitive balance is at its peak, explaining why this Opening Day arrives with high hopes for literally all 30 clubs. The surprises to come will be the headline rage.
Can the Giants and A's stage a 20th-anniversary Bay Bridge Series in October? Both added some key parts. Is Kansas City or Cincinnati ready to make a quantum leap with a new signature style? Some people think Seattle will be this year's surprise team. According to trends, Florida is due to put together one of those every-six-year shocking title runs as it did in 1997 and 2003. Anything is possible.
Major League Baseball will make headlines again. It does so every year, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. It is the sport that mirrors society, the sports handed from one generation to the next, and now it is back for yet another Opening Day. That is big news in itself.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.