The game is whole again. This Sunday night, for the first time in three years, the baseball season opens with the promise of what we once took for granted: a 162-game season.
Then, in June, the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week returns to network television, thanks to Fox. To promote its first major league broadcasts, the network has aired scores of ads depicting players as good-humored and fallible, which means Fox already has done more to build up the game than Major League Baseball's stuffed shirts on Park Avenue or their dour adversaries from the players' union have done.
Also this season there is the nostalgic touch of having a superteam in each league. The Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians finished a combined 51 games ahead of their closest divisional rivals last year and rightfully met in the World Series, the way the best teams usually did back in the days before divisions and wild cards. No team has since come close to narrowing the gap on either the world champion Braves or the American League champion Indians.
"When we say we'll be competitive, we mean for a postseason spot, not the division title," says Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski. "You don't like to concede anything, but it's awfully hard for us or anyone to talk about catching the Braves."
So let the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels enjoy their division titles this season. Let the Boston Red Sox and the San Diego Padres have the wild cards. The longest season in baseball history—162 games plus three tiers of playoffs—leads us back to where we were last October.
"I was tired by the end of last year," says Atlanta's four-time Cy Young winner, Greg Maddux. "Physically I was O.K. Mentally I was fried. I mean, it was a whole month of playoffs."
That grind is all the more reason to like Atlanta and Cleveland again, battle-tested teams with depth and the money to acquire more players as needed. They deserve each other again come October. This time Cleveland has the home-field advantage. This time the last game goes to the Indians.