Since when has baseball been a winter sport? Everybody thought the NHL would gain from the NBA lockout, but hockey hasn't exactly stolen the spotlight with such blockbuster news as Arturs Irbe's comeback and Zambonis that leak poisonous fumes. It's baseball that has filled the hole Michael Jordan left behind. After what may have been the best season in the game's history, folks don't want to let go.
You'd have thunk the noise would have died down after McGwire's and Sosa's heroics and the Yankees' coronation, but the headlines keep coming: JOHNSON SIGNS FOR 52 BIG UNITS. ANGELS GIVE MO BETTER MONEY. Instead of fading into the usual background noise—a Mike Morgan trade rumor, an injury report from Caracas—baseball is all the rage. Can the Mets, with Mike Piazza behind the plate, Robin Ventura at third and Bobby Bonilla falling down in the outfield, catch the Braves? By signing Albert Belle and Will Clark, have the Orioles cornered the market on glower power? Who gets Roger Clemens? Baseball's hot stove is now a microwave. Last week, when CNNSI.com asked fans if they were paying more attention to baseball this off-season, 94% said yes.
Baseball fever may not seem so hot to Twins and Pirates fans. Only rich teams make the playoffs these days. Still, the game is big news even in small-market towns thanks to another 1990s phenomenon: media saturation.
As in other sports, baseball's marquee players and glam clubs are developing national constituencies. Little Leaguers everywhere root not only for their home teams but also for McGwire, Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. Purists who love pitching—at least starting pitching—can't help admiring the Braves. Today's fans, wherever they live, watch Sports Center and read USA Today. They play in fantasy leagues and follow big league transactions. More and more they are baseball fans, not slavish boosters of the local club. That's what Tony Gwynn and his Padres teammates misunderstood in September when they blasted their home crowds for cheering Sosa. Those fans weren't betraying the Padres. They were rooting for the sport. They were cheering a rowdy old game that is finally becoming a truly national pastime.
Clemens should land somewhere soon—the Rocket's fate was uncertain as SI went to press-but that won't end the fireworks in an off-season that has seen a dozen of the game's best players bank more than half a billion dollars. As of Monday, Kevin Brown was available. Will the surly sinkerballer make the Dodgers dangerous, the Orioles ornerier, the Braves unbeatable? There are 111 shopping days left until Opening Day.