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We stand now on the cusp of not just another season but of another era, as vulnerable as lovers on the rebound. What was sold and bought as a "golden age of baseball" in the restorative years after the 1994--95 strike--all prettied up by wild cards, flirtatious new ballparks and, mostly, the almighty home run--turned out to be a lie. A cheat, both in matters of the heart and pharmacology.
Golden age, my asterisk. It was pyrite, what we now and will forever call the Steroid Era. In 1998 a 70-year-old man would have seen a major leaguer hit 60 home runs in a season only once in his lifetime. By the time the man was 74, the feat had occurred six more times, all by players accused in the court of public opinion of having used performance-enhancing drugs.
A glowering Barry Bonds, closing in on Babe Ruth while under review of the commissioner's office for alleged steroid use, is our daily reminder--like the ex who works a few cubicles away--of the betrayal. And you know what? It doesn't hurt one bit. We are so over it. In fact, now we're falling hard for a game that is cleaner, more nuanced and more competitive than it has been in a generation. It's a young man's game, belonging to new stars who, certified by the sport's tougher drug policy, have replaced their juiced-up, broken-down elders who aged so ungracefully. It is baseball as it ought to be. A fresh start.
Such young stars as Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins, Ryan Howard of the Phillies, Grady Sizemore of the Indians, Joe Mauer of the Twins, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, Bobby Crosby of the A's, Prince Fielder of the Brewers and, soon, Delmon Young of the Devil Rays can play with a kind of good-faith guarantee in the person of the man with the specimen cup. Baseball now has the harshest penalties for steroid use in pro sports: suspensions of 50 and 100 days for first and second offenses, respectively, and a lifetime ban for a third. Also, baseball for the first time has banned amphetamines, which proliferated in the game for decades with winking acceptance.
No sports drug policy is airtight. Baseball does not, for instance, test for human growth hormone. But at least gone are the lawless days when drugs were to baseball what bullets were to Dodge.
Baseball in 2006 is a confirmation of faith, never more evident than one night in February when Brewers fans camped overnight in Milwaukee's subzero windchill to buy tickets for this season on the first morning they went on sale--all to watch a team that hasn't had a winning record since Bush 41 was in the White House.
Before winter was even over, anybody who called looking for season tickets to the White Sox, Angels or Cardinals games was too late, landing on waiting lists for 2007. Five teams (Angels, Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox) will have virtually sold out their entire home seasons before Opening Day. When the Cubs, a fourth-place team and losers of 83 games last year, put single-game tickets on sale, they sold about as many in one day (a major league--record 600,000) as they did in their entire 1966 season. The overall major league--attendance record set last year will be broken again.
"I believe today, by almost any criteria you choose, the sport has never been more popular," commissioner Bud Selig says.
Baseball is on an unprecedented 11-year run of labor peace between owners and the players' association, giving young fans and young players alike the righteous notion that such sweet uninterrupted play is the norm. (The collective bargaining agreement expires in December, though the gloomy prelude of hawkish talk typical of past expiring deals is not evident. The two sides expect to negotiate mostly on modifications to the revenue-sharing system in place.)
Competitive balance, the sticking point of the last negotiations, in 2002, is virtually a nonissue. Five teams--none of which are the filthy-rich Yankees--have won the past five World Series. Those same five champions previously had combined for one title in 216 cumulative seasons since 1918.