As they prepared to defend a world championship for the first time since the ratification of Prohibition, the Boston Red Sox found themselves standing on virgin ground on Sunday night. No team had ever been here before: on the new tight-pile, navy-blue carpet of Yankee Stadium's visiting clubhouse, that is. The previous carpet had to be ripped out after the Red Sox spilled a small reservoir of beer and champagne on it last Oct. 20, in celebration of winning the American League pennant with an unprecedented comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit. Every baseball season is distinct, but this one is especially distinct--from the ground up. One reason is that the Red Sox are Prometheus unbound, freed from the shackles of the curse. Moreover, perhaps never before have so many teams held realistic postseason aspirations, emboldened by the fact that one quarter (20 of 80) of the playoff entrants in the wild-card era have gotten there the year after a losing season. The maker of a computer game called Diamond Mind Baseball ran 100 simulated 2005 seasons and found that 25 of the 30 teams made the playoffs at least once.
The uniqueness of this season, however, was never more apparent than when, a few hours before new Yankee Randy Johnson threw the first pitch of the season, baseball threw out Alex Sanchez. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder became the first casualty of the sport's tougher testing program when he was suspended for 10 days for violating the new policy on performance-enhancing drugs. And let the record show that New York first baseman Jason Giambi, the first active player to admit to knowingly using steroids (according to leaked grand jury testimony in the BALCO case), made the first putout of this strangely different season.
Three hours before the game Giambi had learned from a reporter of Sanchez's suspension and his intention "to fight it" because, Sanchez said, he had used only products purchased over the counter. "What?!" said Giambi. "See, if you use an over-the-counter supplement that [includes a small amount of] a banned substance, nobody is going to believe you. And in the rush to get [a testing] policy in place, these things are going to happen again. We used to have [last year] a second test, a week after the first one. You were told to cut out all the protein shakes and supplements for the second one. Now we don't have that second one. I can almost guarantee you there will be more [positive tests]. That's why the NFL went to [a supplement certification program]."
If the testing program is designed to turn what has been the Steroid Era into the Cleanup Era, then the unknowns of this season are more profound than the typical assortment of Opening Day possibilities. Will more players be suspended? Will a superstar be caught? Will the game and its players look different? Will fans forsake baseball?
The last question already seems to have been answered. According to Major League Baseball, ticket sales entering last month were up 7.5% over what was on aggregate a record 2004 season. Also, ratings for spring training games televised by ESPN were up 10% (to an average of 679,000 viewers), and first-quarter licensed merchandise sales were up 100%, thanks largely to the wildly cathartic spending of Red Sox Nation.
Baseball is the lizard's tail of sports. It regenerates itself from the worst of calamities: betting scandals, drugs, collusion, contraction plans, strikes, AstroTurf, all-brown San Diego Padres uniforms. If the Sunday-night crowd's response to Giambi, who last winter became the face of steroids, is any indication, this latest comeback may not be so arduous. The first baseman, who reached base three times in four plate appearances in a 9-2 New York win, was roundly cheered during pregame introductions and at various points throughout the night (though road crowds figure to be more hostile). "It was everything I could have hoped for," Giambi said afterward.
As the Sanchez suspension proved, and as the eventual return of Barry Bonds from knee surgery will, too, the steroid story is never far from the surface. But it did seem to recede at a minute past eight on Sunday night when Yankees teammates Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez popped out of the first base dugout to warm up with a game of catch--as timelessly simple an act as $39 million in combined 2005 salary can possibly create. Baseball was back. Johnson throwing 97-mph fastballs with his gunslinger's scowl, New York leftfielder Hideki Matsui robbing Kevin Millar of a home run and hitting one of his own, Jeter gobbling up grounders and cutting up the base paths with organic, old-school athleticism.... You could see the tail growing again.
Steroids? Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams, when asked after the game about baseball's healing power following a winter of scandalous off-field news, replied, "Yes, a lot of things were said, but once the games get going the focus is on the games. We've still got to play [the Red Sox] 18 more times. It seems like we play them all the time."
Indeed, this was Game 58 in a heated three-year series that the Red Sox led by one game (29-28) and trailed by all of four runs (299-295). The dynamic of the rivalry, though, was markedly changed by the inclusions of Johnson and Boston's newly earned, if awkward, superiority. Johnson is New York's answer to the Red Sox' addition of Curt Schilling last year: Each was acquired in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks almost exclusively to conquer the hated division rival. Such an intimidating figure is Johnson that his own manager wasn't sure how to approach him before the opener.
"Before the first game I always go around the clubhouse and shake every player's hand, just to wish them luck," Joe Torre said. "I got to the trainer's room and saw Randy--I knew how intense he is when it's his day to pitch--and wasn't sure if I should say anything. I almost didn't do it, but I reached out and he shook my hand. That was it."