The bunting is hung. The chalk lines are laid out with Euclidian precision. In the NESN booth, Jerry is tanned, rested, and Remy. The newest version of the Olde Towne Team has headed north, dutifully trading warm and sun-dappled Floridian fields for the clammy, finger-numbing New England chill.
As we welcome the Red Sox back to Fenway, it's worth noting that the national pastime itself has suffered another brutal winter, and we're not referring to the weather. Steroids continue to plague the sport's image, and to claim more and more of its heroes. The economy, too, has been as kind to the game as a screaming Big Papi foul ball is to a slow-reacting fan's unprotected mug. Here, then, on the eve of Opening Day, are nine questions worth mulling over for the game we love.
1)Will we find out the rest of those 104 names?
Five years after implementing drug testing, and nearly a year and a half after the release of the Mitchell Report, the steroidal specter continues to haunt the game. One day, hopefully, we can pretend the Steroid Era was just a bad dream. But before we do, unfortunately, the other malefactors — the 103 players who, like Alex Rodriguez (whose name was leaked), tested positive for steroids in a union-negotiated anonymous exercise — need to be unmasked. All of them. "If you don't do that," wrote recent retiree Curt Schilling on his blog, "then the other 600–700 players are going to be guilty by association, forever." (Having said that: pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease don't be anyone on the Sox.)
2) Whither A-Rod?
For a guy so infamously preoccupied with what other people think of him, you'd assume Rodriguez would avoid photo shoots like the one accompanying his recent Details profile, in which he's seen smooching his own blue-lipped reflection in the mirror and lounging dreamily on a mattress. Of course, emasculating magazine spreads are the least of A-Rod's worries these days. The fallout from his steroid scandal may — may — end up being more or less contained: like teammate Andy Pettite (and unlike former teammate Roger Clemens), he admitted it up front and apologized. But add these latest revelations to his continuing legacy of postseason impotence, the ugly divorce, l'affair Madonna, the unflattering portrait in the new Joe Torre tell-all, and now, allegedly, a "connection" to Eliot Spitzer's madam. Suddenly the erstwhile superman is looking pretty humbled. (He's sure to be reminded of this every time he makes a plate appearance in Fenway this year.)
3)As newspapers fall faster than a Papelbon sinker, how will we continue to follow our favorite teams?
Here's the dilemma: blogs have exploded in popularity — and many of them are quite good, offering more insight and analysis than your daily fishwrap is willing or able to provide. But bloggers don't get the everyday locker-room access to players and coaches that newspapers do. Which is a shame. Because both reportage and smart analysis are crucial to appreciation of the game, and as papers continue to fold, it's the bloggers who could be best positioned to pick up the slack. If the Globe or Herald were ever to go online-only, would their press passes be revoked? Doubt it.
4) What will the down economy do to the game?
Will the Red Sox' 469-game sell-out streak finally end? Possibly. What about the new Yankee Stadium and Citi "Bailout" Field in New York — will they be able to fill all those corporate luxury boxes? And will the Mets suffer for having their ownership victimized by Bernie Madoff? This much is for sure: from fan spending to player salaries, the economy is having a very real effect on baseball. The Red Sox have responded by freezing ticket prices and offering half-off select concessions. But I'm still waiting to see deals like the one offered by the A's in small-market Oakland: four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, and four bags of peanuts for just $50!
5) How will globalization affect rosters?
Now that Japan has won the first two installments of the World Baseball Classic, with even the Netherlands showing the powerhouse Dominicans how it's done, it's clear that America's game has gone global. The Red Sox have three Japanese pitchers on their active roster, and one more stashed in the minors. (Just three years ago, they had none.) Now we just have to find a fairer way of signing them, because the expensive "posting system" currently used to lure Japanese players doesn't seem to have many fans on either side of the Pacific.
6) Will baseball ever again be popular with blacks?
More and more these days, Fenway looks like a Dave Matthews concert: the audience a sea of well-dressed whiteys, and the few blacks in attendance actually doing the performing. And their numbers are shrinking faster than Barry Bonds's testes: barely eight percent of big-league players are black. Initiatives like Major League Baseball's RBI (Renewing Baseball in the Inner City) program are trying to attract more minorities to the sport, but in the meantime it seems only mildly hyperbolic to wonder if we'll soon have more black presidents than baseball players. Startling fact: with the off-season trade of Coco Crisp, the Red Sox currently have zero African-Americans on the active roster.