Entering the 2006 season, the game of baseball is extremely healthy, relatively wealthy, and as we just saw clearly in the World Baseball Classic, worldwide.
The game is coming off two breakthrough seasons, featuring the Boston Red Sox breaking an 86-year-old World Series championship drought and then the Chicago White Sox breaking their own 88-year-old dry spell. This might lead you to believe that the next thing to happen would be the Chicago Cubs snapping out of that nearly century-long drought. Or perhaps not.
The game is on better financial ground than it has been in years. It is on more reputable ground than it has been in years, with an anti-steroid program that is the most rigorous and stringent in professional sports. And if the economic playing field has not been completely leveled, the fact that five different teams won the World Series in the last five years indicates that the game is moving toward parity.
"I think we have more parity now than ever before," commissioner of baseball Bud Selig says. This is still a work in progress, but the advances of revenue sharing and the luxury tax have helped small-market franchises to retain talent and regain hope.
The game is coming off record attendance in 2005 and the advance sales indicate that another record is on the way for 2006. This could not happen if the competition wasn't keen and the game wasn't healthy.
"Almost every club is getting record attendance," Selig says. "The ticket sales have been unbelievable. On the field, I think you're going to see division races that are more competitive than ever, the Wild Card, as well. I just think that the game is going to be better than ever."
If the success of the White Sox is any indication, the game may be moving away from the slugfest to small ball, or little ball, or post-steroid ball, or good old intelligent, fundamental baseball, or whatever else you choose to call it. The Classic was classic in that sense, the most successful Asian and Latin American teams depending on pitching and defense and sound situational hitting.
It doesn't hurt if you can pitch and catch and still clobber the ball on occasion, as the White Sox also demonstrated. But the game appears to be moving back toward its better self, in the sense of placing more value on the traditional baseball virtues.
This is good. A mythology grew during the last two decades that what baseball fans really wanted to see was the home run. No. What baseball fans always wanted to see was good baseball. If that included some home runs, fine. The long ball is an integral part of the excitement. But it is also just one part of the excitement.
It's a rosy outlook for the grand old game entering the 2006 season. But it won't be completely cloudless. The investigation into steroid abuse, if it is comprehensive, could turn up some evidence that won't be pleasant. But this is a necessary, and overdue, process for the game to regain full credibility with the baseball public.
And the progress of Barry Bonds up the home run charts, in the face of a growing body of evidence that he used performance-enhancing substances on a truly regular basis, will be accompanied in many quarters by feelings of skepticism and/or dismay. Many fans will not be buying into this particular process, whether Bonds passes Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, or Sadaharu Oh, for that matter.
This will not help the game, but it will also not derail the game. Baseball has taken steps, belated but definitive steps, to deal with the steroid issue. Remnants of the era of steroid usage are still on display, but the next baseball era will be characterized by alert and aggressive play, not by bulking up.
This is a game that has improved itself in competitive balance, broadened itself to cover the globe, and is full of promise for even better days. Now, the 2006 season awaits, and its joys can be fairly, eagerly, easily anticipated. Baseball is coming back in the best shape of its long existence. Let's play ball.
"I, for one, cannot wait," Bud Selig says. The commissioner is joined in that sentiment by untold millions, an audience with a reasonable expectation that the best is yet to come.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.