Baseball: What's new this year?

As 'Play Ball!' rings out April 4, baseball fans debate the impact of high salaries and the post-steroid era.

Francis Specker/AP
Los Angeles Angels' Hideki Matsui, hits a single off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw in the fourth inning of an exhibition major league baseball game in Anaheim, Calif. on Friday.

As Major League Baseball kicks off its new season April 4, part of the story will be a rerun from last year: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees – the twin suns around which the baseball universe revolves – will swing their bats center stage. Will they end up facing each other for a berth in the World Series?

But that's not the only story in baseball this spring. Yes, the designated hitter rule will be forever debated, but baseball is slowly changing. There's more emphasis on "small ball" – focusing on base hits and advancing runners – as the era of steroid-pumped home-run champs fades. Meantime, the core of baseball – a game of poetic pitfalls, played by fallible men and "designed to break your heart," as former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote – endures.

High anticipation greets opening day 2010, as a winter-weary America welcomes the first sign of summer with new questions about the Sox-Yankees primacy, the evolution of the post-steroid game, the future of the designated hitter rule, which off-season moves will ultimately matter, and, of course, how da Cubs gonna do?

Will money buy a pennant?

Baseball may be an egalitarian game on the playground, but at the professional level, it's a monarchy. Instead of accepting the kind of salary cap instituted by other major sports, the powerful players union conceded only to a luxury tax that started in the early 2000s. That tax is imposed on teams paying more than $170 million in salaries this year. (Revenues go toward player programs, promoting baseball in developing nations, and a growth fund for the expansion of the sport.)

IN PICTURES: Glimpses of Spring: Baseball Preview

Some small-market teams have played well into the postseason. But success plus the size of the market a team plays in equal big payrolls, which, in turn, often mean deep playoff runs and more championships. It's a mesmerizing story line that MLB simply can't drop.

"I think baseball has a problem in constantly looking for the Yankees and the Red Sox," says Rick Gentile, the director of Seton Hall University's Sports Poll, and a San Francisco Giants fan. "What's needed is to get the Cubs into the World Series," he says, although he doesn't expect to see that soon.

The Milwaukee Brewers have pushed for a salary cap, but so far no one's buying it. This winter, an MLB brainstorming committee discussed the idea of "floating realignment," which would presumably close the performance gap in baseball by allowing teams to choose which division they want to compete in year to year.

Will baseball ever lose 'the man without the glove'? Probably not. Even though owners and commissioner Bud Selig are doing their perennial review of the designated hitter rule used only in the American League, chances are the DH is here to stay.

One reason: Popularity (and profits) are tied to hitting more than pitching.

How is the end of the steroid era changing the game?

The retirement of players such as Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds marks the true end of baseball's steroid era.

The scandal embodied the push and pull of big money, fame, and attendance, and the sport is now recalibrating itself, as its athletes look less like bulked-up bodybuilders. But steroid-free players who have the potential to hit 50 home runs in a season have yet to prove they're able to do so consistently.

"I don't know [if] the game is changing in the poststeroid era" as much as interest in pitching and fielding is cyclical, says Mr. Gentile. "Yet it's comforting to think" that the steroid era is over and will never return.

IN PICTURES: Glimpses of Spring: Baseball Preview

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