On Opening Day, Five Things To Watch This Baseball Season

Now that Easter weekend is behind us, the first real sign of spring is here. America’s national pastime is back, as Major League Baseball’s 2013 season began today. Baseball, once a bastion of labor strife and work stoppages, is starting the season on-time for the 18th consecutive year, and the game itself is healthier than ever.

Still, there are interesting issues and storylines facing the game that don’t involve whether the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will miss the playoffs or whether the Washington Nationals can win the World Series. Here are five issues I’ll be following throughout the season:

1. The Miami Marlins: You won’t actually want to watch the Miami Marlins play baseball, because chances are they won’t be very good. But the Marlins were one of the biggest stories for all the wrong reasons this offseason. In 2012, the Marlins opened a brand new taxpayer-funded stadium that Miamians didn’t want, loaded up their roster with expensive talent, and limped to a disappointing last place finish in the National League East. Then they shipped all of that high-priced talent to Toronto for virtually nothing in exchange, infuriating the fan base and becoming the epitome of cronyism in sports. If you choose not to pay attention to the Marlins, you won’t be alone: their season ticket sale was barely attended. Still, perhaps no franchise in sports serves as a better lesson for the pitfalls of public financing than owner Jeff Loria’s: the stadium he wrenched from the city will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $2 billion to fund, and he doesn’t seem to be following up on his promise to put a winning product on the field in return. The Marlins are also under the watchful eye of the MLB Players Association, which is concerned that it may have violated baseball’s collective bargaining agreement by purging its payroll.

2. Kim Ng and gender diversity: Major League Baseball’s Senior Vice President for Operations, Kim Ng stands the best chance of cracking the game’s glass ceiling and becoming the first female general manager in American professional sports history. Ng (pronounced ANG) got her start in baseball in 1995 working for the Chicago White Sox. She’s since worked as an assistant general manager for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers and has interviewed for GM positions with the Los Angeles Angels, the Seattle Mariners, and the San Diego Padres. Opening Day is a touch early to speculate about teams failing and firing their existing GMs, but Ng appears determined to one day lead a Major League front office, and she’ll likely be on the list for any club that has a vacancy later this year. Whether it’s Ng or not, baseball needs to get better about hiring women into positions of power. While it received an A grade for race hiring in 2012, its gender hiring grade fell to a C+ from a B- in 2011 and a B in 2010.

3. Performance enhancing drugs: The Miami New Times sent shockwaves through baseball early this year when it linked New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and dozens of other players to a peddler of performance enhancing drugs in Miami. Suspensions may be forthcoming, but the most interesting question is how baseball will address drug use going forward, not how it deals with what has already passed. The knee-jerk response to the New Times story was to call on baseball to institute tougher testing, but with so little evidence that drug testing acts as a deterrent to use at any level of sports, more testing might not be the solution people in baseball are looking for.

4. Revenue sharing: Baseball’s revenue sharing model came under scrutiny when the Marlins dumped payroll in the offseason; it has come under more since it was revealed that the Houston Astros will pay less for their entire roster than the Yankees do for a single player. Revenue sharing has helped improve parity, allowing smaller teams a better chance to compete with the big boys. But it has also allowed some smaller teams to pocket cash without attempting to compete. During 2011 collective bargaining negotiations, the union won tweaks to the model that force teams that benefit from revenue sharing to pour much of the money back into salaries. But whether they are is still in question, especially given the situations in both Houston and Miami. There are disputes over whether revenue sharing has been good or bad for players, and the union is monitoring the Marlins’ offseason payroll dump to see if it violated the league’s labor contract. Even if it didn’t, the ongoing debate about baseball’s revenue sharing model is sure to remain an issue as the new formula becomes clearer in the second season since it was changed.

5. Player safety: Football has taken the brunt of scrutiny over protecting players, but baseball has had its own debates too. Baseball has made huge strides in tackling safety issues regarding broken bats with new regulations that have made the game safer, but as mentioned above, it still faces questions about steroids and drug use. The debate also includes head injuries, which, while rare, still occur. Baseball now requires base coaches to wear helmets after a minor league coach was killed by a line drive in 2007, and after Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy was severely injured by a line drive and Detroit Tigers pitcher Doug Fister took a liner to the head during the World Series, the league debated requiring pitchers to wear padded caps on the field this year. That proposal hasn’t been approved, but while head injuries from both batted balls and collisions remain rare, future incidents could revive questions about how to ensure players are as safe as possible on the field.