(CBS Sports Radio) For more than a century, the days before pitchers and catchers report have been filled with glee and optimism. Next week, baseball players will report to sun-splashed locales, and begin throwing and hitting and loosening those winter-tightened muscles. For the majority of the country, this is our mental getaway from Polar Vortexes and dark, angry skies. That sound of a baseball into a mitt ("pop!") is enough to make us feel better about our fate. Baseball, spring, is just around the corner.
But this year is far different, because the week before players report to camp the sport is seething with concern and contempt. The commissioner has suggested massive rules changes that will completely alter the complexion of the game. The two biggest free agents to hit the market arguably since Alex Rodriguez's historic offseason 18 years ago are curiously unpopular. There is no "pop."
When Rob Manfred proposed a universal DH, a minimum of three batters faced by relievers and a pitch clock (again), it spoke to a new underpinning of MLB. The powers that be want a new sport. Manfred was hired as a strategic answer to the Bud Selig regime. Selig was old-school, old-generation, a symbol of the way baseball used to be. Sure, he ushered in the stadium boom, oversaw expanded playoffs, and never stopped tinkering with the All-Star Game. Selig's era also embraced analytics and monetizing digital media.
However, the game remained the same. Selig was loathe to change anything on the field. The fundamentals of baseball would never evolve under his watch. The owners see a potentially bleak horizon, and wanted a steward for a new direction. The metrics show the sport's fans are older and less diverse than any of the other major sports. The TV ratings for the Midsummer Classic, playoffs and World Series have continually been chipped away at. They saw an eroding cultural relevance and an NBA that had caught up to them and raced past.
Manfred's proposed rules all have a common theme: Speed up the game, generate offense. The NFL has drifted toward an offense-first, fantasy-driven league. The NBA outlawed junk and zone defenses, and now watch teams score 120-plus points. Everyone is chasing highlights and points for the next generation of fans. The National League DH removes pathetic pitcher at-bats and adds a real hitter. The "three-hitter" rule prevents the marathon of pitching changes. The pitch clock forces everyone to be ready for action quickly and constantly.
The fact Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain unsigned, incredibly, just days before Spring Training, is connected. The players (and their agents) are looking for long-term deals such as Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Giancarlo Stanton signed. A-Rod was 25 years old, and got a 10-year, $252M offer. Pujols was 31, and received 10 years for $254M. Stanton nailed down a 13-year, $325M deal at 26. All of these deals seem like relics of a long lost civilization.
Front-office number-crunchers are screaming from rooftops that spending money on 30-something players is ludicrous. It's a league built on velocity, launch angles, home runs and strikeouts. With tight PED testing, players in their 30s often fall off the cliff. Long-term contracts for anyone, including Harper and Machado, are like smoking or real fur. At one time it was considered chic. Now, it's derided as ignorant.
Part of that is the evolution of baseball and the realities of the game. Part of that is a league looking out into the horizon and no longer seeing never-ending riches. As cord-cutting continues and television bundles break apart, baseball's golden goose -- local TV deals -- is on shaky ground. Will smaller-market teams such as the Rays continue to earn $82 million per year as people flow toward Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other digital platforms? If the primary consumer of baseball continues to age out (half of the league's fans are 55-plus), will sponsors be lining up to be part of the league? Will Millennials embrace baseball, or is the sport's audience destined to fracture apart like horse racing or boxing's did decades ago?
Manfred is seeking to modernize the sport immediately and dramatically. Two of its best players can't find long-term deals. The league is rich right now, but has no idea what its long-term future looks like. There likely isn't official collusion as the Players Association has claimed. Owners aren't issuing memos not to sign big-ticket free agents. Instead, this is an overall austerity after the arms race of the last 30 years. They know payrolls skyrocketing well into the future is bad business, because their revenues will not match unless the sport reinvents itself. Even then, there's no guarantee. The league is wondering about its future, so the present isn't as sunny as it used to be. This year's spring training now has a cloudy forecast.
By Damon Amendolara. The “The D.A. Show” airs from 9 AM-12 PM ET.