Finally, Baseball Basking in an Upbeat Glow

    If we can ignore the absurdity of having two opening days in Australia and one opening night in San Diego before actually having The Real Opening Day, and that the strain of going Down Under may have altered Clayton ($215 Million Arm) Kershaw’s routine enough that he’s now on the disabled list with a swollen upper-back muscle, then, yes, I see only positives as the baseball season begins.

And that is nothing short of stunning, as negativity and baseball usually are a redundancy.

Mike Trout, the game’s best player, averted three annoying years of rampant speculation about his future by signing a six-year, $144.5 million extension with the Angels. In a sport driven by greed, this is beyond refreshing in that the Orange County discount came hours after Miguel Cabrera, who is nine years older and doesn’t come close to Trout as all-around force, signed a deal that could net him $352 million with vesting. Instead of starting the clock on possibly becoming the game’s first Half-Billion-Dollar Player in 2017, Trout is delaying the payoff and taking less for now because, first, he’s happy, saying, “I love it here. I love the weather, my coaches, my teammates. (Angels Owner) Arte (Moreno) goes out and gets players. He wants to win. Our plan is to win. If we don’t win, it’s not good.”

And, second, he’s smart. “When the owner puts up these big numbers like $33 million, it’s hard to turn down,” said Trout, referring to the escalation of annual dollars in his final three seasons. “You never know what could happen. You could get hurt during the season. I’m happy, man. With the security it’s given me and my family, it’s unbelievable.”

What’s doubly unbelievable is that Trout, whose skills are so extraordinary that he seems to have been sent here from an alternate universe, never has been remotely linked to performance-enhancing drugs. While we’ve learned never to be too optimistic about flushing PEDs entirely out of the baseball bloodstream, it’s good news when drug rules are toughened. Late last week, MLB and the players’ association announced that a first violation will cost a player 80 games, up from 50, and that a second violation will cost him a full season of 162 games, up from 162. A third strike? The player is banned for life.

A stiffer deterrent makes it somewhat easier to accept that Ryan Braun, Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz and others nailed in the Biogenesis scandal are back in uniform, with Braun still owed $117 million by the Brewers. “Our hope here is that the adjustments we’ve made do inevitably get that number (of suspended players) to zero,” said new union chief Tony Clark. “In the event that that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, we’ll re-evaluate and move forward from there. But as I sit here, I am hopeful that players make the right decisions that are best for them, for their careers and for the integrity of the game.”

Said Bud Selig, forever to be known as The Steroids Commissioner: “I’m not telling you things are perfect, but, boy, they’ve come a long way.’’

While the rest of society moves at warp speed, Selig still is Mr. Magoo, puttering down the road. But at least important things finally are getting done as he prepares to leave office at year’s end. Expanded video replay finally is upon us, giving baseball a chance to fix dreadful umpiring calls that have marred postseasons and cost poor Armando Galarraga a perfect game. The concern is that Major League Baseball hasn’t performed enough test runs with the full array of equipment and will drag out games beyond their current three-hour average. It’s nice they’re trying to get the calls right, after lagging behind other sports and their high-tech replay systems for years.

“I’m happy for the managers,” said MLB executive Joe Torre, the former big-league skipper who is in charge of the system.

“Maybe it will keep them from having one or two more sleepless nights if they are able to grab one and overturn it.” Catchers also will rest easier now that base runners can’t target and abuse them like blocking dummies, but the new rule won’t stop all collisions, which won’t allay fears that careers could be ruined. Know how important Buster Posey is to the sport? He is very lucky not to be in wheelchair today.

Yes, the season continues to stretch and strain for much too long, defying the fast pace of the 21st century. Fortunately, a sport that also could use a 20-second pitch clock — it never will happen because owners would lose too much revenue with shortened games — is blessed with a stable of compelling, electrifying players. Gate attractions are numerous — Trout, Cabrera, Bryce Harper, the soap opera that is Yasiel Puig — and the only worry is that injuries are becoming too daunting a factor, especially on the pitcher’s mound. Add Kershaw and Yu Darvish to the list of must-monitor situations after injuries derailed the soaring career path of Matt Harvey, the toast of New York last summer, and ended the seasons of standouts Patrick Corbin in Arizona, Jarrod Parker in Oakland and Kris Medlen in Atlanta. Baseball’s two most dreaded words are Tommy and John, as in reconstructive surgery.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Tommy John said. “Tommy John surgery will grow exponentially in the next 50 years.”

The Dodgers have replaced the Yankees as the biggest spenders, with an Opening Day payroll of $235 million capable of approaching $300 million in a few months. Once considered uneatable as the franchise of Jackie Robinson, Vin Scully’s golden voice and enduringly endearing Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers and their nameless, faceless owners, Guggenheim Baseball, are starting to irritate many of us. In a TV deal being watched by the entire entertainment industry, Time Warner Cable is paying the team more than $8 billion as the producer and distributor of an exclusive Dodgers network. Problem is, thanks to disputes between Time Warner and other distributors, 70 percent of the vast southern California market couldn’t see the team open the season in Australia. At what point do fans, regardless of strong team allegiances, just say screw it and stop paying attention?

They’re missing great theater — the pressure on a money-bloated team to win a World Series amid the daily controversial swirl of Puig, the only player who can win a game and tick off his manager in the same afternoon. As it was, Puig showed up to camp more than 25 pounds heavier. Then, Down Under, he made base running blunders and left a game with a mysterious injury after striking out, offsetting his offensive exploits. Long tired of Puig’s act, manager Don Mattingly suggested Puig is a drama queen about injuries, saying, “He grabs something every time he takes a swing and misses. Shoulder yesterday, back today. So I’m not sure if they’re going to get tests on him or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe. I’m not quite sure what we’ll do. We may not do anything. I’m not sure.”

Turns out Puig was fine, of course. Never has Hollywood been a more apt address for a baseball player. He is capable of anything, from a Triple Crown to 30 days in rehab.

The Red Sox can’t possibly match their magic of a year ago, when they grapsed a civic mission — help New England heal after the Boston Marathon bombings — and win their third World Series in 10 years. Who wins this year? There is growing sentiment for Tampa Bay, as the AL East champ and maybe beyond, which would be an antithetical triumph for a team with a $70 million payroll. In the age of advanced analytics, when small-revenue operations must be WHIP-smart, the Rays have the power rotation, the shrewd manager and the strategically built lineup to reach the Series. Their gruesome ballpark somehow is not an impediment to big success, unlike the mess in Oakland, where sewage again reared its stench over the weekend.

Detroit has retooled for another American League run after so many close October calls, replacing old-school character Jim Leyland with a new-age (see Mike Matheny) manager, Brad Ausmus, while dumping often-useless Prince Fielder for grittier Ian Kinsler. But losing shortstop Jose Iglesias for the season hurts, as does the inability to sign pitcher Max Scherzer to a long-term deal. Baltimore has the monster bats to surprise. Billy Beane and the A’s are beyond surprising us and again will one-up the Angels, who may have Trout but need much better production and health from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton while praying that their rotation won’t let them down again. Texas has rotation problems and injury issues, as usual, and don’t mention the Yankees when they’ve spent more than a half-billion dollars and have no idea if any of their signees, including Masahiro Tanaka, will be worth the splurge. Derek Jeter’s final game will be in the regular season, sadly, in Boston, where the Red Sox have trimmed the ZZ Top bush from their beards but have left some growth, some players more than others.

“I’ve always had some scruff on my face. So I’m just going to keep it long, but it’s definitely trimmed up from last year,’’ Mike Napoli said. “Some of the wives were getting sick of all that growth. But I’m a single guy. I can do what I want.”

If the Dodgers flame out in the National League, expect The Cardinal Way to continue its cerebral mastery. Remember Michael Wacha? He’s only part of a stellar rotation. Much is expected of the Washington Nationals and their new manager, Matt Williams, but Harper must stop crashing into walls and chasing down umpires, and Stephen Strasburg has to be a reliable and healthy ace. Expect more from the streamlined Giants than the injury-plagued Braves, the rotation-suspect Pirates and the Reds, who have no idea what they’re getting when Aroldis Chapman returns in June with staples in his head, courtesy of a line drive that beaned him. Paging the commissioner. Please have safety experts work with engineers to develop a padded cap that isn’t so cumbersome that a pitcher can’t focus on his work. Otherwise, someone is going to die.

In the best news of all, 2014 is Selig’s final season. If his mandate was to make loads of money for the owners, he has succeeded wildly — baseball is approaching NFL-level revenues, with $9 billion the target this season. “I don’t know that we’ll make that this year, but we may,” Selig said. “How high can it go? If this sport continues to make the progress at all levels, international and everything else, it can go a lot higher.”

But in the process of money-squeezing, the sport has faded as an American spectacle. If it still was the national pastime when Selig took over in 1992, baseball now is the fourth sport in popularity and buzz, behind the NFL, college football and the NBA. Think not? For all the charismatic players in the game, name one who’s regularly featured in national ad campaigns. I see NBA players every day. Occasionally, I’ll see Mike Trout in a Subway commercial for three or four seconds, with the roundish Fox football insider, Jay Glazer.

The marketing plan must rev up when the new commissioner arrives. There is much to trumpet about baseball now. For the first time in eons, we are not barraged by PEDs or other ills. The focus is on the ballgame, by golly, the ballgame.