Baseball: Money game turns surreal

Major League baseball starts in style today. Rupert Cornwell on a new comfort zone
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TECHNICALLY, Opening Day takes place under the sign of Aries, the ram with his curling horns. Today, however, a more familiar symbol reigns in baseball's heavens as the 1998 season begins, in America's age- old sporting rite of spring. It is shaped like the letter "S", but bisected by two vertical lines.

The five months since that unforgettable late October night when the Florida Marlins won the World Series in that seventh-game, 12th-innings climax against the Cleveland Indians have provided their human stories - ranging from the star Cuban players who set to sea in a rickety 19ft boat to escape Fidel Castro to the bizarre sacking of Davey Johnson, the manager who compiled 1997's best regular season record, by the capricious Baltimore Orioles. But in this close season, the real news has been money, money and more money.

A fortnight ago, Rupert Murdoch paid $311m (pounds 185m), more than anyone has paid for a baseball franchise, to complete the Los Angeles Dodgers' 20th century journey from Brooklyn's backyard team to arm of a multinational media conglomerate. Then there are the two expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Their onfield prowess is yet unknown, but not their ambitions. The Diamondbacks open tonight against the Colorado Rockies, and the baseball will have to be sensational to match the setting of the brand-new Bank One Ballpark on the edge of downtown Phoenix. At $355m (pounds 197m), it is the most expensive sports arena built in the United States. It is a triumph of air- conditioning over nature, complete with a 517ft retractable plastic roof to ward off those 115F Arizona warm spells, and a swimming pool directly above the right centre-field fence.

Inevitably, Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, home of the Devil Rays, has a job to match this. Still it is the first American ballpark to have a cigar bar, and certainly the first with a fixed roof capable of withstanding 135 mile an hour winds. Now, not even a Category Four hurricane need disturb the stately rhythms of the summer pastime.

The players, too, are setting financial records. So much for the revenue sharing that was supposed to reduce the disparities between rich and poor teams. Four teams have breached the hitherto unimaginable $70m (pounds 42m) mark for total payrolls, led by the Orioles at $74m. The smallest, as usual, belongs to the Montreal Expos, at $16m. In baseball as in life, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Come October, six months and 162 regular season games on, we will know whether the frantic bidding for star players has been worth it. But don't rule out that, in this age of instant sporting gratification, either the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks make the play-offs. It would be a feat since, measured by their payrolls of $40m and $44m, they lag far behind the Orioles, the Atlanta Braves, the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Indians and the Dodgers, one of whom must be odds on to go all the way.

But no longer need expansion franchises struggle for years as cannon fodder for the elite. Blockbuster Video's Wayne Huizenga purchased a team to win the 1997 Series for the Marlins in just their third season. That he sold it off immediately afterwards (the Marlins' financial bottom line was as grim as their exploits on the field were glittering) only proves that romance and baseball's boardrooms never had much in common.

On the field, though, the sport still tugs the heartstrings. Remember Livan Hernandez, the Cuban defector who pitched Florida to glory last year ? His elder brother Orlando (aka "El Duque"), in his prime an even better pitcher, was one of those who took the small boat route across the Florida Straits in 1997, and now wears the Yankee pinstripes.

Or take Dennis Martinez (aka "El Presidente"), the veteran Nicaraguan who has adorned the majors since 1976. At 42, he seemed to have reached the end of the line when he was jettisoned by Seattle last year. But, but during trials with the Braves this spring, he proved there was life in the old arm yet. Martinez has been rewarded with a spot in the Braves' starting rotation, for the past decade the best in baseball, and an opportunity to secure the three wins that would make him the most successful Latin American pitcher in history. And, in a sport which can withstand hurricanes and desert furnaces with equal aplomb, nothing is impossible. "El Presidente" could even end up with a World Series ring.