Baseball: Soaring salaries pile on pressure

After the Year of the Bat, hopes are high for the new baseball season.

IT MAY be that 1998 was the best year for baseball this decade, and it may be that afterwards everything is an anti-climax. But don't count on it. The sport proved once again last year that it has the power to surprise.

In a sport that is obsessed with statistics, the 1999 season could well be another one for the history books. It will doubtless see more records challenged and broken, though it seems difficult to believe that Mark McGwire's home-run record can be surpassed. And baseball is breaking records of another kind - for money - as the salaries keep spiralling upwards with the Dow Jones Index. That puts tremendous pressure on the sport's big names to perform.

The opening game of this season was due to be played in Mexico last night, the first time it has been held outside the US and Canada. The San Diego Padres were squaring up to the Colorado Rockies in Monterrey, with the season beginning in earnest today.

The expectations ahead of that first pitch are pretty high. The fans were treated to a magnificent spectacle in 1998, as McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased each other towards, through and then beyond the home-run record. If the game was still under something of a cloud from the 1994 players' strike, then the Year of the Bat changed all that: it brought back the sense of wonder, history and personal achievement that is so vital for baseball to cast its magic on a national audience.

While the batters took the headlines last year, though, it is pitchers who win games, and that was where all of the most interesting pre-season trading centred. So, sadly, did the injury reports, with pitchers forced to work harder and faster as they faced tougher and stronger batters. Kerry Wood, the National League rookie of the year, had one of the best debuts ever for the Chicago Cubs last year but is out for at least two months for ligament replacement surgery, with strong doubts about the future of his career.

The one near-certainty this year is that the New York Yankees, World Series winners last year and perhaps the greatest team the sport has ever seen, will be there when the playoffs start. They made the most interesting trade of the winter. Though it meant the loss of David "Boomer" Wells, the pugnacious and much-loved pitcher who stunned the fans with a perfect game last year, the other side of that trade was Roger Clemens, one of the best starting pitchers around.

The only competitive slot in the American League East is, as ever, for second place, with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles both in with a chance. The AL Central seems likely to be dominated again by the Cleveland Indians, as it has been for four years, but the AL West is harder to call: either the Anaheim Angels or the Texas Rangers could prevail.

The other team that had an intriguing trading time over the winter was the LA Dodgers, Rupert Murdoch's finest. Despite all the cash spent on them, they disappointed last year. Now, they have pitcher Kevin Brown, the game's first $100m (pounds 62m) man. He should reinvigorate the team and give them a sharper focus. Though he is not, by all accounts, the kind of guy who brings cheer and good humour to the clubhouse (he allegedly smashed a toilet to pieces after someone flushed it and made his shower go cold), he is a game winner, and the Dodgers look most likely to emerge as champions from the National League.

They will have a tougher time than the Yankees, though. The Atlanta Braves will dominate the NL East with Greg Maddux, probably the strongest pitcher in the game; the NL Central is a toss-up, but the Houston Astros seem most likely to come through.

The money race and the proliferation of talent are creating a two-tier game, as some teams like the Yankees outperform every week, while others at the bottom end of the table - short of cash, short of decent players and short of fans - stumble towards extinction or a move.

That is one reason why there is such consensus among most commentators about the end results for all but the American League West and the National League Central. Montreal's Expos, the worst off in the league financially, may well be on their way south to Washington, a city that has lacked its own team since 1971 when the Senators departed.

And the fans are paying for the higher salaries. Ticket prices have gone up 10 per cent at a time when US inflation is virtually non-existent, with the cost of admittance to the field of dreams now nudging $15 (for which you can, in a Washington bar, buy a pack of cigarettes, a beer and a hamburger with fries).

At Fenway park, the Red Sox are asking $24. Though this is cheaper than tickets for American football, hockey or basketball, it is closing on them, which is bad news for a game that is self-consciously democratic. But while the balls are soaring into cloudless skies at St Louis and Chicago, few will complain.

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