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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
In other news ... Jon Snow performed at last year's Newsroom's Got Talent charity event
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?