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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan: 2023 MLB season begins with new rules, old narratives and the same opening-day dreams

After the success of the World Baseball Classic, Major League Baseball begins its regular season Thursday at a ballpark near you.

It’s a little like having dessert before a full-course dinner, knowing you’ll be full by the end but not caring a bit because it tasted so good.

If MLB could bottle the feeling the WBC created and repackage it in October, when competition from the NFL typically hurts its postseason ratings, it would do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately baseball will have to count on getting a World Series matchup as delicious as the championship game between the United States and Japan.

The 2023 season figures to be an important one for MLB, which instituted several rule changes in an effort to build a better relationship with younger fans allegedly turned off by long games with limited action between pitches. The balance between catering to kids raised on video games and older fans who understand the complex pitcher-hitter dynamic was difficult to reach, but the line was drawn and the millennials and Gen Zers won.

Move along, boomers, and take your old-school paper ticket stubs with you.

The biggest change was the introduction of a pitch timer, officially killing the dreamy narrative of baseball as “the game without a clock.” The bases are bigger, pickoff moves were limited to create more action on the bases. The new narrative is a return to the 1980s, with more speed and athleticism but without the cocaine scandals.

Spring training not only was a chance for players to get accustomed to the changes but for baseball announcers and writers to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining them, which we did ad nauseum. (Mea culpa.)

MLB announced tweaks to the new rules last week and included a veiled threat against batboys and batgirls, who now will be evaluated and perhaps replaced if they’re tardy enough in retrieving said bats. The innocent days of grade-school kids winning a day in the dugout are over. Mr. Potter is overseeing the show now.

The obvious solution to a non-problem MLB felt the need to address is to have the player on deck retrieve the bat at the plate and toss it toward the dugout. But no doubt the MLB Players Association would file a grievance over harsh working conditions, perhaps leading to another work stoppage.

While the popularity of the sport might have waned over the years in comparison with the NFL, owning a baseball team remains a most profitable endeavor. According to Forbes, the average value of a team is up 12% this year to $2.32 billion, while MLB revenue increased 7.8% to an all-time high of $10.3 billion.

It’s always a good time to be a billionaire, no matter what team or what era. The clock never stops on making money.

The Cubs are worth $4.1 billion, fourth-highest in baseball, Forbes stated, only three years after Chairman Tom Ricketts pointed to the “biblical losses” being incurred by teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ricketts family bought the team in 2009 for $900 million after Tribune Co. purchased the Cubs and Wrigley Field in 1981 for $20 million, back when being lovable losers was a way of life and you could buy a bleacher seat and a couple of beers without taking out a loan.

The Cubs have built a sportsbook at the Friendly Confines that’s scheduled to open this season and create another revenue stream for the team, making it even more valuable. They also have announced the creation of a trophy room at the ballpark, which will display the one trophy they’ve won in the last 114 years.

The White Sox ranked No. 15 on Forbes’ list at $2.05 billion, a 16% increase over the previous year. The Sox have won only one World Series since Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his partners took control in 1981 and are coming off a season that general manager Rick Hahn said “has been described to me at times as depressing, disgust, frustration (and) shock.”

But Reinsdorf can’t be too depressed or disgusted if the Sox’s value continues to grow at that rate. The lack of spending by the Sox is why one fan group calling itself “Disgruntled Fans” bought billboard space around Sox Park and plastered it with the message “Sell the Team, Jerry” on the sides of buildings. It might be a futile gesture, but at least they still care.

The Sox have a new manager in Pedro Grifol, new “View Bars” in the upper deck and allegedly a new attitude after some players admitted to not being a “family” in 2022. But the most important news was they’ll still have the same great food at the ballpark, which might be as important to drawing fans as the team’s success.

Like every team on opening day, the Cubs and Sox believe this will be a year when everything falls into place and the magic lasts well into October. Whether that optimism is warranted is in the eye of the beholder.

But rest assured it shouldn’t be as difficult to watch as last year for fans of either Chicago team.

Both have made upgrades at positions that needed help. Both play in mediocre divisions. Both have rosters filled with players with something to prove.

And the best part of opening day in Chicago is knowing games will be played on the North Side or South Side almost every day for the next six months.

A smorgasbord of baseball awaits.

What could be better than that?

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