14 for '14: Baseball is back
On Monday, 26 teams will be in action on Opening Day (a term Major League Baseball is using very loosely these days). Monday is actually the fourth day of competition in the 2014 season. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks played a two-game set in Australia last week dubbed the "Opening Series," and on Sunday night, the Dodgers fell to the Padres on "Opening Night." By the time the Astros and Yankees play their Opening Day game Tuesday, the Dodgers already will have played four regular-season games.
A three-pronged approach to Opening Day isn't the only new twist this season; baseball has undergone quite a few changes since the Red Sox won it all in October. Among them, familiar faces in new places, the end of an era for two of baseball's biggest names and significant changes to the way the game is called. If you've been too busy watching your favorite hoops and hockey teams to keep up with America's pastime, here's a little primer to get you ready for the boys of summer.
1. Replay it again, Sam: After years of debate, Major League Baseball has finally approved the use of expanded instant replay. Each manager will get one challenge through the first six innings -- and another if the first was successful. From the seventh inning on, the umpires will initiate any replays. In both cases, an MLB command center in New York will have the final say on the call.
2. Bye, bye, Bud: After what will be 23 years as baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig will step down after the 2014 season. The 79-year-old Selig said he hopes to visit each of the 30 ballparks this season to say goodbye to fans. A mass email would be faster, and a whole lot cheaper, but Selig admitted in September that he has never sent an email in his life and never will. I give him two years as a retiree before he cracks and starts forwarding everyone golf jokes and politically incorrect political rants.
3. Catch me if you can: In addition to expanded replay, MLB has also changed the rules regarding home plate collisions. The runner may not go out of his way to make contact with the catcher, and the catcher cannot block the plate unless he has the ball. The rule, which the league says will be used "on an experimental basis" in 2014, isn't guaranteed to prevent injury but is guaranteed to result in lengthy time-wasting debates.
4. Jeter's farewell tour: If you thought Mariano Rivera's final season was an emotional ride, just imagine the ceremonies and gift presentations we'll see for Yankees captain Derek Jeter. Points to any team that sends him off with a gift basket.
5. The war on drugs: The owners and the players' union agreed on a revised performance-enhancing-drug agreement that offers stiffer penalties for offenders. Tests will be more frequent, first-time offenders will be banned 80 games (up from 50), a second violation will result in a 162-game suspension (up from 100), and a third violation gets a guy kicked out of the game forever. Any player suspended for a PED violation will be unable to play in the postseason, even if he has returned from suspension before the playoffs.
6. Six new skippers: Six teams will open the season with new managers -- the Nationals, Tigers, Reds, Mariners, Phillies and Cubs. Guy with the toughest gig? It's a toss-up between Brad Ausmus, who has to replace beloved skipper Jim Leyland in Detroit, and Rick Renteria, who's the latest schmo stuck managing a little league-level Cubs team still a year or two away from competing.
7. L.A. live? Starting this year, all Dodgers games will be carried on the team's new regional sports network, SportsNet LA, distributed by Time Warner Cable. As of last weekend, the channel was still unavailable to much of Los Angeles because of stalled negotiations with DirecTV, Charter, FiOS, Cox, Dish and AT&T U-Verse. Luckily for L.A. fans, Sunday's Opening Night game was on ESPN.
8. Lyin' Ryan: After being suspended 65 games last season for PED use, Brewers star and noted liar, liar, pants on fire Ryan Braun will make his regular-season return Monday. He got a taste of heckling at spring training but is sure to hear a lot more from opposing fans when the Brewers take off on their first road trip.
9. Speaking of cheaters: Alex Rodriguez's 162-game suspension begins with the Yankees' season opener Tuesday. No word yet how A-Rod will spend his year off, though he was spotted taking in a Stanford baseball game Friday. Sources I just made up overheard him saying, "You know what I like about these college girls? I get older, they stay the same age."
10. Tanaka time: The Yankees dished out $155 million to beat out several other suitors in the fight for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Expectations are high for the 25-year-old righty, who earned the 2014 James P. Dawson Award, given by the Yankees to their most outstanding rookie in spring training. Tanaka is the crown jewel in an offseason rebuild that follows the Yankees' worst season in over 20 years. No pressure, kid.
11. Puig fatigue: The Dodgers' season is just beginning, but the Yasiel Puig hysteria is in midseason form. The 23-year-old outfielder is thrilling to watch, but constant coverage of his perceived attitude problems could make fans sour on him. Let's hope we see more Puig stats and less Puig commentary going forward.
12. Miggy bank: Two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera just inked an eight-year, $248 million extension with the Tigers, the largest extension in baseball history. Some are defending the deal, some are bemoaning it -- all are envious of it.
13. The Cano show: Former Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano left the Big Apple for Seattle this offseason, accepting a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. Can he live up to his deal, or will the pressure leave him sleepless in Seattle?
14. Root, root, root for the home team: ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" is celebrating its 25th season. Take a look back at a quarter-century of coverage in this photo gallery.