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Thursdays of Future Present

It was sometime after nine o’clock in the morning Thursday. Seattle and Oakland were playing the second game of the regular season in Tokyo. The date was March 21. The year was 2019. Ichiro Suzuki was being celebrated for concluding a career that spanned two continents and encompassed nearly 4,400 hits. I was watching it live on cable television, but because I found the commentary there grating, I muted the sound and opted for the Seattle radio broadcast, available to me via subscription on my mobile device.

Within a couple of hours I learned my baseball team of fifty years, the New York Mets, planned to acknowledge the golden anniversary of its first championship by renaming one of the thoroughfares bordering its ballpark after Tom Seaver [1], my baseball hero of fifty years. Tom, 74, is sidelined from the spotlight as he endures the effects of dementia, thus he won’t be on hand for this summer’s ceremonial transformation of 126th Street into Seaver Way or whatever it winds up being called. In Port St. Lucie, three of Seaver’s teammates from 1969 — Ron Swoboda, 73; Wayne Garrett, 71; and Jerry Grote, 76 — pulled on Mets uniforms and shared for media outlets their fond recollections of the pitcher eternally known to all who cheered him as The Franchise, the Mets’ greatest player ever. When those Mets were en route to winning the World Series, Time, the magazine, referred to them as Baseball’s Wunderkinder. A half-century later, time, the fact of life, has all of those ’69 Mets still with us past 70.

The day before the Mets announced Seaver at last rated a street (and finally [2] a statue), the Los Angeles Angels’ approximation of The Franchise, Mike Trout, had just agreed to a twelve-year contract valued at $430 million, a record for professional sports. In the wake of Trout’s inarguably lucrative decision to stay an Angel for the rest of his career, other superstars lined up to sign fairly gaudy extensions with their current teams: Paul Goldschmidt of the Cardinals, Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander of the Astros, Blake Snell of the Rays, Chris Sale of the Red Sox. The money was mind-boggling on the surface (maybe less so for young Snell and the perennially penurious Rays), yet, according to those who’ve done the math, inadequate when calculated within the context of the individuals’ talents and the industry’s resources.

The two best free agents of the preceding offseason (two of the best ever when age and potential are factored in), Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, also inked enormous deals, they with new teams, but only after entertaining barely a handful of suitors apiece amid an unexpectedly lengthy wait for resolution. The lack of a rush toward their estimable impact was widely taken to infer something akin to collusion was placing its thumb on the market scale. Other free agents of distinction, most notably Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, landed in the last week of Spring Training without an employer. The services of other players not on their level, yet certainly not bad, went wanting through the winter. Free agency was no longer seen as a star player’s automatic ticket to riches, thus the burst of bountiful extensions agreed to by those who don’t want to test the efficacy of shopping one’s services to would-be bidders uniformly gone paddle-shy.

On the eve of its 150th anniversary as a professional endeavor, baseball as a whole attempted to balance its contradictions. Trout was universally hailed as the best of his generation, though also widely considered obscure in comparison to the megawatt celebrities atop other sports. Teams continued to rake in fortunes from their regional television arrangements while metrics measuring the National Pastime’s popularity indicated its following wasn’t what it used to be. Minor leaguers — among them the Trouts, Harpers and Machados of tomorrow — were compensated as little as their current status would allow, the debuts of the most promising among them tactically delayed to sap their bargaining power for as long as legally possible. Judicious juggling of data and payroll made permanent contenders out of some ballclubs while providing a handy excuse to others that immediately aspiring to compete for a pennant wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.

To address areas where the game’s pace and personalities lagged, new rules were either in the process of implementation or negotiation. On the table if not the books as 2019 took shape: a larger roster most of the season; a smaller than usual roster toward its end; a trade deadline that sorted out personnel sooner; an insistence that, for the most part, pitchers pitch to at least three batters per appearance; a pitch clock to assure all pitches are thrown in a timely manner; an All-Star Election Day to elevate excitement; a million bucks awarded to the winner of the Home Run Derby to magnify glamour; further regulation of mound visits to keep innings rolling; proliferation of the designated hitter, regardless of league, to dumb down strategy.

Some of it was jarring. Some of it seemed evolutionary. We are constantly surprised by adjustments to the game, then we get used to them, grudgingly or otherwise. During the preceding decade, instant replay review took effect, making it possible to overturn an umpire’s obviously errant call. Collisions between runner and catcher at home plate, forever stitched within the fabric of the hard-fought game, were mostly eliminated. Sliding into second base was monitored as it never had been before. Intentional walks didn’t necessitate the throwing of four balls. Battles for the Wild Card were judged so compelling that their quantity was doubled. Terms like exit velocity, launch angle and spin rate — all of them tripping off the tongues of analytically inclined decisionmaking executives — infiltrated the lexicon to a point where none of it sounded any more foreign than the Major League Baseball season beginning in March in Asia. That wasn’t really foreign, either. The Seattle-Oakland series in Tokyo was the fifth of its kind since 2000. The 2014 season commenced in Australia; the 2019 campaign would include a whistlestop to England.

As Ichiro was tipping his cap across the International Date Line and his Mariners were taking two from the Athletics, the rest of baseball was winding down the extended rites of Spring Training (underway since roughly Lincoln’s birthday), preparing to get going for keeps a week later, on March 28. Opening Day used to be a staple of early to middle April, but that custom had faded over the past couple of decades. Same for the notion that the year necessarily begin on a Monday in Cincinnati, then everywhere else the next day. Give or take some bundling up where necessary, Opening Day 2019, in the tradition of its predecessors, figured to be toasted in every city as a harbinger of sunny days ahead and for rekindling warm feelings we never leave behind. This ritual of baseball loomed as completely familiar and utterly welcome to any fan of any team of any tenure.

Somehow, though, between 9 and 10 AM on March 21, with a regular-season ballgame transmitted to me from half a world away…and my childhood idol all but certain to be visible to me again only through memory and tribute…I realized I was living in a baseball future I wouldn’t have envisioned during my lifetime stay in a baseball present that inevitably became the baseball past. I’m not bemoaning it arrived. It’s been arriving continually for as long as I can remember. Usually I don’t notice it. On Thursday I did.