A baseball season once in doubt kicks off today, as MLB Opening Day games swing into action.
The start of the season was pushed back a week after a 99-day player lockout led to a shortened Spring Training. Seven games are scheduled for Thursday, with the rest of the league scheduled to start their season on Friday.
Here are five storylines to follow as the 2022 Major League Baseball season gets underway:
Lockout ends, but can sport grow its fanbase?
The 2022 MLB season appeared in jeopardy when owners locked out the players in early December amid disagreements over the terms of a new five-year labor agreement.
The sides ultimately reached a deal and the lockout ended last month without any games being cancelled, which was a relief to those worried a prolonged work stoppage would alienate fans.
Instead, fans appear eager to get back to the ballpark. The day the season start date was finalized, online ticket retailer StubHub said they saw ticket sales jump 235%.
While that is good news in the short term, baseball still has to come up with answers to counter its shrinking TV audience and its aging fanbase.
To do so, it will need to attract the next generation of fans by spotlighting emerging talents like Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto and play up team rivalries in the crowded North American sports marketplace.
Can the Braves repeat as champions?
The Atlanta Braves were surprise winners of last year’s World Series, taking the best-of-seven series 4-2 over the Houston Astros despite winning just 88 games in the regular season.
The club lost slugger Freddie Freeman to the Dodgers during the offseason but still have plenty of pop in a lineup that features Acuna, who will look to return in May from a torn right ACL, as well as Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall.
The pitching staff that features Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson got a boost with the addition of closer Kenley Jansen last month.
This Braves squad has no obvious holes and all the pieces it needs to win the NL East and more.
Ohtani back-to-back MVPs?
Los Angeles Angels two-way star Ohtani had one of the most awe-inspiring seasons in baseball history last year as both a hitter and pitcher and went on to be named the unanimous winner of the 2021 AL MVP award.
He earned comparisons to Hall of Famer Babe Ruth as he went 9-2 on the mound while hitting 46 home runs. He graced the cover of Sony’s “MLB The Show 22″ video game.
There is no reason to think he cannot do it again – provided the 27-year-old from Japan can stay healthy.
Ohtani blasted his third home run of Spring Training on Sunday and will be the Opening Day starter for the first time in his MLB career on Thursday against the Astros.
The rulebook has even been changed to reflect his unique talents.
On days that he is pitching, he will also be listed as the designated hitter, meaning he can stay in the game to bat even after he is done on the mound in what has been dubbed the “Shohei Ohtani rule.”
All signs point to Ohtani making even more history this season.
Big names on new teams
Some of the game’s biggest names will be donning fresh uniforms this season and it will be fascinating to see how they mesh in their new environments and when pitted against their former teams.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer signed a three-year, $130 million contract with the Mets and the right hander could face off against his former team the Washington Nationals on Opening Day.
Shortstop Corey Seager signed a massive, 10-year, $325 million contact with the Texas Rangers that saw him leave the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he won the 2020 World Series MVP award.
Seager will be a pillar for the Rangers alongside Marcus Semien, who signed a seven-year, $175 million contract in December to join the Rangers.
Former Brave Freeman will wear Dodger blue and join a team most consider the front-runners to win the title, while the rival San Francisco Giants added former Dodger and Brave Joc Pederson to their lineup.
Players coming back from injury
Nine-time MLB All-Star Mike Trout, who is already considered by many to be one of the game’s all-time greats, is set to return for the Angels after missing most of last season with a torn calf muscle.
If he is fully healthy, the underperforming Angels team could have a real shot in the AL West, where they will look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Standing in the Angels way in the division is the Houston Astros and hard-throwing right hander Justin Verlander, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters (Additions/edits for FISM News by Michael Cardinal)