Your Guide to the Miracle That Is the 2022 Baseball Season

Shohei Ohtani can do it all. Photo: Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every die-hard baseball fan I’ve talked to over the past fortnight has worn the lopsided, slightly dazed smile of a person who somehow escaped a terrifying car crash unharmed. For most of this winter and spring, Major League Baseball looked doomed. Its labor issues seemed intractable, its leaders completely oblivious to the sport’s fading cultural relevance. It has now been three weeks since owners and the players union agreed to end the lockout, on the absolute last day a deal could have been signed without missing regular-season games. But the shock of having narrowly averted disaster is still palpable. A delayed (or, worse, postponed) season could have been a mortal wound to a sport that is already teetering; now it feels as if fans like me got a last-minute, not entirely deserved phone call from the governor.

The MLB season that gets underway Thursday isn’t exactly on time — opening day was delayed a week, with the games made up through doubleheaders, the filling of open dates, and an extra series added to the end of the season — but it’s close enough. And now that the next round of labor strife is at least five years away, perhaps the sport is set up to thrive in a way it hasn’t for a while. It is flush with charismatic stars, is finally starting to address some of its gameplay issues, and has the sports stage to itself for most of the summer with no Olympics or World Cup (this year’s installment starts in November) to contend with. The question is whether baseball will take advantage of those opportunities. History does not inspire much optimism there.

But for now, there’s baseball, and there’s plenty to be excited about. If you tuned out until a deal was finally reached — an extremely sane thing to do — here’s one man’s glance at the seven major story lines heading into the season.

1. Shohei Ohtani is the best thing going.

The best way to describe what Shohei Ohtani did last season was that he hit like Gary Sheffield and pitched like … Andy Pettitte? Both. At the same time. The league has never seen anything like Ohtani before — for all the comparisons to Ruth, the Sultan of Swat was never a great pitcher and great hitter simultaneously like Ohtani. The sport is understandably smitten. MLB is not only building a lot of its marketing campaign around him (he’s on the cover of the MLB: The Show ’22 video game, and there was really no other choice) but is in fact changing its rules for him. The league put in “the Ohtani rule” this year, which allows starting pitchers to remain in the game as the designated hitter even if they’re subbed out for a reliever. This tweak affects exactly one player. And as Ben Lindbergh at the Ringer points out, he actually could be better this year; if anything, his all-timer of a season in 2021 may have been a statistical underperformance. Any athlete who is doing something completely unprecedented is a health risk, and it would be a massive bummer if Ohtani suffered the injury woes he did in his first couple of years in the majors. But when healthy, there has never, ever been a player like him. He’s unmissable.

2. There are rule changes, and some of them aren’t bad.

The biggest one will likely anger your uncle: The designated hitter is now in both leagues including the National League. This upsets purists but not really anyone else, unless you truly enjoy watching pitchers strike out all the time because that’s what they do. Negotiations also adjusted rules involving service time and arbitration, but only diehards care about those. The only changes you’ll notice are the universal DH, advertisements on uniforms (gross), the new playoff system (there are now six playoff teams in each league; the top two division winners get byes), and the wild new way of resolving a tie in the All-Star Game: a home-run derby (details on this one are still up in the air). Considering that any All-Star Game tie would go past 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast, you’ll surely be grateful for this rule if it becomes necessary.

Oh, and seven-inning doubleheaders are no more. But the “zombie runner” on second base to start extra innings is back. Most old-school baseball fans despise this rule, but players, owners, and managers love it, so it’s going to stick. (For what it’s worth: I like it, too.)

3. The game is steering back into nostalgia, for better or worse.

Remember the Field of Dreams game last year? It was without question the most universally lauded success of the 2021 season, and they’re bringing it back this year.

You’ll see more of that, for better or worse. For all the talk of MLB’s focus on its young players, it will steer into the curve of its primary older-white-guy audience any time it can; expect to see a lot of Kevin Costner. There are also some naturally nostalgic story lines this season. Inner-circle Hall of Famer Albert Pujols is returning to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he played on for the first 11 years of his career, alongside Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, two fellow old-timers finishing out their careers together. The core emotion inspired by baseball will always be some sort of wistfulness brought on by the fuzzy image of a parent and child playing catch. This is what the game is supposed to evoke.

4. The New York teams are full of the usual drama.

It’s always hilarious when Yankee fans grouse that the team hasn’t reached a World Series since 2009 as if this is some sort of global catastrophe. (More than half the league, 18 teams, hasn’t reached the Series since 2009.) But still: The Yankees are the Yankees, and their “struggles,” such as they are, were compounded by the team’s relative inactivity during the off-season. The AL East is the toughest division in baseball, and there’s a nonzero chance the Yankees finish in fourth. Suffice it to say: That won’t go over well.

It’s even worse in Queens. The Mets, thanks to the free spending of owner Steve Cohen (who has poured so much money into the team that MLB instituted a new luxury tax now known as “the Cohen tax”), looked like a world beater just two weeks ago before the team’s star pitchers, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, both went down with injuries. As always: That’s so Mets.

5. This is the sport that will be affected by COVID the most.

There aren’t any new strict protocols or anything; the league has mostly gotten rid of all COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing procedures. But Major League Baseball still can’t control what Canada does. The country is not admitting unvaccinated visitors, which in the NBA was mostly just an issue for Kyrie Irving when the Nets played the Raptors. But MLB has the lowest vaccination rate of any major North American professional sports league, and thanks to Canada’s policy, we’re about to find out exactly who hasn’t been jabbed. (The list appears to include the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, Josh Donaldson, and Anthony Rizzo.) Those players will not be allowed to play road games against the Blue Jays, which is a big problem for AL East teams that make the trip to Toronto multiple times a season. And the Blue Jays are good: They could make the playoffs. If the policy doesn’t change by the fall, a team could head into a postseason series without many of its best players for a very dumb reason.

6. The Dodgers run everything, but they also own the ugliest story.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have replaced the Yankees as baseball’s premier team. They have the highest payroll by far and some of the sport’s biggest superstars from Clayton Kershaw to Mookie Betts to Freddie Freeman. They’re the one team in baseball for whom anything less than a World Series title feels like a failure. They’re also tied up with the league’s ugliest off-field situation, involving pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has been accused of sexual assault. Prosecutors ended up dropping the charges, but MLB has not announced its disciplinary actions against Bauer yet. The Dodgers would probably be perfectly happy to have him (and his $32 million) salary off their hands altogether. Bauer has a way of not helping himself out: He recently announced a lawsuit against The Athletic and writer Molly Knight on his Twitter page and praised NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been accused by 22 women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, for making it through “all the BS and lies.”

7. The future is incredible … if baseball can sell it.

There are so many great young baseball players right now it’s hard to keep track of them: Juan Soto, Fernando Tatís Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., Wander Franco, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Luis Robert — all under 25 years old. There’s as much talent, and charismatic talent at that, as any time I can remember. Can baseball take advantage of it? Can the league make casual fans care? That remains to be seen. But one thing is undeniably true: It’s a helluva lot easier to do now that the lockout is over.

Your Guide to the Miracle That Is the 2022 Baseball Season