Spring training games have begun, and Major League Baseball is heading into what looms as a pivotal year. There are numerous questions and issues facing the sport, and it will also have the earliest opening day in its history, with all 30 teams playing their first game on March 28, approximately one month from this week. But while the exhibition season is usually a lighthearted and fun time, this year it’s also a period when a lot of soul searching and introspection is occurring within the sport.

The first problem remains the contentious situation between players and owners, one that wasn’t helped by an offseason when a  number of veteran players sat unsigned and waiting for offers that weren’t merely one-year or one year plus an option. The days of multi-year packages being dolled out seem mostly a memory, even with the San Diego Padres signing Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million dollar deal. That took far longer than anyone anticipated, and it wasn’t close to the $400 million yardstick many thought both Machado and Bryce Harper would hit.

Harper remained unsigned at press time, though it has been widely reported a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies is imminent. However there were still problems with determining the amount of time on the contract and its final price, and now it’s anticipated he won’t get what super agent Scott Boras initially claimed he would demand.

The free agency squabble is just one problem. Another is the reluctance of players to accept suggestions from the commissioner’s office regarding steps to speed up the game’s pace. It looks as though a pitch clock, something that’s been in the minor leagues for years, will be  implemented this season without the players’ consent, something the league office has the power to impose. Rob Manfred’s a bit less willing to do some other things like limiting mound visits and unilaterally putting the designated hitter in the National League, though both have been suggested. 

It doesn’t help that ESPN’s plans to reduce the number of baseball studio shows got leaked, nor the fact the sport lost another great multi-sport Black athlete to the NFL in Kyler Murray. Murray’s decision to put his name into the NFL draft and return his bonus money to the Oakland Athletics came even as former two-sport stars Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders both urged him to play baseball. Murray insists it has  always been his dream to be an NFL QB, and that some teams’ concerns about his height and weight don’t frighten him. The Oakland Athletics were even willing to renegotiate his contract and pay him at the major league level, even if he started in the minors. They continue to hold out hope he may someday return to baseball.

Lastly, the league’s acknowledged the necessity for improvement in outreach to minority communities. The lack of African American, and for that matter Latino and Asian managers, general managers, player personnel directors, even scouts, is acute, and something the commissioner’s office publicly says must change. But no one seems to have any ideas about what to do beyond what’s already in place, and sadly these structures and institutions don’t seem to be working as anticipated.

Still, when March 28 arrives, there will be millions of folks around the nation ready and willing to enjoy baseball. Despite all its problems, for those who love it, there’s no other game like it.