Big League Stew - MLB

As the decade winds down to its final days, Big League Stew is reflecting on the biggest baseball moments of the 2000s. Next up are baseball's top stories, a curious and seemingly contradictory mix of steroid-related headlines and unparalleled financial growth.

10. Ballpark boom continues, increasing team revenues and fan luxuries

The new ballpark craze that was spurred by Camden Yards in the early '90s also dominated the 2000s as 12 different teams built and moved into brand-spankin' new digs. Minneapolis and Miami also approved new homes for the Twins and Marlins while older places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field received "modern" updates designed to produce more revenue. (Major changes and renovations were also made at Dodger Stadium, U.S. Cellular Field and Kauffman Stadium. The A's and Rays were unable to move forward with new plans.)

The boom came with its share of both good and bad. On the plus side, most cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums bit the dust and were replaced by picturesque structures with good sightlines, gourmet concessions and a throwback feel. Baseball set attendance records in every year from 2004 to 2007 and we saw the end of baseball played in the Metrodome.

On the minus side, the average cost of one game for a family of four rose from $131.83 in 2000 to $196.89 to 2009 (according to Team Marketing Report) and a perfectly good stadium in the Bronx was replaced with an overpriced wind-tunnel monstrosity containing seats costing more than the average mortgage payment. In-park features like Detroit's Ferris wheel and Houston's outfield train were decried as needless distractions by the game's purists.

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9. Computers and the Internets bring fans closer to the game

Great baseball discussion was already taking place across the Internet on message boards and in chat rooms, but new technology in the 2000s totally changed how we view and consume baseball games. Team-specific blogs brought together the similarly obsessed (no matter the location), information spread faster through venues like Twitter and developments like Pitch f/x brought us to a new level of understanding about the game.

The league, meanwhile, created Major League Baseball Advanced Media in June 2000 and the league's Internet arm not only became a major money maker, but a vanguard and leader among sports websites. The ability to watch any game online via MLB.TV was a godsend for displaced baseball fans across the country.

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8. The very public and spectacular fall of Roger Clemens(notes)

Not many ballplayers have ever experienced higher highs or lower lows than Roger Clemens did in the 2000s. The Rocket added 107 victories to his record (passing 300 in the process), pitched in three four World Series (winning one), won two Cy Young awards and enjoyed the status of being a no-doubt shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

Then the Mitchell Report came out in late 2007 and Clemens was the highest-profile name contained within. The flamethrowing right-hander spent the next few months appearing on "60 Minutes," denying steroid use under oath in front of a Congressional committee and dodging reports he had an affair with an underaged Mindy McCready. Despite his efforts to save his image, the damage was done. From coronation to country song in the span of just a few months, Clemens' fall was the most public of any of the decade's disgraced legends. 

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7. Ichiro(notes) and others increase baseball's profile across the globe

Ichiro attracted an unbelievable amount of attention in 2001 when he joined the Mariners and became the first Japanese position player to play regularly in Major League Baseball. He backed it up by being named MVP and ROY in the American League and then put together a decade that should make him the first Japanese player to be inducted into Cooperstown.

Other Japanese position players like Hideki Matsui(notes) followed Ichiro's lead, but baseball's growing globalization wasn't limited only to Asian players. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela both asserted their baseball prowess and Ozzie Guillen became the first Latin-born manager to win a World Series. Justin Morneau(notes), meanwhile, became the first Canadian to win the American League MVP. The widespread success of international players and overseas interest paved the way for the World Baseball Classic, staged in both 2006 and 2009. 

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6. Billy Beane and "Moneyball" expand baseball's mind

When it was first released in 2003, Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" seemed like reading the blueprint for finding the weak spot in the Death Star. Detailing the adventures of Oakland GM Billy Beane as he exploited market inefficiencies in a game that had become obsessed with steroid-inflated home run numbers, Lewis' book helped legitimize sabermetrics to the general public while also sparking a million "stats vs. scouts" fights.

The book's impact doesn't seem as severe six years later — Oakland hasn't won a division title since 2006 and everyone not named Dusty Baker has seemingly caught up to the curve — but it still enlightened a large segment that previously bristled at the mere mention of scary topics like on-base and slugging percentage.  

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5. 11th hour agreement kills strike possibility in 2002

The year was 2002. Sean Paul was ruling the charts, Tobey Maguire was everyone's favorite superhero and baseball looked like it was barreling toward an unavoidable strike that would send America's favorite pastime off a cliff of greed and down toward a messy death.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the sport's self-destruction. Wishing to avoid the crippling consequences of the 1994 stoppage, Major League Baseball and the players' union reached an 11th-hour agreement on their labor contract. The deal ended the threat of contraction, introduced random drug testing, increased revenue sharing and implemented a luxury tax. The agreement was basically an admission on just how fat and happy both sides had become, but the mutual sparing of the golden calf meant that baseball wouldn't be forced to cancel its second World Series in less than 10 years.    

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4. A-Rod's $252 million contract paves way for a decade of rich contracts

When Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Scott Boras talked Texas owner Tom Hicks into a 10-year, $252 million contract at the end of 2000 — despite having no other serious bidders — everyone braced for the next apocalyptic contract that would knock the then-shortstop from his lofty and luxurious perch as baseball's highest paid player.

In a strange twist, it would take A-Rod opting out of the contract in 2007 to top the number, but that doesn't mean his first deal didn't set the tone for scores of players becoming wealthier than entire nations. Eighteen players would sign contracts of $100 million or more during the 2000s, including the appreciative trio of Barry Zito(notes), Vernon Wells(notes) and Mike Hampton(notes).  

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3. The Red Sox monster awakens in New England with curse-busting win

It's now hard to remember a time when Boston was the East Coast's version of the little engine that couldn't, and freed New Englanders have a dominant decade from the Red Sox to thank for that. The 2004 team won its first World Series title in 86 years with a memorable ALCS comeback against the Yankees and a sweep over the Cardinals while the 2007 squad added to the title kitty with an ALCS comeback against Cleveland and a sweep of Colorado.

Once branded as the perpetual AL East bridesmaids, the Red Sox were rejuvenated under new leadership and now stand on equal footing with the Yankees in the eyes of many. Steroid allegations and ESPN overexposure changed the perception of Boston as an underdog, but that transformation was a reminder that everything comes at a cost.

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2. Barry Bonds(notes) breaks home run records in the shadows

The son of a pro ballplayer growing up to break both the single-season and career home run record in his hometown should have been one of the brightest stories in baseball history.

But thanks to Barry Bonds it was one of the darkest. Instead of being amazed by expanding home run totals, we were instead amazed by Bonds' expanding head and the never-ending flow of news containing items about BALCO, Greg Anderson and the cream and clear sucked the fun out of Nos. 73 and 756. There's no denying that Bonds was already one of history's greatest players, but his egotistical need for the adulation surrounding Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa(notes) left baseball with a stain that won't easily wash out.  

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1. Baseball's sluggers go to Washington in 2005

If the late '90s was when baseball used its might to battle the after-effects of the strike, the 2000s was when the power bill came due. Thousands of steroids-related headlines were the cost, but the decade's lasting memory will be that of baseball's sluggers climbing Capitol Hill only to clam up like secrecy-sworn Mafia members. No one will soon forget Sammy Sosa's sudden ignorance of the English language, Mark McGwire's preference to not talk about the past and Rafael Palmeiro's guarantee that he never used steroids.

Though we may one day view the 2005 Congressional sessions as the turning point in cleaning up the game, the scandal's short-term effects have altered the legacies of those involved, made fans question everything they see (including the performance of clean and honest players) and left baseball with a public relations nightmare it will fight for the forseeable future. MLB would have preferred that a different story top the decade's best, but this is the bed the league made by turning a blind eye toward PED use a few years earlier.

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