The 2000s, the first decade of the 21st century, was marked by record earnings and attendance in Major League Baseball in spite of the peak of the steroids scandal, and tremendous growth in international baseball.
Developments on the Field
On the field, the decade was characterized by the home run: both the single-season and career records for home runs were set by Barry Bonds, the first with 73 in 2001 - erasing Mark McGwire's mark set three years earlier - and the latter in 2007, surpassing Hank Aaron's career total. Bonds ended the decade with 762 home runs, his career apparently over although he never officially announced his retirement. He was the leading character in the decade's ongoing steroids scandal because of his role in the BALCO affair, a position that caused the celebrations around his achievements on the field to be relatively subdued. He was not the only major star tainted by the scandal: McGwire, his main rival Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens were only the most prominent players who saw their reputations tarnished by their association with performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids and human growth hormone. The Mitchell Report, issued in December 2007, named names and brought the issue fully into the open, prompting MLB to adopt tough policies against PEDs after turning a blind eye to the problem for over two decades. Still, in 2009, two more prominent players were caught in the turmoil, Manny Ramirez suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a masking agent, and Alex Rodriguez who was forced to admit to taking steroids earlier in the decade.
The 2000s were marked by the fierce competition between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, who were the glamour teams of the decade. The Yankees won the World Series in 2000 and 2009, losing twice in intervening years, while spending madly all decade to remain on top. The Red Sox ended their 86-year championship drought in 2004 and added another title in 2007, and while even they couldn't match the Bronx Bombers' spending dollar-for-dollar, they were the only team giving them a run for the title. The rivalry between the two teams culminated during the epic 2003 and 2004 American League Championship Series, which provided fans with some of the best baseball of the decade.
Apart from the two powerhouses, competition was quite even. 23 of the 30 teams played in the postseason at least once during the decade and 6 other teams won World Series, including the Chicago White Sox who in 2005 ended a championship drought dating back to 1917. Other great series of the decade included the 2001 and 2002 World Series, both thrilling seven-game affairs, and the 2006 NLCS between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals. Another thrilling moment was the Colorado Rockies' incredible run to the 2007 World Series, during which they won 21 of 22 games before being swept by the Red Sox.
In addition to the prominence of the home run, the game on the field saw greater emphasis on drawing walks - the "take and rake" approach often associated with the Moneyball front-office philosophy. There was also greater reliance on specialist relief pitchers, with closers rarely exceeding one inning of work and racking up tremendous save totals as a result - Francisco Rodriguez set a record with 62 in 2008 - and bullpens bloated to 7 or 8 members, including 2 LOOGYs, a 7th-inning and an 8th-inning set-up man, and other sundry specialists on most pitching staffs. The shutout and the complete game were threatened species, as was the doubleheader, but the stolen base, also out of favor for a long time, began to make a comeback towards the end of the decade, as did defensive specialists.
The great stars of the decade included the afforementioned Bonds, Clemens Rodriguez and Ramirez, but also Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Ryan Howard, Curt Schilling, Mariano Rivera and Johan Santana. Ichiro Suzuki set a number of records for hits, including the single-season record with 262 in 2004. Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson all became members of the 300 win club during the decade and Trevor Hoffman and Rivera becoming the first two pitchers to reach 500 saves; as the decade ended, Hoffman was the career leader in the category. New members of the 3000 hit club included Cal Ripken Jr., Rickey Henderson, Palmeiro and Craig Biggio, while Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Palmeiro, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Frank Thomas and Gary Sheffield all passed 500 homers and Fred McGriff fell just seven shy of the mark when he retired.
The rules of baseball were quite stable during the decade. The only developments were linked to the introduction of certain technologies. The Questec system, an automated system to recognize balls and strikes, was introduced in certain ballparks in 2003, not to make calls directly but to provide an "objective" system to help determine whether certain umpires' strike zones differed significantly from the norm. Another technological development was the use of instant replay, introduced late in 2008 to assist umpires in making decisions on whether a fly ball that cleared the fence was a home run, a fair ball in play or a foul ball. The exception to this stability came in international baseball, where the IBAF introduced a rule to shorten extra-inning games, in which teams would begin innings after the 10th with a runner already on base; the rule was the subject of much controversy when used in the 2008 Olympics. However, in December 2009, Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation a committee to propose potential rule changes, with the aim of improving or speeding up the game.
While the game played on the field was stable, the decade saw a huge boom in the off-field analysis of the action. This was largely a grass roots movement, based on fantasy baseball and rotisserie league players seeking information that could give them an edge in evaluating players, as well as freelance sabermetricians finding a wider audience for their advanced statistical formulas through the creation of blogs and discussion forums on the internet. This prompted a reaction from some quarters - newspaper journalists, mainly - who deplored, as the cliché went, the "musings of persons who still live in their parents' basements and never watch a game". By the end of the decade, the statistical approach to the game had become quite mainstream, with the Boston Red Sox hiring the most famous researcher in the field, Bill James, to assist them with personnel decisions. At the same time, the retreat of the daily newspaper industry in North America meant that traditional sportswriters were becoming fewer and fewer, replaced by internet writers and bloggers. The BBWAA recognized the change, accepting some of the most prominent names in the field, such as Rob Neyer and Keith Law, as full-fledged members.
The Financial environment
In spite of the scandal and much gnashing of teeth in the media about how baseball had lost its innocence, the decade was characterized by great improvements in the sport's financial situation, an ironic result given it began with the threat of contraction barely averted in January 2002, and a potential strike stopped with last-minute negotiations in August of that year. Those negotiations proved to be a turning point for baseball: with the inception of partial revenue sharing, greater television revenues for most teams with the development of regional cable networks, and a new and significant revenue stream generated by the internet and mlb.com, all teams saw their financial situation improve remarkably by the end of the decade, and meant that the economic downturn that swept over the United States late in 2008 did not threaten any franchise's survival, although some owners were personally affected by the turmoil.
The changes came too late to save the Montreal Expos however. They were taken over by Major League Baseball late in 2001, with the threat of contraction looming, in a game of ownership musical chairs also involving the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins whose principal players were owners Jeffrey Loria and John Henry and Commissioner Bud Selig. The Expos were fettered in their ability to compete for the next three seasons, then moved to Washington, DC after the 2004 season, becoming the Washington Nationals, the first franchise shift since the Washington Senators had moved to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in 1972.
The decade also saw a frenzy of ballpark construction, with a majority of teams moving into a new facility designed to generate more revenue. The trend crested with both New York teams receiving new homes in 2009, and the Minnesota Twins closing down the Metrodome at the end of the same year, with new stadiums still planned for the two Florida franchises. The new parks were synonymous with higher attendance figures throughout the league.
The Minor Leagues
The Minor Leagues continued the trends begun in the 1990s of great financial health in spite of impoverished competition on the playing field. AAA baseball, long the glamor category of the minors, became increasingly used as an extension of teams' major league rosters with players shuffling continually between the majors and AAA and rosters filled with role players and marginal major leaguers - so-called AAAA players, while actual prospects played in A Ball and AA and occasionally bypassed AAA altogether.
The new ballpark trend found its counterpart in the minor leagues, with most franchise shifts being dictated by lease terms and the building of new ballparks, and not by the existence of traditional baseball markets. The overall trend saw the move of minor league teams from mid-sized towns to the suburbs and exurbs of large cities, where they marketed themselves as an affordable family-oriented alternative to the Major League product. The marketing also focused on the team, its merchandise and the ballpark experience, rather than the players or the product on the field. This trend was particularly noticeable in the Independent Leagues which continued to flourish during the decade, although with much greater franchise movement than the affiliated minor leagues.
The 2000s were a great decade for international baseball, with top-notch Olympic tournaments in 2000, 2004 and 2008 and the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic being held in 2006 and 2009.
After Cuba's near-total domination of the international game since the 1970s, the 2000s saw more balanced competition, with the United States, Japan and South Korea all winning major tournaments, and mid-level teams like Australia, the Netherlands and Canada pulling major upsets over the top dogs. The major scandal of the decade on the international tournament front came with the 2002 Intercontinental Cup, when Panama was stripped of their Medal after four players, including former major leaguer Roberto Kelly, tested positive for banned substances.
The growth of international baseball reflected itself on major league rosters, which were more multinational than ever, and teams scouting ever-further afield for potential talent: the decade saw the signing of players from non-traditional sources such as India, Nigeria, South Africa, Belgium, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Argentina, China or Germany. France (Joris Bert), Belgium (Thomas De Wolf), China (Chao Wang), Lithuania (Dovydas Neverauskas) and India (Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel) all had their first amateur signees during this decade. The MLB European Academy was formed to help develop young players in Europe and Africa, while teams created baseball academies in lesser baseball nations like Spain (the Atlanta Braves) and Brazil (the Tampa Bay Rays).
However, the decision of the International Olympic Committee to remove baseball from the Olympics after the 2008 games put a shadow on the decade's achievements, as it threatened to put an end to the development efforts made in countries such as Canada, Australia, Russia or China, when the sport gained Olympic status. Many countries cut funding for their baseball federations due to this decision, crippling the game's development in those lands.
Leagues in Europe, Asia and Latin America
Several European circuits saw improved quality of foreign imports - Germany's Bundesliga had Mike Hartley and Dusty Bergman appear as the first two former major leaguers in the league's history, while the Dutch Hoofdklasse had a significant increase in former MLBers and the Italian Baseball League maintained a steady flow. The overall quality of the European game was higher in the 2000s than in any prior decade.
In Asia, the game was racked by several gambling scandals in Taiwan. The country went from having 12 teams in two top-tier leagues at the start of the decade to one four-team league (the CPBL) at century's end, with new scandals coming out almost annually. Many former Olympic team, World Baseball Classic team, foreign imports or other notables from Taiwan were banned for life. Despite these scandals, attendance remained high. Tilson Brito set new home run and RBI records, which were then broken by Chih-Sheng Lin and Yi-Chuan Lin.
The Korea Baseball Organization continued its development, with several players setting new league records such as Joon-hyuk Yang, Jun-ho Jeon and Jin-woo Song set career marks in several departments. Seung-yeop Lee set a new single-season home run record. The league began instituting steroid testing, but only for foreign players, at the end of the decade; the testing began one year after Danny Rios won MVP honors. Rios would test positive for steroids after leaving for Japan. Earlier in the decade, a scandal involved dodging of mandatory military service by faking medical tests. Several dozen players were affected by that scheme.
Baseball in Japan's Nippon Pro Baseball remained relatively stable. Steroid testing with tough disciplinary rules were implemented league-wide but the only three players caught were all imports (Rios, Rick Guttormson and Luis A. Gonzalez). An increasing number of Japanese stars left for the USA, such as Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuo Matsui, Kenji Johjima, Kenshin Kawakami, Kei Igawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, Hiroki Kuroda, Shingo Takatsu and Koji Uehara, with some becoming stars in the majors and others disappointing. The exodus of talent did not noticeably impact the level of league play, which remained strong. A growing concern at decade's end was fear that top amateurs would opt to skip NPB to go straight to the majors, with Junichi Tazawa being the first player to bypass the NPB draft and go to The Show directly. Others rumored to do so decided in the end to remain in Japan.
While Japanese stars were going to the Americas, players from the Western Hemisphere were setting more foreign-born records in Japan, with Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Ramirez both establishing new marks for imports. Rhodes and Alex Cabrera set a new Pacific League single-season record for home runs. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami set a new career doubles record. Foreign managers saw increased usage, with both Bobby Valentine and Trey Hillman guiding clubs to Japan Series titles; other unorthodox skippers (by Japanese standards) such as Hiromitsu Ochiai also met with some success. Other notable new players of the decade included Yu Darvish and Norichika Aoki (who set a new Central League record for hits). As in the US, independent leagues were forming for players of lower skill levels but these were far from stable.
The China Baseball League was formed and slowly expanded as the decade went on. The champions of Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and China met in the new Asia Series each year from 2005 through 2008. It was not held in 2009 due to financial problems.
In Cuba, a slew of defections was depleting league talent - Alexei Ramirez, Yuniesky Maya, Aroldis Chapman, Kendry Morales, Yuniesky Betancourt, Bárbaro Cañizares, Yobal Duenas, Jose Contreras, Yasser Gomez, Amaury Martí, José Julio Ruíz, Maels Rodríguez, Dayán Viciedo, Sergio Espinosa and Alay Soler all left the island. The league still was producing some bright new talents. Chapman broke the record for Cuba's fastest pitch. Osmani Urrutia won five batting titles in a row. Joan Carlos Pedroso set a new single-season home run mark, only to have it broken by Alexei Bell, whose record was in turn snapped by Alfredo Despaigne. Pedro Luis Lazo set a new all-time strikeout record. Due to the number of defections and the departure of the 1980s/1990s stars like Omar Linares, Antonio Pacheco and Orestes Kindelan, the Cuban national team was far less dominant than in prior decades.
There were significant shakeups in the winter leagues. The Hawaii Winter League was re-established but lasted only three years; a revived Panamanian League didn't even make it that long despite several major leaguers lending their presence. The long-established Puerto Rican League shut down for one winter due to financial troubles, while the Venezuelan League was shut down due to domestic conflict over the Hugo Chavez regime. Only the Mexican Pacific League and Dominican League had a decade free of major scandals or conflicts.
One of Major League Baseball's most successful endeavors during the decade was the Urban Youth Academy, instituted to foster the re-birth of baseball in inner city areas where the game had practically disappeared due to the lack of playing facilities and appropriate coaching. The first academy opened in Compton, CA in mid-decade, followed by the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy High School in Puerto Rico and another facility in Houston, TX. The dividends of this visionary initiative would begin to be visible in the 2010s, with the first two graduates of the program reaching the major leagues in 2011 and the program then making a killing in the next year's amateur draft.
- Daniel A. Gilbert: Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2013. ISBN 978-1-55849-997-3
- Jon Pessah: The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers, Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 2015. ISBN 978-0316185882
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