A Bright Future for Baseball

A veteran executive predicts more fans this year and expansion into other countries down the road.


CLEARWATER, FLA.—The 2008 Major League Baseball season opened this spring in Japan. For a look at our national pastime, here is an interview with Bill Giles, chairman of the Philadelphia Phillies and a 50-year executive at the minor and major league level. (Full disclosure: Giles has been a close friend of mine for the past 40 years.) Excerpts:

Do you see another record year in attendance in 2008?

Based on what we know in advance ticket sales, we should see a record year for the third year in a row. The final number should be around 80 million. Of course, the teams in the major market areas will do better than the smaller ones and the two teams in Florida. Baseball has spread to the Orient and even China. There is talk of the game going into Africa. Will we see Major League scouts there in the future?

There are scouts looking into China already and I think Russia will be the next country and the African continent will follow. It will be slow, but I'm convinced it will happen. Australia has become another area of interest. So Japan and Korea are not alone in nations where baseball has spread its wings. The Mitchell Report on the use of drugs has fans wondering whether this has closed an ugly chapter in the game. Without getting into specific cases still being investigated, is this a closed matter?

No, it isn't closed and remains an ongoing situation. It has made players wary of being caught in a surprise test. I do think the new testing rules have substantially reduced the use of performance-enhancing drugs. There seems to be no end to the spectacular salaries paid today. But is it limited to those major market teams?

It will without a team salary cap like in the National Football League. I don't see that happening in my lifetime. I do think teams are doing a better job of managing their payrolls to account for about 50 percent of their revenue. Will there be more interleague play in the future?

I think the current rotating system is working nicely and will remain in place. It has created some natural rivalries and boosted fan interest such as in Chicago and California. Our series with the Red Sox this summer has already sold out, and there will be electricity in the air when they come to town. On marketing baseball, can the game ever hope to match the NFL or March Madness in scope?

The football season is much shorter, and the NCAA tournament is even shorter. But the big difference is the gambling and betting. So many people are posting bets on pro football, and they are closely following their predictions in the basketball tournament. Those things really boost the TV audience ratings. When the next players union contract comes up, will there be more harmony in the negotiations?

There has been a dramatic change in the last four or five years. There is more trust between management and the players union. I think that understanding between the parties will continue. A purely old-timer question. Why are starting pitchers only expected to go six or seven innings now?

That issue bugs me. I don't really understand it, and I've discussed it with a lot of the experts. I guess we live in a time of specialists, so we now have setup men and closers. Starters do require more pitches than they did in years past and some do cause a lot of strain on the arm. You grew up in baseball in the late 1930s when your father was president of the Reds and later head of the National League. What are the biggest changes in the game?

Hitters are so much better and stronger. They stay in much better shape in the off-season. The talent pool is much deeper with African-American and Latin players even though there are 30 teams now as opposed to 16 then. The other big change is the economics of the game has changed dramatically. The players union is strong, and the players' agents have a big impact on the game.