Wondering why Major League Baseball’s out of control

Well, fans, we can be thankful that we won’t have the regular baseball season to kick around anymore. It’s over. Mercifully!

The 2010 edition, stretching from late March to early October, was weird from the get-go, unfulfilling throughout, and ended on a sour note. Or as the New York baseball scribe Joel Sherman, one of the best in the business, termed it: “the most depressing baseball season I can ever remember.” Here’s a second for that motion.

Might the quality of Baseball be declining or does it only seem so because we as a people are in a crankier mood than usual these days?  Is Baseball – or at least the mindset we bring to it – actually affected by societal attitudes about government, politics, and the variable whims of the GNP? Why not?  But then it has not always been that way. Recall that during the Great Depression the game thrived as few industries did; maybe not at the gate, but surely in the hearts, minds, and richest imaginings of its fans.

Czar Bud Selig likes to say that Baseball has “never been healthier.” That’s balderdash. Surely, the owners have never made more money, but that does not mean that the game has, as it is played on the field, received in the stands, and held in the collective esteem of the entire culture, “never been healthier.” Every reputable survey on the subject affirms football’s edge in popularity as stronger than ever, and growing.  Mr. Commissioner, your syllogism is flawed, old sport.

Where has the joy gone? Has it something to do with a belated fall-out from the steroid era? When a rash of no-hitters sparked the notion that pitchers are getting better, pundits were quick to sneer that it only proves hitters – denied their precious chemical enhancements – are getting weaker (as if pitchers didn’t imbibe in the junk in the old days).

You should feel sorry for Jose Bautista, the Toronto slugger who erupted with the prodigious output of 54 homers, which not so long ago was considered a near mythical achievement. However, in a checkered career stretching over seven seasons with five teams, Bautista had never hit more than 16 home runs. You’ll not find Sherlock Holmes in the press box, but you hardly had to be one to rush to the feverish deduction that Bautista must have found a clever way to circumvent the new, allegedly iron-clad drug bans. And many did. Speculation soared and the poor man had to deal with the messy issue again and again.

Displaying more grace than many might, Bautista responds: “I understand the question because of what has happened in the past. But those days are over!” He’s right of course. Alas, it’s also true that the mere question unfairly diminishes what he has so marvelously accomplished.

The steroid/drug-enhancement specter, which has so deeply shaken the trust and allegiance Baseball so long enjoyed in the culture, lingers and simmers. It will take a generation to pass. The fact that Baseball has been unfairly held to a much higher standard than other games – especially its arch nemesis, football – will continue to be ignored. Exacerbating this will be the trials and tribulations of the fallen baseball idol Roger Clemens, soon to be playing live and in squalid color on your cable television dial.

Injuries also blighted the season. Hereabouts, it’s fashionable to moan about how the poor Red Sox got singled out. But if their burden was disproportionate, it’s a fact that every team had its share. Arguably, the least afflicted were the Tampa Rays, which helps account for how they won the A.L. East with the least talent of the division’s big three. Injuries are out of control. There has to be a better explanation than mere “bad luck” for the Red Sox having to disable 20 players in the course of a season while losing 1,000 games of manpower.

It has become crazy. In an age of so many medical, nutritional, rehab, and conditioning advances, with access to the most sophisticated treatments and techniques, and money no object, and year-round training, and a client base that’s pretty darn healthy to begin with, the force of injury and the downright fear of it have never been more pervasive. At times teams seem haunted by the issue and hostage to it. Witness the Yankees down the stretch.

Why is this business out of control? What’s being done wrong here?  Is it possible the old-timers have a point when they argue that modern attitudes, especially about coaching, conditioning, and injury-prevention tactics –like intense innings-control for pitchers – are misguided, or just plain dumb? Confusion is rampant. It’s rumored the Red Sox plan to purge their medical staff. Here’s betting a nickel that remedy won’t work, either.

If the season has a lasting image it may be that of Stephen Strasburg, the kid who was going to be the Johnny Appleseed of Washington’s historically beleaguered baseball fortunes, grabbing his elbow in pain and lumbering off to a date with Tommy John surgery. Maybe we’ll see this prodigy again, maybe we won’t. There is too darn much of that.

As ever, the post-season is expected to redeem the regular season. That’s the way it works in other games, especially basketball and hockey. It doesn’t matter how excessively long, pointless, even dreary the regular seasons may be, it will all explode in a fury of flash, dash, and bravura come the playoffs and the skies will light up. In baseball, that didn’t use to be the case. The regular season – so very long, detailed, and complex as it is – had very special meaning and people took it as seriously as the post-season epic, the World Series. One did not exceed or detract from the other. They were perfect complements.

That mentality is waning and with the game’s poohbahs, led by Czar Selig, talking about expanding the playoffs and adding a round and instituting “play-in” showdowns to provide more wild cards, you don’t have to be Holmes himself to figure out where all this is going.

It was the Yankees, of all baseball people, who most dramatized the changing attitudes with their strange behavior down the stretch. It was almost comical to see them under the oddly jittery direction of Joe Girardi treat the last 3-4 weeks of the season as a minefield to be tip-toed through rather than a mighty challenge to be charged with all the bluster that Mighty George Steinbrenner – like no other – could summon.

In the end, Girardi’s determination to avoid injury and rest his nucleus for October veered into obsession with the Yankees seemingly indifferent to the historically precious goal of finishing first, formerly known as  “winning the pennant.” Blame the wild card: If you couldn’t make the playoffs by finishing second there’d be no such pussyfooting down the stretch and the last two weeks of this season would have been hellacious. It will be further hilarious if the Yankees’ scheming backfires into a swift exit.

All this makes the playoffs hard to peg. As the Yankees staggered away from Fenway, having quite pathetically booted the virtual gift of first place, they sure didn’t look like potential champions. Punctuating their misery were the derisive sneers of Red Sox Nation. In the end the dear Nation got its little pound of flesh, for whatever that’s worth. Losing the last two games to a Red Sox lineup that would not have started for Pawtucket at the beginning of the year was for the Yankees a borderline disgrace.

Are the Yankees a lost team whose chemistry has turned befuddled? So it looks as the all-consuming playoffs arrive. Tampa was little better down the stretch, winning in the end by mere default. But if it’s not to be either of these two, then who? The Twins and Rangers are lean and hungry. Also flawed.
Maybe it’s a N.L. year? Conventional Wisdom suddenly loves the Phillies. Indeed, it’s becoming a stampede. Who knows?  Maybe for once, the CW will be right.