Summer peaks, and so with it should baseball be peaking. But 2017 is not your ordinary season. While ostensibly booming financially – ever the foremost consideration – fundamental questions about how the game is being played, including some challenges to its basic artistic integrity, are being raised, inspiring debate that’s fast getting sharp and could become ominous.
The game has changed, and it continues to change at an accelerated pace, and if one can judge from the rising tide of bickering, many people in the game itself are not happy about it. As for those who pay the freight – the dutiful and honorable slugs who watch and follow and truly care – one suspects what they’re experiencing is confusion.
None of this should surprise us. Baseball was the game that for roughly a century never changed, and certainly not after the “Dead Ball Era” surrendered to the “Live Ball Era,” bringing into a reasonable if delicate balance the game’s offense and defense. It was only every decade or so that they would tinker with something like the sacrifice fly rule, and when they did tinker, it was a big deal. Nobody ever dared suggest they mess with the basics, the dynamics, the geometrics. All of which makes the recent deluge of new thinking, new ideas, new gimmicks, change for the sake of change shocking to the diehards.
Consider the renovations that have lately taken place. Runaway instant replays, infield shifts, upheaval in the thinking about how to use pitchers, all the balderdash linked with analytics, the curbing of baseline-contact, the near-banning of brushbacks, the disappearing pinch-hitter, the devaluing of stolen bases, the elimination of intentional walks, and the near total spurning of good old-fashioned inside-baseball stuff like the sacrifice bunt, the hit and run, the squeeze, the merits of hitting ‘em where they ain’t instead of swinging for the fences. Is the fine art of manufacturing runs to become a lost cause?
Nor should we forget the umpires here. The drastic curtailment of their authority has some wondering if their days are numbered. Managers haranguing umpires – a lusty art form in its heyday – has been virtually abolished. Pondering all this, a wise old baseball man recently observed, “They are taking all the theatre out of this game. It’s sad.”
Key among the culprits in this de facto revolution is the almighty home run, or, more precisely, the mindless obsession with the long ball. Baseball’s on-rushing power surge has been this season’s major story, much as it was last season. A generation of baseball managers seems content to sit back and wait for their swarthy sluggers to crush one rather than try patching together a nice rally with a touch of guile and some strategic singles. No matter that the flip side of this mentality is having to abide the insufferable avalanche of strikeouts – also being compiled this season at an historic rate – which swarthy sluggers tend to end up doing when they aren’t crunching homers. Boring!
At the all-star break, MLB projected to finish 2017 with 6,117 home runs. That’s 424 more than last season, more than a 7 percent increase. If such a trend persists unchecked, entire seasons will eventually amount to one long and unutterably boring home run derby. You like homers, you say? You may live to regret that.
There remains the suspicion – scandalous, if proven true – that either the baseball has been juiced – something many pitchers say they believe – or the bats have been juiced, which the commissioner himself says should be considered. The ball is the more likely suspect and important studies having ostensible scientific merit have already been conducted, but flatly rejected by the powers-that-be. If it were ever determined anything was juiced, and it was willfully authorized, there would be hell to pay, which probably means all the studies will come to – Nothing!
For many, the over-riding issue is the pace and length of games. They are slowing down still more this season, and if you watch enough baseball and have occasionally napped between conferences on the mound or during not-so-instantaneous replays and the third change of pitchers occurring in the same inning, you understand why the commissioner, among many others, is concerned a world moving at an ever-faster pace may be losing patience with a game moving at a much slower pace. “Pace & Length” is a huge issue, but it’s decidedly connected with all the others.
In an admirable attempt to advance the discussion, the New York Post recently published a 20-page report on all this stuff that featured the thinking of a couple of dozen of the game’s best minds – management types, owners, players, even media. The excellent result dramatically verifies that disagreement is widespread and that there are no easy solutions.
But what we don’t need is more hair-brained nonsense from woolly headed sophisticates who think that, being smarter than Alexander Cartwright, they can make this game better than it has ever been.
Case in point: a pompous lecture in the Post’s report from Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager who was regarded as one of the game’s smart guys before he began taking himself too seriously. In his latest leap from reality, Maddon boasts he’s “not afraid of change” while vigorously advocating for robotic umpires! Let lasers, computers, and electric eyes call balls and strikes, he says, and decide who’s safe or out. Because, he adds, “Umpires are human and make mistakes.”
I’ve got news for you, Joe. Everybody makes mistakes in baseball. Especially managers as those of us who watched you fumble and bumble your way through the World Series last fall and darn near blow it were again reminded. Baseball is a game of mistakes. It’s nice that way.
You really wanta fix baseball, old Sport? Try leaving it alone!