Baseball must change
The All-Star Game brought to you from a glistening Fenway Park sure was a treat the other night. It was pretty darn special to see Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson and all the rest on the field together. Still, I'm worried about the future of baseball.
Columnist Mary McGrory, in extolling the virtues of America's Pastime, wrote that "baseball is what we were, football is what we've become."
Mullarkey. The self-sacrificing, territory-conquering violence of football is a more apt metaphor for life in early America. But I am concerned that baseball is becoming what we've become: Self-indulgent, egotistical, timid and fearful of the competition.
You see it on all levels of the game, from the littles to the bigs. As the senior statesman of Connecticut sports scribes recently pointed out, Randy Smith of the Journal Inquirer, a big change from the Little League we knew as kids is the blur of parents streaking onto the field whenever a kid skins a knee or takes a bad hop off the shinbone.
My father-in-law, ex-football coach and sports instructor to three daughters, told his kids he didn't "want any crybabies on the family team." Perhaps that's why my wife waxes my keister at our annual batting cage contest and why she thrives in the competitive Wall Street environment where she works.
To be sure, you'll still see some, maybe even more than half of the pint-sized players bite a lip and suck up the stings of the game – and some parents who encourage them to do so – but that you notice it as not always the case tells you something. America is a short-term gain, feel-no-pain, find-someone-to-blame sort of place.
Very few folks, including those in charge of the cherished game of baseball, want to think about making the smaller sacrifices now so that the future is a stronger, better place.
And America's Pastime is worse off for it. Whitey Herzog, the former big league manager who has seen more diamonds than Tiffany's, lays it out in a new book, "You're Missin' a Great Game." He explains why the greatest game ever, with the exception of a few blips like the home-run record, doesn't captivate us the way it once did.
Herzog almost begs for the removal of the designated hitter rule, an experiment which may have succeeded in adding a bit of offense but also excised much of the strategy from the game. And with that went the corresponding right of the fan to second-guess those decisions. Part of root, root, rooting for the home team is considering yourself the second coming of Casey Stengel and tell everyone who will listen how you would have won the game.
Baseball was built on fairness and perseverance over the long haul. Every team once played every other team the same number of times. Now, with revenue-raising gimmicks like interleague play and unbalanced schedules, the luck of the draw can dole out a chump feast for one club and leave others chewing gristly table scraps.
And of course it's about the money. The absolute right of a player to shop himself around shows itself every day in the standings, where only the rich teams with rich owners like New York, Atlanta and Boston (well, theoretically Boston) can win a World Series. Personnel trades have always been part of the landscape, but for the most part ballclubs once raised most of their talent on their own farm systems. Now, a big checkbook can turn a team into a contender overnight.
Free agency also changes the game played between the foul lines. What drives salaries are a few statistics – for a hitter they are average, RBI's and home runs. Since this is what establishes compensation, a player will resist implementing time-honored baseball strategy when doing so might hurt his numbers, as in hitting a ground out to the right side to advance a runner.
In real numbers, baseball's popularity is declining and no one is very interested in doing much about it as long as they can get their immediate rewards. Owners can't even think about it right now – they are way too busy jacking up cities for new stadiums with shiny air-conditioned luxury boxes. This will work for a while, but if it goes on too long, greed and shortsightedness will obliterate from the landscape the most recognizable geometry in the world.
Herzog says baseball needs to re-design free agency, eliminate the designated hitter, fix the scheduling, and share more league revenues to make the smaller markets competitive again.
I agree with him. What's happening with baseball on all levels just isn't cricket. But if it continues, it might as well be.
July 14, 1999