Ray Lewis the Super Bowl and its insipid hype-machine mercifully behind us (yes my Packers were eliminated early and yes I’m bitter), we can finally move on to the one sport that actually matters, baseball. How do I know baseball is the only sport that actually matters? For starters, it’s the only one where people actually care when the players are caught using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Ooops, that’s right it’s the only one where the players actually get caught because it’s the only one with a robust–though still imperfect–testing regimen. No one says boo or BOOOOOH! when an NFL players name is whispered in association with steroids, HGH, or the host of other hard to pronounce enhancers. Oh sure, when it’s something exotic like deer antler spray used by a vocal, high profile player on the cusp of the Super Bowl it almost become news, but in the end no one cares for some reason. Yes, the NFL has the ratings and is the unquestioned object of desire of media members everywhere, but only baseball gets dragged before Congress, is pilloried by non-sports media, and tsk-tsked by John Q. Judgementals everywhere.
Why is that? Because baseball is in institution. Of the four major sports–or five if you’re into cars I guess–it’s the one that’s been with us the longest. It’s history is the most revered, its numbers the most adored, it’s Hall of Fame the most sacred, and it’s the only sport completely different from all the rest. When you mess with the game, from within or without, it makes people mad. It’s like you’re spray painting on the Statue of Liberty. You’re disgracing an American monument that’s been with us every spring, summer, and fall for over 120 years. Baseball is special.
Of course those four things that make it special–its history, its numbers, it’s Hall of Fame, it’s uniqueness–can also be hindrances. It’s greatest strengths can also be it’s greatest weaknesses. Observe:
History – Baseball loves its history and proudly wears it as a badge of honor. It should, there’s a lot to be proud of. The great players from the past are given almost mythic status. The Cobbs, Ruths, and Mays’. Baseball was the first sport to integrate and gave us the great Jackie Robinson. It’s given us the 1975 World Series, and Kirk Gibson in ’88 (much as I hate to admit it), and Murderers Row, and “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
But sometimes, baseball displays it’s history a little too prominently. It has a tendency to sacrifice the present for the past. Baseball has never been really great at promoting what’s great about baseball right now. The past is great, but if you want to capture the next generation of fans you need to show them why baseball is so great in this generation. I think baseball has gotten better at this recently, but the NFL and particularly the NBA are light years better at promoting it’s current stars.
Numbers – Baseball’s records are the most known and renown of any of the sports. Ask any serious baseball fan what the single season home run record is and you’ll get a quick reply; 73. Or the career home run record; 762. Or the longest hitting streak ever; 56 games. Or the “magic numbers” for getting into the Hall of Fame; 3000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins. Ask a football fan what the career touchdown record is or a basketball fan what the most points every scored is. I predict they won’t be able to tell you.
But what do those numbers really mean anymore? In many ways baseball was defined by these great records. But with the PED scandals of the past decade, and more, they’ve lost much of their luster. What once was a strength of the game is now a source of doubt and scandal mongering.
A (hopefully) brief aside, if I may. And it’s my blog, so I may. Following the recent new PED allegations against Alex-controversy-lightening-Rodriguez and others on Twitter and the host of baseball writers and bloggers I follow, it seems there are two camps that are equally vocal and equally prone to hand-wringing, but on opposite sides of an argument. A lot of the old guard baseball writers burn with righteous indignation and demand the heads of those who are guilty by nothing more than scant association roll with those who have failed tests. They call for voided contracts, wax loquaciously about tarnished and re-tarnished legacies, withhold their Hall of Fame votes from those who played in the “juiced” era and were just a little bit too muscular looking and didn’t proclaim their cleanliness loudly enough.
Then there’s the other side. The baseball bloggers and new wave of writers. The SABR-types. Snarkier than their forbears, this group seems to blow off the PED issue as no big deal. Reasons being PED’s today are medicine in a generation or so, or there are other more morally repugnant issues that traditional writers are not showing an equitable amount of rage over (public money stadiums, DUI, spousal abuse, etc), PEDs are no worse than any other form of cheating, or “how can we know for sure,” and, perhaps most alarming, who cares?
While the old guard writers seemingly want everyone to burn, the new school writers seem like they’re too cool for school, new or otherwise, and too sophisticated to care. I had a Twitter “conversation” with a pretty well known writer, who writes for Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus, among other outlets, and I said I agreed with his take that there are other things that are worth the outrage (stadium deals, spousal abuse, etc) but I understand were a lot of the anger comes from. His response surprised me. It surprised me that he responded at all (and I give him credit for doing so), but his actual response surprised me too. Here it is: “Why? Why are you angry? Why angry now and not at other cheaters? Other drug cheaters? How does this affect your life?” First of all, I didn’t say I was angry, just that I understood why some were. Secondly, that last part in particular struck me as disingenuous. How does this affect my life? Well, it’s true that it doesn’t, really. But as someone who writes about baseball for a living, granted in the nuveau statistical analysis vein rather than the hagiographic way of many old school beat writers, he should know better than anybody that this stuff does matter to people. Yeah, probably more than it should, but it just struck me as an odd and high handed thing to say. Look, I wasn’t an earlier adopter on the statistical revolution, but I’ve learned to accept it and allow myself to be challenged in my baseball beliefs. But I think a lot of the writers who write from that perspective can be too clinical and forget that this isn’t all math, analysis and formulas to people. It’s memories and feelings and hours spent and PEDs make you feel like you’ve been lied to and taken advantage of all that time. Like somehow your memories of McGwire vs. Sosa are now tainted and were based on a fraud. People don’t like to be lied to. It makes them angry. And I, unlike this writer I guess, get that. In their effort to take what I assume they believe is the high road in not using a scattergun to apply the guilty label, they end up taking the high horse road and become just as guilty of the judgementalism they supposedly stand against.
A little nuance and understanding on both sides would be appreciated. But I guess that’s a little too much to ask for these days. You don’t amass Twitter followers by being nuanced.
Ok, that aside wasn’t very quick. Moving on.
Hall of Fame – The baseball Hall of Fame is really the only hall of fame that matters. Have you ever had a conversation with somebody about whether so-and-so belongs in the football or basketball hall of fame? I haven’t. But I’ve spent countless hours debating the merits of countless baseball hall of famers. Not unlike the numbers though, the Hall of Fame has been complicated by PEDs. Should users be allowed? What about someone who never failed a test but is universally assumed to be a PED user, like, say, Barry Bonds? My thoughts on the issue will wait for another day–this post is too long as it is–but the fact is the Hall debates just aren’t as fun as they used to be.
Different than any other sport – When you really think about it most every other sport is pretty much the same game, just with different equipment. To wit:
Football – get the ball from one end of the field to the other and into the other teams end zone to score. You have 60 minutes to score as many times as you can.
Basketball – get the ball from one end of the court to the other and into the other teams basket to score. You have 48 minutes to score as many times as you can.
Hockey – get the puck from one end of the ice to the other and into the other teams goal to score. You have 60 minutes to score as many times as you can.
Soccer – get the ball from one end of the field to the other and into the other teams goal to score. You have, like, six hours to score once…if you’re lucky.
Baseball is nothing like any of these. There’s no time limit. No game clock, no shot clock, no play clock. To quote the late great Earl Weaver:
You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.
The tyranny of the clock has no place in baseball. Also, it’s the only sport in which the defense controls the ball. Of all the sports it’s the one that requires the greatest specialized skill. Running, jumping, and strength are not enough. Hitting a round ball with a round bat, that’s the hardest thing to do in sports and one of the most beautiful to watch.
But because it’s different, it’s often misunderstood. The pace is admittedly slower than the likes of football or basketball, and without a set time limit games can drag on longer then they should thanks to constant late inning pitching changes, batters taking their sweet time adjusting their cups and batting gloves in the batters box, and mound conferences. The slow pace is off-putting in our instant gratification society. A single at-bat may take as much as several minutes, while a football play must commence before the 45 second play clock expires and the play itself only lasts about 10 seconds at the very most. In basketball a shot must hit the rim before the 24 second shot clock expires.
Despite it’s shortcomings–which every sport has in scads by the way–and also because of them I love baseball. I love it’s history. Comparing players across the eras is one of the great joys of sports discussion. What kind of numbers would Ted Williams put up in 2013? How dominant would Randy Johnson have been in the late 60’s before the mound was lowered? The comparison’s are literally endless.
Yeah, the numbers aren’t as pure as they used to be. And honestly, I’m really trying to scrape up a positive out of all of this PED stuff. Stand by on that one. I still get excited for the Hall of Fame vote every year, even with all the PED talk that is now inevitable. They’ve got a lot of sorting out to do; is the Hall of museum or shrine; should a PED user be kept out when someone like Ty Cobb is in. These are good questions, and while they can be a bummer it also adds another complex layer to the sport we love. So, silver lining? No?
Baseball’s uniqueness is what makes it truly great though. Where the uneducated see inaction, I see a pitcher staring in at the signs the catcher is putting down, the batter eyeing the field looking for a hole, the third basemen creeping down the line expecting a bunt, the outfielders shifting based on the batters spray chart. All the while my buddies and I discussing why his batting average is so low this year and why doesn’t the manager pinch hit for him. In baseball the fan has the time to strategize along with the manager. It’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, it’s armchair managing in real time. In a close game, every pitch ratchets up the tension to near unbearable levels. Then the batter fouls it off, there’s a brief exhale, and then the pressure builds all over again. Football is only there for you a couple days a week. In hockey and basketball your team might play three games a week. Baseball is there for you everyday, from April Fool’s Day until Halloween. And I love it. I love it so much that I’d write a 2174 blog post that almost no one will read about it. That’s love.