Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Blessed Day Watching Baseball

Today was the first chance this spring I have had to watch a baseball game. It was so totally enjoyable and relaxing to listen in to the flow of the announcers, hear the cracks of the bats and pitches popping the catcher's mitt. Being a Spring Training game, I was able to see some prospects play, see the relaxed fans and listen as running steps ran through first on ground outs. While I have been enjoying the game for over a half a century, baseball always seems new and wonderful. Those feelings overcome all the negativity that I otherwise hear about the game.

South-central Florida has three different sports talk radio stations. And during the week I listen when I can and flip back and forth. I would never dare call any of them and that is okay because they hardly take calls on talk radio these days.

One of the stations is a Fox Sports affiliate, the other a CBS Sports station and then there is ESPN. I mostly prefer the Fox station as they have rock-solid personalities to listen to (except probably Andy Slater). Despite the riches of options, I cannot listen to them for long.

You can pretty much guarantee what will be discussed on these stations these days (and most of the year). Number one seems to be Lebron James and the Lakers. Number two seems to be that player the Lakers wanted and New Orleans foiled them with a gleam in their eyes. Following those two are the Celtics, the Knicks, the NFL draft and the current situation (ad nauseam) with the Steelers' erstwhile wide receiver.

Baseball was briefly discussed when Bryce Harper signed. Most panned the contract for the Phillies stating the team was crazy. So my ears perked up when one of the shows brought up baseball that was not free agent related. To my dismay (but not surprise), most of the talk was negative. Baseball is in trouble, they said. Baseball is boring, they said. Baseball is only enjoyed by people with the average age of 50 they said. Baseball is no longer the center of American life, they said.

Radio, like television, lives and dies by advertising revenue. And advertising revenue these days seems to mean targeting to young people between 18 and 35. According to all wisdom, that is the age group that sparks the economy. That age bracket is the one which spends money. As such, it has been determined that the NBA is most important to the targeted age bracket followed by the NFL. None of them want to hear about baseball.

That could be true and it could be a self-fulfilling prophesy. The length of the game is ALWAYS cited as a problem. The lack of action is another big one. And the fuzzy third is that Major League Baseball discourages the individualism and spontaneity of its players.

Let's discuss these three for a brief moment. I am not going to get all technical about it with facts and figures. I could if I wanted to. But I am a fan. And albeit, I am one of those older fans they talk about and outside the target audience. But baseball is only too long if you do not love the game. That's it, plain and simple. One of the radio "experts" cited extra-innings as a killer. Seriously? That thought has been so loud lately as to have baseball's commissioner consider starting extra innings with a runner on second. What an abomination that would be!

There is an ebb and flow in a baseball game. It takes a lifetime of playing and watching the sport to enjoy that tidal ride. If you are a marginal fan, I can see how that could be boring.

I am not against doing away with some of the really tedious things. Stopping Gary Sanchez from going to the mound 45 times in a half inning was a good idea. I thought that helped a lot. I am not totally against a pitch clock as long as it includes an element for the batter too. I like the idea of not so many pitching changes in an inning. Tony La Russa really started that mess, didn't he? As long as the ancient (there, I said it) ebb and flow of a game is not messed with, speed it up where you can. But even as it stands now, baseball is never too long for me. Ever.

The second one is related to the first. Much is talked about how baseball has become a three-outcome affair. Either it is a strikeout, a walk or a homer. And it is true that strikeouts are at an all-time high and homers are way up there as everyone preaches launch angle these days. But does that really make it a three-outcome game?

Okay, I lied, I will throw a couple of numbers out there. Last season, strikeouts, walks and homers accounted for 62,478 plate appearances. That is a lot, eh? In 2010, that number was at 54,697 and in 2000, the number was 55,286. That is quite a jump. If we assume that 55,000 was the old norm, then last year's rate was a 12% increase. And last year was the first time there were more strikeouts league-wide than hits. So far, I seem to be making the point for the naysayers.

But consider there are around 185,000 plate appearances a year (last year was 185,154). Strikeouts-walks-homers accounted for 33% of the total of plate appearances. So basically there is 67% of the time when something other than those three events happen. That 2010 number accounted for 29.7% of plate appearances. By percentage, that really is not that big a leap

Look, I have railed against strikeouts over the years more than most. I hate that statistics do not seem to care that Aaron Judge strikes out 200 times a year. I do. Think how good he would be if he halved that?  But are they making the game boring?  I would argue that strikeouts excite people. We already know that homers do.

The lack of offense is a more important issue than the three-outcome thing. While we are not at Deadball Era offense in the modern game, offense has taken a hit from analytics and positioning. Even saying that, I am really against legislating against shifts because it is a strategic part of the game. It is up to the batters to adjust, not the rules. And they will eventually. Baseball is cyclical. It always has been.

The third thing is the individualism, flair, personality issue. While some of the "unwritten" rules discourage celebrations and individualism, I think baseball players are trending toward being more personable. Video games and 24-hours sports programming on the MLB Network (for example) is showing the players more as people.

But I am more than okay with the players doing their jobs and grinding it out day after day. After all, the complete freedom of expression now has players in the NBA and NFL saying things like they are their own CEOs and the sport cannot tell them what to do. Uh, excuse me, but the fans are paying the teams and the teams are paying you, so sit down, shut up and play.

I am not saying that the current MLB is not without its problems. Having teams that can "tank" to get better draft picks by trading their young, expensive talent is a problem. That is not fair to the fans of those cities. Having teams that rake in as much profit from television contracts, salary-tax payments and the staggering money handed over from The MLB Network and MLB.com and not turn those profits into better talent in their dugouts is a real problem. Just ask Pirates and Royals fans.

There is a pseudo-salary cap in place. There should be a salary basement as well. The minimum team payroll should be set at $80-$100 million. The minimum salary should be at a million a year. Players need to start making money when they are younger because the free-agent model has changed (and it should change). And there are other things like pitcher health, for example, and the playing of important games far too late into the night so children can watch is a huge problem

But overall, Major League Baseball is still a beloved game by a LOT of people. It still has the second highest revenue in all of major sports. I think if some of the radio energy was actually put into MLB, then the perception would change. While I am not going to get into the way that Fox and CNN try to bend perception, the fact is that they do. And it hurts us as a country. Having the sports media down-talk baseball and instead try to increase its relevance in their thinking would go a long way to change how young people think about the game.

Either way, MLB has been one of my strongest passions my entire lifetime and one of my true joys. I was so glad to watch a game today. It never gets old. Only I do. And I do believe that this game that I love will still be kicking strong as long as I am on this earth.

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