CJ Kelly is a longtime baseball fan who loves the history of the sport.
Change is inevitable. That cannot be argued. The question is whether the forces of change make something better, which takes time to assess. Over the past 20 years, Major League Baseball has moved from a game of movement and strategy to a static contest of boredom only interrupted by the occasional home run and even rarer base hit. Don Mattingly, Marlins' manager, had a blunt assessment during a recent interview on the state of the game. He called baseball "unwatchable sometimes...because nothing goes on." That must have sent chills up the spine of the Commissioner. Criticism is finally coming from inside the house. Why the game evolved the way it did and how to infuse it some form of excitement is finally being discussed. Before anything can be done, one needs to look where we've been.
In the 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams, a voice is telling Kevin Costner’s character, “Build it and they will come.” The saying has since become part of the lexicon. In some ways, the film ushered in a wave of nostalgia. Iowa became a tourist destination for baseball fanatics. Classic sports channels sprouted on cable. There has been a building boom of new retro ballparks throughout the past two decades. The parks became cash cows with ever-increasing ticket and concession prices.
It was Major League Baseball with a touch of the suburban mall and county fair: giant food courts, water slides, and various other forms of family entertainment. There were giant scoreboards that shot fireworks off into the night sky and jumbotrons designed to mesmerize the masses between innings. Bill Veeck would be proud. All that was missing was a petting zoo, giant squash competition, and a wedding show.
Baseball's future has become a fixation for MLB. The game has changed. So has the business of baseball. Gambling is now seemingly acceptable, except by the players.. But teams are now sponsored by sportsbooks and MLB primary gambling partner is the MGM Grand. As the game tries to reboot, many long for its past. Balancing the two aspects of a game so rooted in its history is priority number one for the Commissioner.
The Nostalgia Trap
Nostalgia has become hyper-monetized: Old-fashioned ads placed on outfield walls, and existing buildings incorporated into the complexes (i.e. Baltimore and San Diego). Throwback days have become yearly occurrences on the schedule with accompanying jersey sales. With apologies to Shakespeare, if what’s past is prologue, nowhere is that more true than Major League Baseball (MLB).
I’m guilty of the nostalgia trap myself. In recent years, I sat and watched Game 6 of the 1978 World Series on YouTube. What prompted me to do that? I don’t know. I was home sick from work. Maybe it was the death of Dodger pitcher Bob Welch that week. I became transfixed from the pregame to the locker room trophy presentation.
Joe Garigiola and Tony Kubek called the game while Curt Gowdy was the sideline guy (in the dugout). Gowdy was already a legend by this time and was consideed the best in the business. Can you imagine someone of Gowdy’s stature doing sideline work today? Picture someone like Jim Nantz, considered to be at the top of his profession, in a dugout asking a player, "How's the ankle?" Such was the importance of the World Series.
I remember watching the game that night with my family 37 years ago. Even my mother joined us, and she hated baseball. But it was the World Series. She would always comment to my father when Thurman Munson came to the plate, “There’s Thurm, John.” We were big fans of the Yankee captain. As I sat reliving the game, seeing him on the screen was sad. Every time he came up to bat or blocked a ball in the dirt, I kept thinking about his death 10 months later. My wife thought I was crazy. I gave her the same response she gives me when I ask why she is watching Pride and Prejudice for the 20th time: “You don’t get it.”
Growth and Stagnation
There are a million stories like mine. Half the time I can't remember what day it is, but I can tell you what the Yankee lineup was 35 years ago. Baseball was so ingrained in our culture that its popularity would affect the economy in dramatic ways. During Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, which started at 1 pm, trading volume at the New York Stock Exchange was so low, prices dropped to record lows.
During the past 20 years, overall attendance has declined slightly but not enough for it to be a crisis. The game even appears to have grown in some countries, particularly Australia and Europe. There’s a World Baseball Classic now. Even Uganda has started an increasingly successful baseball program that has won tournaments in Europe. And the cable TV packages are swelling owners’ bank accounts.
All that success is deceiving. Behind those numbers lay many hidden problems for Major League Baseball as a national sport. A graying fan base, increasing competition from other sports, and a general apathy brought on by a long season have all helped to shrink the sport’s following.
Players get paid more, but seem to do less. Whole careers are spent as a DH. Nobody seems to care if you strike out anymore as long you can pop 40 homers. Having a high fielding percentage is considered "old school." And go ahead and ask someone to lay down a bunt; you may as well ask them to reprogram a supercomputer.
Until recently, relief pitchers could come in for one batter a game. A left-handed middle relief pitcher can work three times a week, pitch to three batters, and make a million a year. I don't begrudge anyone getting paid. But there is a tipping point for the equilibrium between input and output.
There's one more downside to all the pitching changes: The games are longer, much longer. A half inning late in the game could take 30–40 minutes. The average length of a game remains just over three hours. That business model cannot be sustained.
Empty seats can be seen everywhere on weekday nights. Take a look at a Yankee game. The sections between first and third are vacant even on weekends because the average fan can’t afford them. The same is true of Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, Tropicana Field, and Minute Maid Park. Just name the venue. If filled, the corporate seats usually contain soulless fans that don’t care. Since official attendance is based on ticket sales, MLB is getting their revenue, but empty seats are never a good look.
An Aging Game With Aging Fans
The game’s biggest problem is its age. The average viewer on a local broadcast is over 55, and the average age of the season ticket holder is only slightly younger. Many defenders of the present state of the game would point to two issues to disprove my point: huge local TV deals and rising minor league attendance. That just proves my point further: The game is becoming regional in focus. A national apathy towards baseball is taking hold. Worst of all, kids are not playing anymore.
Since the end of the World Series last season, I have been reflecting on the state of baseball. As usual, I ask myself the same question every year: Is baseball still a vital part of the culture or just another sport?
Youth in Retreat
The baseball fields near my house lay empty on hot summer days except for the occasional Church softball games. The park that surrounds them is even devoid of kids most of the year. Flocks of doves and the occasional bald eagle circle the area. The rapids of the White River are all you can hear. The sound of a ball hitting a bat whether it be wood, aluminum and even Whiffle, that was so much a part of my childhood, is missing. You’re more likely to hear skateboards rumbling down the hill leading to the park. I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid walking anywhere with a baseball glove.
There’s still Little League and rec leagues. A team from Auburn even made the Little League World Series in 2012. That seemed to be the last gasp of the game around my area. My nephews don’t play. No interest. For others, the cost of playing is prohibitive: from tee ball through high school the “pay to play” system has become astronomical because parents use it to get into better schools and colleges. The kids have to show up at special camps in the offseason; then have to re-tryout for their travel team and high school every year. Some charge just to tryout. The personal coaching business has exploded to disgusting proportions. Baseball cards are big business now, kept in fire-proof glass cases instead of shoeboxes and sold by unscrupulous dealers who make PT Barnum look like Mother Theresa.
The spectacle of the Little League World Series as broadcast on ESPN makes me sick. If there was ever an event that signals a declining moral compass, it just might be the LLWS. Kids posing after they hit home runs, making rude gestures and then ESPN replaying the kids' errors over and over. Getting emotional during a game is fine, but it always crosses the line these days into taunting.
I don't think Carl Stotz, the man who started youth baseball in Williamsport, PA during the Great Depression, ever envisioned this disgusting corporate largesse. So when I heard recently that Little League participation was decling rapidly in Upstate New York, I had mixed feelings. I've been railing about boys not playing the sport, but maybe we're getting what we deserve. In Newburgh, NY, a city on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, only 79 kids signed up for Little League in 2015. That's down from 200 in 2009. A 60% decline in 6 years.
While not as steep, Little League participation nationally will soon face the same crisis. During the 1990s, when participation peaked, there were almost 3 million kids playing. As of April 2015, that is down to 2.4 million, with no signs of abating. One California Little League had to drop from 8 teams in the 10-12-year-old major division to 3 teams by 2015. In Corvallis, Oregon, there's been a 25% decline in kids playing. There were approximately 800 kids registered in 2008. By 2012, that was down to 600. Like landlines and ticker tape, youth baseball is fading away.
The reasons vary. Economic factors play a role. Many families have never recovered from the recession. While important, tough times never affected baseball in prior years. Choice is probably a bigger factor. Are the kids playing other sports? Well, yes and no. They’re playing organized sports, for a time. The choice to play a particular sport is made by the parents long ahead of time now. But I put a lot of focus on what kids choose to do in their free time.
Playing in pick-up games of all sorts was what I did with my free time. That’s how I learned about life. Picking teams, negotiating over balls and strikes, as well as outs. These were life skills. The structure of the game facilitated that process. I don’t see kids doing that anymore and it plays into the greater narrative about the changing sports landscape. Everything costs more, schedules are tighter and neighborhoods are scattered. Within a two-mile area in my old neighborhood in the Bronx, there had to be 40,000 residents along with three elementary schools, two junior high schools and city parks everywhere. Catholic areas with lots of kids. Playing nine on nine was never a problem. And lots of African American kids playing as well.
I’m still trying to figure out why this still bothers me. Similar to my own Catholicism, I’m a lapsed baseball fan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made jokes about the Church, but as soon as someone from outside the church attacks it, I attack them. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. And I’m the same way with baseball. I’ve had foreign friends and even some Americans make fun of the game. I get furious. So I’m a man in the middle. In a weird paradox, I am both pulling away from the game and longing for it.
I don’t consider myself “old school.” Over the past 20 years I’ve become so much of a fan of the English Premier League that I consider it my second favorite spectator sport behind the NFL. The World Cup is a far better event than even the Olympics. I’ve embraced modern technology. I’m on all the social media sites, have a blog, a website, and text with my family and friends constantly. At least I think that I seek opportunities to grow and change. In today’s competitive environment, one has no choice. Even as I kid, I played street soccer with my friends, which was highly unusual for the time.
Still, there is something about the diminution of baseball within our culture that makes me sad. I speak to guys in their 20s who have never taped up a bat, never broke in a new glove or even worn a cup. One of my fondest memories from childhood was breaking in a new glove with 3-in-1 Oil or Vaseline, tying up with string for the night stuffed with at least one ball. It was a skill learned from your dad. If I mention Vaseline, string, and balls in the same sentence today, someone will get the wrong idea. Such is the modern mindset: everything is a double entendre. Even breaking the beak of a baseball cap is over.
Gone are the street corner arguments that raged all year over who was better at what position. Growing up there were loud disagreements over who the better Yankee catcher was: Berra or Munson. My dad loved Bill Dickey. Even Elston Howard’s name got thrown in occasionally. When I was a teenager, I remember saying to one thirty-something in my building that I thought Munson was the greatest. He was livid and nearly stained his already greasy white T-shirt with his Italian ice from Jerry’s Pizzeria. We fit the stereotype: lots of hairy guys in sweaty, white V-neck tee shirts running around the block yelling about the Yankees. There was always an ostracized Mets fan too. No one gave it a second thought. It was like a Scorcese movie.
MLB has apparently taken notice. New Commissioner Rob Manfred said recently in the Wall Street Journal that "The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game." Participation is key. But the world has changed, very rapidly and apparently kids have moved on for good.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
Arguments about a guy's stats still occur, but now they sound like corporate meetings with enough acronyms to rival a Pentagon briefing. Plain old stats like E.R.A. and R.B.I.s have been overshadowed by the new Sabermetrics terms: VORP, WAR and UZR. They sound like characters from Star Wars. Cue the Cantina Band or Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes.
Sabermetrics is a statistical analysis of baseball, which was popularized by the Society for American Baseball Research (hence the acronym SABER). Virtually all conversations about the game have been hijacked by these stats commandos. I don’t even think many of the media know what they mean but just feel smarter spouting statistics. I have nothing against nerd culture, but sometimes it sucks the life out of an activity. The efficacy of this kind of heavy-handed statistical analysis needs to be examined. Statistical analysis is bleeding the game of action. What was once a slow trickle is now becoming a rising tide.
Sport is very much like art, ephemeral in nature. It’s in the moment, not requiring constant analysis. One wouldn’t measure the angle of a ballerina’s kicks during a solo, and then determine how the next performance will go. Maybe the choreographer would, but the audience should never be thinking that hard.
The rise of sabermetrics has also taken away many of the fundamental aspects of the game. How many leadoff men bunt to get on anymore? The drag bunt was one of the most exciting plays in baseball. Hit king Rod Carew would not last today. His unconventional batting stances changed every few years. I'm surprised that Ichiro Suzuki managed to have such a long career. If a player gets 200 hits a year for a decade, that's Hall of Fame worthy. Yet there are those who still debate his candidacy. The sabermetricians consider him marginal at best. They rank him only 629th in career on-base percentage and of course, his slugging percentage is low. He can run, get on base and play defense. And he's criticized for it. It's like going to the Sistine Chapel and saying the paint job is nice but the building is too small.
Balls in Play
I challenge anyone to tell me how the game on the field is better because of the use of sabermetrics. The reliance on data has led teams to value certain skills more than others; analytics encourages power pitching and power hitting. Skills, like hitting the opposite way, drag bunts and stealing bases, are no longer valued.
As a result, the number of balls put into play has been declining rapidly. Batted balls in play is based on the following formula:
Baseballs In Play = (At Bats + Sacrifice Flies + Sacrifice Bunts) – (Home Runs + Strikeouts).
This should not be confused with the Sabermetric calculation of Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which measures how many of an individual hitter’s balls in play go for hits, excluding home runs.
In 2009, batters put 130,217 balls in play or about 27% per game. By 2017, that was down to just over 121,400. For the 2018 season, the number was projected to be around 120,000, barely 25% per game. It surpassed that number very easily, reaching 120,698. Once again, there was another drop in 2019. That does not bode well for future fans. May as well watch batting practice, there’s more action. A 7.5% decline in less than a decade is a sharp drop.
There are a multitude of reasons for the change. Blogger Chuck Bannon noted that while home runs have increased, strikeouts dramatically increased, by almost 25% over the past decade. It’s only getting worse. In 2018, for the first time in the history of the game, strikeouts exceeded hits. There were 41,019 hits in 2018 compared to 41,207 strikeouts. That disparity widened in 2019, as there were 42,823 strikeouts compared to 42,039 hits. Those concerned about the game saw this coming and the numbers are startling:
The strikeout issue has the Commissioner concerned. Fears that there is a correlation between the lack of action and attendance may have some foundation. For the first time in 15 years, total attendance dropped below 70 million; 17 teams experienced a decline in 2018. MLB blames much of that on historically bad weather, particularly in April. But with the average game time still over three hours, fans did not want to chance a long night.
Solutions might be hard to find. Pace of play initiatives were introduced in 2018 such as limiting mound visits and a faster replay process. There is talk of banning the shift, pitch clocks and limiting pitching changes. However, the new power paradigm has become ingrained even in the minors. Any changes will be fought by the players’ union. But if TV ratings and attendance keep slipping, change will be inevitable.
Holding Steady: Runs Scored
One area that has remained relatively consistent is runs scored. There have been some large dips on an odd year or so, but the changes appear to be statistically minor. Like everything, there are multitude of reasons for this phenomena. In 2009, a total of 22,419 runs were scored, with a league average of 4.61. In 2019, 23,467 runs scored with a runs per game average of 4.83. Despite the dramatic rise in strikeouts and drop in balls in play, the increase in home runs has evened things out a bit. Either way, there is a stat upon which we can build.
Room for the Unconventional
Is there no room in the game anymore for slap hitters who are great defensive players as well? Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Martin, Bucky Dent, Brian Doyle, Freddie Patek and Bernie Carbo would have no place in the game if sabermetrics had come along earlier in the 20th century. The oddball and the lesser talented always had a home in America's pastime. No more thanks to the madness that is sabermetrics.
I would even make the connection between the rise of steroids in the 1980s and 90s with the increase in statistical analysis of the game. Although I'm not particularly bothered by PEDs in general, but it is representative of a greater trend which trickles down to the youth leagues. No longer could the undersized second baseman follow his dream and work his way into the major leagues. Now he has to muscle up and make sure his OPS is good enough. When you have to look like a wrestler from the WWE to play first base, there's a problem.
Then there is the classic case of Pete Rose. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer if there ever was one. One of my idols as a kid, I watched him at Shea Stadium many times, even during his famous hit streak. The streak captivated a nation. No player wanted to win more. But how do you quantify a guy like Rose in today's metrics? You really can't. Using one of sabermetrics most famous measurements, Wins Against Replacement (WAR), his 1980 season with the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies would be a statistical flop. A horrible -0.4. Anyone who watched Rose that year and in the Series, knows that his contribution to that team was immeasurable. There should always be a place in the game for a guy like Rose. Hopefully, his banishment will end soon.
And just a side note, albeit a snarky one: one of the leading proponents of Sabremetrics, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, does not have a World Series ring. The guy even got a book written about him, Moneyball, which was made into a movie of the same name. I have not read the book or seen the movie. I’ll wait for the sequel: Goose Egg.
What's happened to baseball mirrors what has happened to the American worker in many ways: they have become numbers. Once the sport is reduced to a spreadsheet, it loses its soul. There are now dire predictions that within a decade 30% of the American workforce will lose their jobs due to automation or robotics. In professional sports, especially baseball, players seem like robots. Year round training and pressure does not allow these guys to have fun or look at the big picture. We've all lost that.