By Michael Turton
With half-hearted apologies to fans of the 2018 New York Yankees, this is the best time of year to watch baseball: stress-filled, winner-take-all wild-card games; excruciatingly short division series where every pitch, and every hit, counts; nail-biting league championships; and baseball’s ultimate annual showdown — The World Series, which began Tuesday (Oct. 23).
Unfortunately, even the excitement of October baseball can’t disguise the downward spiral of the game that was once undisputed as “America’s pastime.”
Mid-way through the 2016 season, I commented on some of the symptoms of big-league baseball’s decades-long skid:
- Grossly inflated salaries;
- The designated hitter and the ever-increasing obsession with the home run;
- The death of “small ball” and managerial strategy;
- Inter-league play and the loss of the National versus American League mystique;
- Embarrassing corporate stadium names such as Petco Park;
- Uniform pant legs that drag to the ground like ill-fitting pajamas;
- Players who wear necklaces on the field;
- Time-consuming video reviews and, last but not least;
- The contrived and all-too-orchestrated ninth-inning celebrations at home plate, when a win in a half-empty stadium lifts a team not into the World Series but out of last place.
It turns out that there are even more manifestations of baseball’s malaise. They are more subtle than the ugly, roofed stadiums with their living-room-carpet artificial turf but just as troubling:
Players who point to the heavens after a home run — but not after a strike-out. If the baseball gods are to be revered, shouldn’t a whiff also be celebrated as part of their master plan?
- The “idiot’s rectangle” that defines the strike zone for TV viewers. Like official reviews, it removes the time-honored tradition of hating the ump.
- Being told after a relief pitcher comes in that his pitch count stands at two. At least wait until it hits three.
- Baseball is a statistician’s feast, and rightfully so. But does the exit velocity of a home run matter? If it does, perhaps a 120-mph round-tripper should put an extra run on the board compared to a mere 100-mph blast. Better yet, measure hang time. A home run that takes a full minute to come down from orbit could count as a grand slam, regardless of how many men are on base. A line-drive homer with no arc would chalk up only half a run.
- Teams now have so many different uniforms they are no longer … uniform. A poorly veiled ploy to sell more merchandise.
- Goggles now seem to be mandatory during post-game champagne celebrations. Players who shake off being hit by a 100-mph fastball apparently worry about being beaned by an errant cork. Or are the bubbles the problem?
- What ever happened to announcers with personality and good baseball stories? Is “See ya!” the best we can do?
- The MLB.TV channel uses a miniature baseball diamond to illustrate aspects of the game. Brilliant, and much more authentic than the garish, brass-glass-digital sets used on most sports programs. But the commentators on the mini-diamond wear three-piece suits, dress shoes and a glove that has never fielded a ball. Suits are perfect — for undertakers and accountants. Put these guys in a Major League Baseball golf shirt and khakis, wearing a glove that has actually been used. They probably all own one.
Military camouflage jerseys, admittedly a sensitive topic. When men and women don camouflage in wartime, they risk their lives for their country. Baseball players … play baseball. Camouflage as part of a baseball uniform demeans military service.
- Baseball played when the temperature dips below 60 degrees, spring or fall, is no fun for players, umps or fans. It takes away from the game. It should be illegal. But shortening the season would mean lost revenue. So let them suffer.
- The atmosphere at many major league parks — the excessive, non-stop advertising; the constant, blaringly bad music that is only silenced a split second before the pitch; the larger-than-life, mind-numbing videos — is no longer a distraction. The game itself has become the distraction. Progress is not always progress.
Despite it all, October baseball is still great, one of the best things in all of sport, including curling. And I know the Detroit Tigers will be better next year. In the meantime, go Red Sox!