Exciting Baseball – An Oxymoron?

  • Posted: May 12, 2022
  • Category: Blog
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There was a time when the phrase “exciting baseball” was not an oxymoron. Though never the darling of the hyperactive, baseball has become what its most vociferous critics always called it, a masochistic marathon of watching paint dry.  Even a lifelong fan, dare I say addict, like myself can barely bring himself to watch the modern game. Watching the modern game is a dreary four hour marathon, a repeating set of ritual dance steps performed by diligent gym rats synchronized to the metronome of two men playing a deliberate and unhurried game of catch.

Where once starting pitchers were expected to log 300 innings a year, we now celebrate anything over 150. Modern game management replaces pitchers more often than Lady Gaga does costumes. And of course each pitching change requires a commercial break, another stretch of dead time to be borne by fans expected to exercise the patience of Job.

Pitchers have mastered the art of velocity such that anything less than 95 mph is a ticket to obscurity. As a point of reference, the legendary Sandy Koufax, known for his blazing unhittable fastball, was clocked at 93 mph, probably averaging more like 90 mph. Facing a baseball thrown at 95 mph, a batter has approximately 0.4 seconds to react to a pitch moving 3-4”from its true flight path by the pitcher’s “made in the lab” grip,  a grip tweaked in an analytics lab by applied physics coupled with endless streams of real-time data.

Pitchers have also mastered the art of the breaking ball. The basic repertoire of most MLB pitchers includes a slider, a ball thrown with a football grip, spinning rapidly and “sliding” across the plate. Typically a slider will come at the batter at 85 mph, giving the batter a full 0.08 of a second more to react to a ball that will “slide” anywhere from 6” to 24”.

Starting pitchers also need at least one more pitch, preferably two. Most include a change-up” in their repertoire. The “change-up” is a slow fastball. Showing exactly the same pitching movement as a fast ball, a batter tensed up for the 95 mph fastball will instead flail at a ball moving “only” 85 mph.

In addition, the modern game has an incredibly detailed data base of exact measurements. Each hitter’s past at bats have been accurately measured as to where they hit the ball. Charted onto a diagram of the field, this data allows the defensive player to be positioned in the spot statistically most likely to be hit, in the unlikely event that the batter does actually, you know, hit the ball.

Since stringing together a series of base hits to score a run is increasingly unlikely, the focus of baseball’s coaches and managers has turned to hitting home runs. At least if the batter hits the ball, a home run will count as a run rather than a man stranded on base. And so we have the era of the “Three True Outcomes”, so called because the defensive players have nothing to do with what happens.

Hitters are trained to focus on hitting the ball as hard as they can while also elevating the angle of the bat’s sweep path across the plate, a recipe once deemed by my own mentors in the game to be a sure path to failure. In truth though, these mechanics do increase the probability of hitting a home run, the first of the Three True Outcomes, rather than a line drive single or double which does nothing if not followed by other base hits. These mechanics, and accompanying mind set, also greatly increase the hitter’s probability of striking out, the second of the Three True Outcomes and the one with by far the highest probability of happening.

Of course the third of the Three True Outcomes is the walk. As pitchers increase their velocity and spin rates, their ability to throw strikes degrades. Unless the pitcher has precisely correct mechanics, grip and arm angle, the ball is moving all over the place with the result that many do not cross the strike zone.

At the same time, the high degree of arc in the bat’s swing path increases the probability of a glancing hit between spinning ball and bat. And so we the spectator, the customer expecting “exciting baseball” is treated to pitches caroming at odd angles from glancing hits, wild pitches and others not swung at because the batter guessed wrong. Of course taking all these pitches and foul balls require time, blissful minutes of watching grown men standing around scratching various body parts while the pitcher and catcher stare at each other, endeavoring to read each other’s mind.

An epitome of the “Three True Outcomes” approach is an outfielder in the prime of his career, Joey Gallo. Though Mr. Gallo is not unique, in fact becoming a commonplace in the modern game. I point out Joey Gallo because my own favorite team, the New York Yankees, traded four promising prospects last August to the Texas Rangers for Mr. Gallo, proving the desirability of this particular prime cut of beef.

Joey Gallo is an established player in the Major Leagues, in fact twice an All-Star, with 2,500 times at bat over a span of 8 years. In those 2,500 times at the plate, Mr. Gallo has struck out 900 times, walked 370 times and hit 160 home runs. Over one half of the time in his time at bat, Mr. Gallo has not hit the ball and he is an All-Star in a position expected to generate offense.

Players such as Mr. Gallo are celebrated for forcing the pitcher to throw many pitches, as these players either walk or strike out. Indulging in a bit of crude mathematics, one can put up another important statistic; during Joey Gallo’s major league baseball career, spectators have been treated to 110 hours of watching the pitcher and catcher indulge in a game of action free catch. When one throws in the time spent in mound conferences with the coach or a change in pitchers occasioned by “fear” of Joey Gallo’s home run potential, that bubble of boredom surrounding Joey Gallo approaches 150 hours.

And it’s not as if Joey Gallo is an outlier. For much of my lifetime, a major league baseball game averaged around 2 ½ hours in length. Today, a similar game is well over 3 hours long, filled to overflowing with games of catch between an unending series of pitchers and the catcher, an endurance contest of “True Three Outcome” baseball.

So much for that phrase, “exciting baseball”. It was not always such. While a committed fan of the Yankees for over sixty years, I lived in Los Angeles for a decade during the 1970’s & 80’s, the time of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Those were the days of the Cincinnati Red’s Big Red Machine and the LA Dodger’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew.

The happy chance of a vendor possessing front row season tickets at Chavez Ravine amenable to persuasion because of my own marginal influence in approving his equipment resulted in my seeing a fair number of Dodger home games, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew in an era of glory. Of course my obligations as husband and father might have suffered somewhat, but then weighed in the balance was the existential need to watch “exciting baseball”. What can I say, the nerd must do what the nerd must do.

The leader of the Dodger’s arch rivals, The Big Red Machine, in that era was another All Star left fielder like Joey Gallo, Pete Rose by name. There was not a lot of dead time, pitcher/catcher games of catch, when Pete Rose was at bat, even though Pete Rose walked almost twice as often as our good friend Joey Gallo.

Of course it was a different game and a different time then. Most tellingly, Pete Rose hardly ever struck out. But despite being the all-time MLB leader in games played, hits and many other categories, Pete Rose got kicked out of baseball, denied a chance to enter the Hall of Fame despite overwhelming credentials. His crime? Pete Rose gambled on baseball games, even though, as far as can be determined, he always bet on his own team to win.

Back in the 20th Century when Major League Baseball was the nation’s pastime, the powers that be in the game cared about integrity. What a concept – integrity. In 1989, Pete Rose’s gambling was exposed, with Pete Rose being promptly blackballed. Gambling was taboo – for obvious reasons.

Back in the early part of the century past, the legendary Commissioner of Baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis had banished an entire baseball team for gambling. He forced two of the most prominent team owners, his own bosses that hired him, to sell their very profitable racetracks, remarking “by God, as long as I have anything to do with this game (baseball), they”ll (gambling interests) never get another hold on it”.

In 2022, FanDuel, Caesars Entertainment and DraftKings are major sponsors and advertisers in parks, online venues and radio/tv broadcasts. Just in case you have been in a coma for the past decade, those are the names of major corporate sponsors of “legal sports betting” with the word “gambling” never used, replaced by the euphemistic “betting”. “Legal sports betting” – another oxymoron perhaps? Gambling on baseball is now legal, advertised and encouraged by Major League Baseball. Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio? Where have you gone Kennesaw Mountain Landis?

Of course, even as the game’s owners salivate over the new gushers of money coming in from gambling, MLB Rule 21 is still in baseball’s rule book – “Betting on any baseball game is prohibited for anyone involved in the MLB, including players, umpires, officials and employees”. True enough, just as the speed limit on C-470, just a mile from my home, is 65 mph. Just as shoplifting at Target is punishable by prison time. The United States of Adorables has a lot of rules. Sometimes when it is politically expedient to do so, we enforce them, though not before looking over one’s shoulder at the “monied interest”.

Ah, the “monied interest”. Even as the excitement level of its product has resembled a badly leaking balloon, major league baseball has accumulated money like a magnet nested in a bed of iron filings. Returning to the Yankees, in 1972 the notorious George Steinbrenner led an investment group purchasing the team from CBS for $8.8 million. George was a wild man, feuding, scheming and brash, perhaps a 20th Century pirate boss but he won our hearts because he wore his heart for his team on his sleeve. No one doubted George’s desire to provide “exciting baseball”, no matter the cost.

Today, his son, Hal Steinbrenner, a benighted cross between Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey and the Charles Burns character on the Simpsons, controls a New York Yankee team valued at over $5 billion. Whereas the original Yankee Stadium was paid for by the team, the new stadium’s cost of over $2 billion was largely borne by the City’s taxpayers. The team’s President, Randy Levine, is an attorney and political fundraiser faintly comic in appearance but with the eyes of a Viking raider. Prior to becoming the team president, Mr. Levine was New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. Enough said.

Well, the “monied interest” are the “monied interests”. Baseball has always been a business and it has often attracted the vain and unscrupulous as well as the clueless to its ownership ranks. Marge Schott, owner of the aforementioned Cincinnati Reds, comes to mind. While not given to complimenting Adolph Hitler as was the habit of Mrs. Schott, Walter O’Malley became the owner of the Brooklyn (Los Angeles) Dodger’s through means of suspect provenance available to him by his intimate association with the city’s controlling Democratic Party, the successor to Tammany Hall.

With today’s need to obsess over the plight of oppressed minorities, one cannot help but note the wave of players from Latin America flooding into the sport over the past two decades. On the one hand, this is a legitimate source of pride for baseball – and America. Young boys from poverty stricken villages in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, etal are given the opportunity to make a life and a career as professional baseball players in the United States. Truly this is a version of “I lift my lamp beside the golden door”, Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty giving voice to America’s promise to immigrants that gave my own grandparents such a grand opportunity.

But then there is the dark underbelly.  These young boys come from “baseball academies” that have sprung up all over Latin America. Run by “coaches” who recruit these boys from rural villages and urban ghettos at 10-12 years of age, the boys live in dormitories and do little else but play baseball year round under the tutelage of “trainers”.

When these boys, many of them illiterate for all practical purposes, reach the age of 16 they are eligible to be signed by major league baseball teams. Each major league team has a “bonus pool” used as money to sign these 16 year old boys to professional contracts.

The amount of each team’s pool varies and is set by the league but amounts to approximately $5 million per team. It is understood that most of these “coaches/trainers” having “relationships” with Major League “scouts” exert a great deal of influence in the contract negotiations.

Each June, hundreds of 16 year old boys of varying illiteracies from Latin America under the management of “coaches and trainers” having “relationships” with “scouts” negotiate contracts worth around $150 million. Understand that not all these boys are signed. And of those signed, their chances of making a major league team are quite low. In common with much of life, many are called but few are chosen. One wonders at the prospects of those not chosen?

At least $150 million is the value of the money on top of the table. Given the culture of Latin America and its profound poverty aligned with the lottery like chance for unimaginable wealth overseen and managed by the shadowy figures of “coaches, trainers and scouts”, I leave you to imagine the possibilities.

Baseball has been central to America and its sense of itself for a very long time. Newspapers first anointed baseball as the National Pastime back in 1856. As an example to illustrate baseball’s ubiquitous presence in our country well before there was Major League Baseball I offer the example of one of my muses, Captain Fred Benteen of the 7th Cavalry in the Black Hills gold rush territory of the 1870’s.

Capt. Benteen gained local notoriety on the frontier by recruiting “ringers”, men who played professionally, into his command and “barnstorming” with them. Two of these ball players, William “Fatty” Williams and 1/Sgt. Joe McCurry, were wounded in action at the Little Big Horn. As a side note, it was Gary Cooper’s portrayal of the “Iron Horse” in Pride of the Yankees that cemented my love for the Yankees.

I can’t find who first said that “sports are the mirror of society” but I believe its truth self-evident. I think it can be more precisely said that “baseball is the mirror of America”. Perhaps it’s just the imagined memories and “bah humbug” common to old men in every time and place, but I think the image of America in modern baseball’s mirror should give us all pause.

Ten years ago a movie, Moneyball, gave us a glossy look at the revolution driving the modern game. Brad Pitt provided a movie star face for Oakland’s Billy Beane, the General Manager pioneering major league baseball’s acceptance of the analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach, the coming of “the science” interpreted by “the experts”.

Going back to that “baseball is the mirror of America”, the Moneyball picture of baseball was certainly prophetic as the victory of “the experts” following “the science” has been complete. Computer geeks crunch aerodynamic equations, endless hours of high definition stop motion videos are dissected and millions of dollars of high tech sensing equipment are utilized by pitching workshops to create  pitchers operating on the edge of physics.

Today, we are all intimately familiar with analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approaches. From the latest corporate procedure promulgated into our cube farm to Dr. Fauci, we are all very familiar with analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approaches.

From my perspective, the baseball product on the field today is a mirror of the analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach’s effect on society. The personality, and with it the fun, is gone. Conformity and a uniform approach are the overarching standards lived by. Nameless analysts hunched over computer screens in grey cubicles control how one goes about one’s job in the workplace, special circumstances and common sense replaced by “procedure” and “percentages”. A creativity killing specialization and focus on metrics creates a predictable end result, however mediocre and bland that end result might be.

It is what it is. Baseball has given fans legalized gambling as an antidote to the numbness created by “the experts”, the analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach. What will society use as an antidote to numb its citizen’s sensibilities from the world created by “the experts”, the analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approaches controlling our lives? I hesitate to rewatch The Matrix as I fear it increasingly prophetic.

The state of baseball saddens me. The state of my country saddens me. But then I endeavor in my frequent bouts of melancholy for a misremembered past to remember the words of a favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra:

“It ain’t over til it’s over.”

 

One Response to “Exciting Baseball – An Oxymoron?”

  1. David Kroon says:

    Bill, you should move on to something more interesting. Perhaps watching CNBC may be more fun. You can listen to the analysts tell you what to buy so they can sell you their position.

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