MLB: I don’t even know you anymore

I sat in the dark on the back porch listening to bull frogs and crickets with one ear and the crackle of the AM radio in the other. It was any summer night in the late 1970s and Mom, Dad, and I and possibly my brother sat outside on a summer evening listening as Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas called the nightly Philies game. Back, then the Phillies were pretty good but it didn’t really matter.

We listened to many a Phillies game on that back porch.

I can remember being a Phillies fan almost before I can remember calling myself anything else except a fisherman. I was a pretty small tyke when, using a fishing rod made from a piece of dow rod and a scrap of line, I whipped a catfish out of the ditch along our yard and into the grass. I don’t think I ever saw it land but dashed off into the house, muddy shoes and all, to tell my mom “I GOT ONE!”. It wasn’t long after that that I could name the Philies starting rotation, and line-up. Names like Schmidt, Bowa, Carlton, and Luzinski were a standard part of my vocabulary.

I knew their batting averages, ERAs, favorite colors, and their pet’s names. I learned all about the infield fly rule, the suicide squeeze, and exactly what a slider was. In fact, the first time I saw Steve Carlton’s slider in real life I was certain the batter was going to crush it to the next county. I was sitting just a few rows behind Bob Boone and that slider came floating in from the mound like a fat weather balloon waiting for the Mets’ Rusty Staub to knock it to eternity. Staub practically drooled as the ball floated toward him. He took a mighty swing and nearly screwed himself into the ground as the ball magically dipped to earth and rolled, untouched, across home plate and into Boone’s waiting mitt. Steve “Lefty” Carlton’s slider still lives as one of the most legendary pitches in the game.

Back then, baseball teams played 162 meaningful games. It was (and is) a long and grueling season. But at the end, the 4 best teams (one from each division) did battle in the coveted post season for the title of World Series Champion.

The “Big Red Machine” dominated the 70s.

American sports are often mocked because we call ourselves “World Champions” in sports we invented and nobody else plays. (NFL football leaps to mind.) But despite all the major league teams being only in the Americas, teams truly are world teams. Baseball is played in many other countries: North, Central, and South America, Cuba, Korea, Japan, China, and many other nations contribute to the global wealth of baseball talent. Any given summer night, Americans can turn on the TV or radio and be entertained by some of the greatest athletes in the world. On special occasions, they can enjoy the game in person. We should count ourselves lucky.

But we don’t. In fact, Americans in general don’t appreciate baseball at all. “It’s too slow and too boring.” Yet we’ll tune in to watch 11 minutes of action over the course of the three hours it takes to watch an NFL football game. Baseball was designed to be a leisurely game played over the course of a summer afternoon. It isn’t supposed to be faster or made shorter. I guess now that people can be instantly entertained by cat videos on YouTube or watch three seasons of a TV drama in the course of a weekend we have become impatient with our entertainment. No longer do people care about the subtle interplay between the catcher and the pitcher hoping to deceive the batter. Or the professional courtesy shown when an umpire brushes the plate after a catcher has a foul ball bounce off a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy. These things are just a slow-down to viewers used to binge watching on Netflix.

Unlike Netflix content, one can’t fast-forward through a baseball game.

Because of all these things, the popularity of major league baseball as a spectator sport is rapidly declining. TV ratings and in-person viewership is down. Thus baseball has responded and not necessarily for the better.

One of the many graphs showing the decline in MLB viewership over the years

1973: Enter the designated hitter in the American League. I was 7 years old and completely puzzled when watching the Oakland As and New York Mets play the world series. Why weren’t the pitchers batting? Dad tried to explain. “The American League doesn’t make their pitchers bat. They have a guy that bats for them.” So there is a guy whose only job is to go bat every couple innings. Interesting. No, not interesting. Dumb! How is it possible a multi-million dollar athlete can’t bat?

The tough life of the designated hitter. 3-4 at bats per game and grab a hot dog or ice cream in between.

The designated hitter change for the American league is only one update to baseball in a long list. Baseball has always updated and tweaked rules. Changing the game isn’t new. But 2019 and 2020 brought “change” to a whole new level. The whole idea was to “fix baseball’s boredom problem”. So let’s be clear. Baseball was known as “America’s pastime” since the late 1800s but suddenly in the 2010s and 2020s it suddenly has a boredom problem. Perhaps there is more of a people problem. Now that people get instant gratification on their devices and the internet, baseball just isn’t as instantly gratifying as a cat video on YouTube. Instead of going out and experiencing reality on a summer evening at the ball park, people stay home and kill space aliens on a screen through virtual reality. I’m not really sure it’s baseball that has the problem. But I digress.

Assuming there is a problem, the MLB decided to start implementing “fixes” to speed up the game along about 2018 and 2019. The exact dates of these changes aren’t all that important but here is just some of them:

  • Limited mound visits per game. This is the number of times the catcher or a coach can go to the mound to talk to the pitcher.
  • Expedited the intentional walk by having the dugout just signal a walk instead of the pitcher throwing four pitches.
  • In an effort to limit pitching changes, added a requirement that each pitcher entering the game must face at least 3 batters.
  • Reduced the amount of time a manager has to call for a booth review.
  • Added a new extra inning rule where an offensive runner is put at second base at the start of the inning.
  • Double headers are now 7 innings each.

There are more items in the works too including a pitch clock, and computerized balls and strike calls. These and other possible changes are being tested in the minors.

The future of balls and strikes? No more kicking dirt on the umpire?

I’ve continued to watch baseball through these changes and, overall, find the game far less appealing. The most ironic item from the list above is reducing the timeframe for a manger to challenge a call via booth review. Here’s an idea. Want to speed up the game be it baseball or anything else? GET RID OF THE BOOTH REVIEW. Play the game. Live with the call like teams did for a hundred years before we had review technology. Nothing brings fan enthusiasm to a halt like watching a bunch of umpires or referees standing around the field watching television or awaiting a verdict form an umpire who is 100 miles away in a studio. Half the time they still get it wrong. Just play the game! If it looks like an out, it’s an out. If we are going to count on electronic surveillance to get everything exactly right then why not just plug all the player’s numbers into a machine and let it declare a winner? I’d much rather enjoy a lively game with a couple of bad calls than have a perfectly officiated game that involves a stoppage of play every 30 seconds. (College football . . I’m talking to you.) Ultimately, it’s JUST a game. Nobody will die if someone makes a bad call. There is no such thing as a “must win” in sports.

Watching the umpires while they wait. And we wonder why baseball is boring.

Some of the changes I don’t think are a big deal such as limiting mound visits. I always wondered exactly what the pitching coach is telling the pitcher when he’s given up a hit, and walked two guys to load the bases and is struggling to throw strikes. “Hey, try not to walk this next guy. And don’t give up a home run.” ‘Cause I’m sure he didn’t think of that. Sometimes the pitcher and catcher get crossed up on signals so I get the necessity of those visits but otherwise the usefulness of the mound visit is a bit questionable.

Probably never really said on a mound visit by the coach

As far as the intentional walk, I always liked the pitcher throwing the pitches. The strategy of lulling a batter to complacency with a couple intentional walk pitches and then switching to actually pitching to them has worked for teams time and time again.

And as far as the extra-innings rule . . what a preposterously stupid idea that was. Why not just flip a coin to determine the winner? Or maybe just start having ties since we play 162 apparently meaningless games to get to the post season? The man on second gives the visiting team a decided advantage. Inevitably, that runner scores in the 10th inning giving the visitors a lead going in to the home half of the 10th.

A runner on second is focused on stealing signs.

What’s their first move? Intentionally balk the runner on 2nd to 3rd so that he can’t steal signs. If you are unfamiliar with baseball, a runner on 2nd can see the signs the catcher gives the pitcher for what pitch he is expecting. Baseball has unwritten rules around sign stealing. It has been practiced since the beginning of baseball but when it becomes planned and organized in the way way teams like the ’17 and ’18 Astros did it, it crosses the line and baseball revolts. At the less formal level practiced every game, the runner on second just uses body language to relay the signs to the batter.

A “balk” is called when the pitcher performs a move meant to fake out the base runner in to trying to steal and thus easily being throw out. When the umpire calls a pitcher for a balk, the baserunner is automatically advanced to the next base. While a runner on 3rd base is 90 feet closer to scoring, they can’t see the signs to help the batter. These inane antics greatly detract from the game. I’d rather just see them implement ties.

The idea of the 7 inning double header didn’t seem bad at first. That is right until Madison Bumgarner threw a 7 inning no-hitter against the Braves last April. Typically, a no-hitter is a big deal and earns mention of that pitcher in the hall of fame. But even though the game officially counted by the new MLB rules, was it really a no hitter? A lot of pitchers have thrown no-hitters through 7 innings and lost them in the 8th or 9th. Many a pitcher has no-hit another team through 5 or 6 innings and seen the game called on account of weather. Once past 5 innings, those games are official. But it isn’t a no-hitter. The MLB waters are definitely muddied. Ultimately, it isn’t an individual sport though.

Sorry Madison. It doesn’t really count.

Over the last couple years I’ve tuned in to this “new” version of “less boring” major league baseball with less and less enthusiasm. Beginning in December, baseball is now involved in a lockout and labor dispute. The Collective Bargaining Agreement that governs contracts and play between players and owners expired and they are struggling to come up with a new one everyone likes. Apparently, owners want more dollars with expanded playoffs. Players want more dollars with less playing time. Both groups have a long list of demands they want met. One of the most striking things for the players is a request to raise the league minimum salary from $600,000 a year to $750,000 a year. Go ahead and read that again. These poor unproven rookies and perpetually poor batting utility players and designated hitters can probably barely eek out an existence on $600,000/year to play a game. Meanwhile, congress is investigating to see if nurses get paid too much. And the billionaire owners want more playoff games so they can stick a blue-collar baseball fan for $500 tickets in the post season.

No player with a Major League contract is driving a broken down jalopy like that portrayed in the movie “Major League”

Thes negotiations have been at a stalemate for a while now. It seems the only break through so far has been an agreement that the Designated Hitter will now be universal. Supposedly “everyone wants it”. I can tell you not everyone wants it. On top of other current and pending changes it is just one more “improvement” to water down the game. In my opinion, the only reason players want more designated hitters is to provide job opportunities for out-of-shape, old sluggers at the end of their career. As a baseball fan, I’m not a fan.

Boston’s David Ortiz’s career was greatly extended by filling the role of Designated Hitter long after his fitness and athleticism were left behind.

As far as expanded playoffs, the very fact that the owners want this to help teams make more money with post-season tickets should tell everyone all they need to know. Americans are absolutely obsessed with playoffs. Sports is all about “the championship”. In my opinion, playoffs are won by the team with the least attrition who happens to be hot. One can look at any sport with playoffs in the last ten years and find example after example of said “championship” not being won by the best team. Playoffs are all about separating diehard sports fans from their money. We have the attitude that if a team can’t make the post season, they aren’t worth going to watch. Imagine if we had this attitude with our kids sports or our own sporting endeavors. Why bother if you aren’t good enough to contend for a championship?

Can you imagine taking a family of four to a playoff game? I wonder if you can apply for a second mortgage at the gate?

If playoffs and championships are the only thing that matters, why not just play all professional sports as one big round robin tournament? Why bother with pre-seasons and lengthy, meaningless regular seasons.

As I watch billionaire owners bicker with millionaire players, I think about the last baseball game I went to. It was a Phillies game at the tail end of the dreadful 2019 season. I sat in the stands and watched Phillie after Phillie walk to the plate, take three half-hearted swings and head back to the bench. The Phillies were not in contention for the all-important playoffs, so why bother?

Later that same week, Sean Rodriguez hit a walk-off home run to lift the Phillies to a late-season win. He used his post-game interview to hop on his soap box and chastise “entitled” Phillies fans for booing their stars. Entitled fans!? Really!? My trip to the Phillies game cost $25.00 to park, $75.00 for a ticket and, unless I wanted to go thirsty and hungry for nine innings, another $25.00 for some food and drink. Including the gas and tolls to get to the stadium it wasn’t an inexpensive outing. The cost for a family of four to attend a ballgame would be astronomical. I think it is more than reasonable for fans to have a high expectation of their players after spending a large chunk of their monthly budget and time to attend a game. If those players choose to go through the motions to get through nine innings as quickly as possible they should expect to be booed. Who exactly is “entitled” here?

A Phillie star walks back to the dugout after flailing at gnats during a late season at-bat.

Each winter around my birthday I’ve looked forward to hearing the words “Pitchers and catchers report to spring training today.” Like the first robin, or blooming crocus it is a sure sign that the end of the cold, grey winter isn’t far away. I look forward to turning on the radio in the evening and listening to Phillies baseball. Fans in the background mumble, vendors call out their wares, and the announcers tell us what is happening on the field while sharing tales of the game and life between pitches. But at this point, the juice is no longer worth the squeeze for me. After a life of being a baseball fan, the game has become something I no longer recognize or care to pay attention to. I hope they are successful in attracting new fans with their modified, speeded-up, “improved” game because they are chasing away older fans in droves.

2 Comments

  1. I’m right there with you, sir. Legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck once said baseball “is a game to be savored, not gulped.” Unfortunately, Americans don’t savor much of anything, anymore; we have to move on to the next thing. It’s sad to see what’s happening to the game.

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