Get Your Sh*t Together, Baseball
“Leds, you’re in the hole.”
A sense of adrenaline pervades through my body. I can’t stop my mind from traveling into a reflexive state of saying,
“Give me a fucking chance. Get on base guys. Please get on base.” I internally repeat the words as my two teammates battle their way on to the base paths.
“Game is tied. Bottom of the 9th. Two outs. Man on first and second. Your time, your moment. What are you made of?” I ask myself.
My batting gloves are fastened with each strand of Velcro meeting its counterpart as both flaps firmly converge. I hawk a wad of saliva onto my gloves. My hands slap together in an effort to upgrade my grip on this weapon of a bat my dad got me last Christmas. I dig my cleat into the back chalk of the batter’s box and look up at the man 60 feet away staring right back at me.
Every moment, every pitch of this baseball game, led to this decisive climax.
I cycle through any important factors leading up to the first pitch about what the pitcher’s tendencies are and how the defense is playing against me. I don’t need to remind myself to stay back on his changeup or finish my swing. I’ve had all season to fix these subtleties. I know what I need to do. If he throws a fastball on the inner half of the plate, then that’s on him.
A showdown ensues. The beauty of baseball is on display.
Professional baseball has been on the decline over the course of the last decade. The conversations that attempt to pinpoint the problem range from this era’s shunning of performance-enhancing drugs (lack of Barry Bonds/ McGuire/Sosa type MF’s) all the way to the “speed of the game”, which is the point that I feel most inclined to zero in on.
You might find it odd that I started this piece with a vivid, borderline pretentious, description of a situation that I was in the midst of during a high pressure game. Fortunately, this was my Freshmen year baseball team and Varsity coaches weren’t there to see me ground out to third base to end the inning.
I opened this way to showcase the value that suspension in time has between each and every moment. In my opinion, this is what makes the game of baseball so magical. Kind of like a JJ Abrams-produced movie or that cool feeling your girlfriend or boyfriend gives you; the more effective the build up, the more rewarding the experience. You can’t reciprocate that feeling with a pitch timer or a 15-second long square on @bleacherreport’s Instagram page. Basketball and football are perfect for today’s social media society, where a three-fingered Odell Beckham touchdown catch or a Blake Griffin dunk can spread through the Internet like wildfire. Baseball will always provide a flash of athleticism, but that’s not what makes this game what it is.
In any other major sport, a winding clock steadily wanes the game down to a close. Baseball on the other hand, is pushed along by nothing else other than the events that take place on the baseball field.
Baseball will not have its declining ratings reversed by giving the audience back 3–4 minutes of game time over a 3–3.5 hour span. Instead they should be ridding this game of mundane action and outdated “unwritten rule books” that old white men have failed to evolve from. Without fixing these issues, they lose a major market audience as well as the premier, transformative athletes who elect to play other sports when making the decision for themselves at an early age.
Whether you are in favor of changing the game or not, the fact remains that popularity in baseball is on the decline. Both fundamentally changing how the game is played and changing how baseball elects to market itself are both elements that should seriously be tended to.
Major League Baseball has experimented with ideas such as:
- Batters must keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times.
- 20-second pitch timers.
- Limiting the number of pitcher changes throughout a game.
But ask yourself, are these changes really going to get you to turn on a baseball game again? Do you honestly believe these are the things that attract new fans? Or is the issue more fundamental? If you think the sport needs a pitching timer to grab the youth market, then this article isn’t for you. Here are three things that I identify as the lead factors.
Point #1: Where Are The Black Players and Why Are They Leaving?
I think every Media Studies class in college will touch on the distinction between low culture, high culture and the cultural capital that influences what side of the chart one is more likely to fall on. But so I don’t have to lecture you, here’s Chris Rock explaining what culture decides what’s cool, how the number of black professional players have gone from 20% down to 8% since the 1980s, and why all of this has become a glaring problem for baseball.
Point #2: The Defensive Shift
One tangible thing that has been widely noticed during this era of decline is that strikeouts are going up and home runs are going down. Pitchers are winning more battles than their adversaries. In 2000, the amount of runs that came across the plate was at an average of 10.28 per game. In 2016, it was 8.29. That’s about a 20% decrease in runs scored. If you factor in that a regular season has 30 teams and all of them play at least 162 games per season, that is a significant drop in offensive productivity.
What’s changed over the course of that time? Is it the crackdown on steroids and human growth hormone? Sure, to some extent. But I really believe it to be something bigger.
There’s been strong momentum within the last decade in how prevalent defensive players are shifting from their traditional positions when the most dangerous pull hitters are at the plate. If the MLB experimented with getting rid of or simply limiting the defensive shift, it would provide more real estate for power hitters to start raking, boost batting averages, and provide more balance to the game. I’m uncertain if this directly correlates to the growing number of strikeouts and falling home run numbers, but it allows pull hitters to focus on hitting the ball hard without adjusting their approach. When all a player has on his mind is hitting the ball hard, good things come. It’s hard enough hitting a 103 mph Aroldis Chapman fastball. It’s time to throw hitters a bone.
Point #3: Throw Out The Unwritten Rule Book
Jose Bautista broke the Internet in the 2015 playoffs after hitting a towering 3-run home run in the 7th inning of a win or go home game against the Texas Rangers. The moment will live in baseball lore not because of the home run, but god damn it, that bat flip. If you type in Jose Bautista’s name on Google, you don’t get “jose bautista playoff home run”, you get “jose bautista bat flip”.
But here’s where the unwritten rule book comes into play.
After the game, reporters asked the man who gave up the home run his thoughts on Bautista’s reaction. His reply:
“Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more.”
Would you like to see what happened the season after that bat flip? Well. This.
Granted, this haymaker was nothing short of pure entertainment but unfortunately for us as fans, it hardly ever comes down to this. The cancerous list of tenets that players see themselves abiding by forbids players from celebrating home runs or erupting in celebration after a crucial strikeout to end an inning.
There is no rule that an umpire enforces that penalizes a player for violating this code. It’s just that the other team is going to throw a seed of a fastball square into the back or head of the violator if they fail to live up to the opposing team’s expectations.
Whether it’s a fear of being a distraction to the team or a downright lack of desire to get smacked in the head by a blistering fastball, often times players find themselves needing to oblige to this code of ethics whether they agree with it or not.
I don’t think I stand alone when I say that I’d love to plug into my Instagram feed every day to see bat flips, stare downs, Victor Cruz-style salsa dances at home plate, LeBron-style roars into the crowd, and everything in between. The people want to see passion from their athletes. This nostalgic goal of maintaining its old-fashioned elements is ironically outdated.
It’s amazing how quickly we forget about the Kirk Gibson fist pump as he rounds the bases, Reggie Jackson famously quoting his style of play as “the straw that stirs the drink”, or Manny being Manny in the 2000s.
Let’s inject some personality back into this game. The last World Series has proven baseball has a lot left to offer.