Wednesday, May 23, 2018

292. Baseball and the world have changed

Baseball has been a big part of my life. When I was young and playing in youth leagues, I would go in my room and cry when games where rained out. I carried this passion from my youth through high school, college, and adult leagues.

While of course I wanted to play professional baseball, my goal was to play college baseball and I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to play at Ashland University.

After college, it was hard to give it up. Most guys fade away to start their careers, attend graduate school, or raise families. But I was lucky to play into my mid-30s and I also coached at several area high schools. Baseball was in my blood.

The Cleveland Indians’ remarkable run in the mid-90s was enjoyed with my wife, whom I started dating in 1995. We spent many nights at Jacob’s Field watching incredible Tribe comebacks. We also traveled to some away games with friends to root for the team.

I always pictured myself buying season tickets to Indians games after I retired. I would live out my days at the stadium eating hot dogs and watching the game I loved.

However, like so many things, the game has changed.

The analytics and subsequent approach to the game has transformed it and fans have noticed. Major League Baseball has noticed the declining attendance and is trying to make changes to improve the fan experience.

The game increasingly relies on the home run to produce runs, as hitters have adjusted their “launch angle.” In 2014, the percentage of runs via the home run was 33 percent; in 2016 it was 40 percent.

Swinging for the fences has also led to the more strikeouts, which have increased 10 straight years. The obsession with home runs has also led to defensive shifts, which places extra fielders on the “pull” side of the field. In 1993, Frank Thomas, swinging down through the ball and hitting to all fields, hit 41 home runs and stuck out 54 times. In 2017, Joey Gallo hit 41 home runs and struck out 196 times.

Watching the Indians and Yankees in the playoffs last year was miserable. The Yankees struck out 64 times in the five-game series, almost 13 per game. The Indians struck out 61 times.

Stolen bases are down, bunts are down, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a well-executed hit and run. Many players no longer even own these skills, as evidenced by an entire side of the infield left unattended. Managers and players don’t want to “waste an out” and thereby reduce the number of attempts to hit the ball out of the park.

The number of pitching changes has slowed the game down to the point that baseball has limited the number of trips to the mound. And the lack of offensive creativity has limited the game management to pitching and batter match-ups. Speaking of game management (in the National League), it’s time to choose between a designated hitter and the pitcher batting. Inter-league play should encourage that the leagues share the same set of rules.

I thought I would be a fan of instant replay in baseball. However, like football, it has created a delayed reaction to close plays. Managers must get a signal from their staff to challenge the call and then the umpires must look at it. The spirit of replay was never to punish baserunners who come off the base an inch or two — but a rule is a rule. And while replay is important for game-changing plays, the calling of balls and strikes is a critical part of the game and the umpires’ ability to do this varies greatly.

The major league playoff system, which was smart to introduce a wild card team in 1994, ruined it in 2012 when two wild card teams from each league qualified and now battle in a ridiculous one game playoff. When you need 162 games to determine playoff teams, you need a seven-game playoffs series — even the five-game series is not statistically long enough.

And finally, postseason baseball (to the Indians’ benefit in 2016) is a different game than the regular season — it’s long and disjointed.

But it not just the game that has changed. The world has changed.

The slow play of baseball (compared to other major sports) lends itself to the distraction of cell phones. When I do get to a game, it is hard to understand the number of people who spend more time watching their phones than watching the game.

Finally, when I was younger, it never bothered me that athletes made the money they did (and back then they didn’t make anything like they make now). Although baseball is probably the most affordable of the major professional sports, it’s gotten ridiculous and many hard-working people aren’t willing to pay that kind of money to attend a game. And the player excuse of, “I have to the think of my family,” when choosing between a $100 million contract and a $95 million contract is a little out of touch.

I grew up in North Eaton, and I was there a couple of weeks ago looking for birds. I told my wife it reminded me of the days I spent there playing baseball. There was something in the air, the smell of rural spring evenings, and the threat of rain, that took me back to the simplicity of my hopes and dreams.

Unfortunately, things change.

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