By Steven Keys


Ask “Ray Babbitt” about the state of baseball and you might hear something like this: ‘Definitely, definitely not your father’s baseball…definitely not……definitely not.’

“Rain Man” would know, being an original saberhead and a big, BIG Redlegs’ fan.

Much has changed since, say, Jackie, Branch & Larry blazed a brighter path in late 40s.

For starters, there are the notable rule changes.

Most come in a 4-year span (’69-73) during reign of proactive, polarizing Commissioner Bowie Kuhn: lowered pitcher’s mound (5”) & tapered strike-zone (‘69); batting helmets (‘71); the game-changer DH (’73 AL) and in August ‘08, Bud Selig opens the Pandora’s box called instant replay to placate that whiney segment of fandom & media who demand exactitude in sport like it were an engineering schematic (dates:

Night games are now the norm and mandated in post-season.

Indoor arenas and plastic turf (Poly® / Astro®) put fresh-air & green grass on endangered species list, but tradition & style made a comeback and now have domers (Tropicana) looking to go way of the Dodo bird.

The supplement craze has run the gamut from alcohol to “greenies (“Ball Four” ‘70),” killer cocaine & “Mary Jane” (60s – 80s) and since sometime in the late 80s, PEDs.

Money has been plentiful ever since MLB got the Federal League bounced (Landis ‘15), now it practically ‘grows on trees’ for anyone connected ($5B ‘12), while the high price of attendance is turning the national pastime into another sport of kings (horse racing), or at least, R&R for the landed gentry.

Some of that moolah is international currency from Hispanic America and Asia, where baseball took hold in the 1930s. Too bad cricket, a British Commonwealth fave, didn’t evolve along the same lines or we’d have one heck of a World (something) Classic.

Baseball will never rival soccer’s popularity but then it’s not that kind of religion, where people can still, sadly, be sacrificed to the sporting gods (Brasil). Stateside, the hooligans hover ‘round parking lots (LA ‘11). Let’s hope the powers-that-be get in the ballgame, stop hiding behind legal precedent and pay for all of Bryan Stow’s recuperative therapy.

Uniforms, like turf, had been trending plastic (polyester) & tight in the 70s but took a U-turn in the 90s to natural blend and mas material (Get a’ load a’ those pants, yikes!), accommodating the explosion in muscles (PEDs), while batsman accessorized with body-armor that, like wedge-putters, seriously skewed the (pitcher / hitter) balance.

Catching the game: My grandfathers had radio (MO / WI), I grew up on free TV (WGN) and today it’s satellite, cable and whatever it‘s called on hand-helds. More expensive, but more choice, too.

Expansion: MLB, like all majors, added a dozen clubs by the 70s, settling the West (58), the South, and then North to Canada, first Montreal (‘69-04), then Toronto (‘77). More teams = more dreams and in ‘69 it expanded the franchise with Divisional playoffs. The biggie came in 1997 as MLB broke with 100 year tradition and began inter-league play.

Where some sports added playoff participants like one who grows love-handles (NBA / NHL / NCAA), MLB and NFL expanded their PS-waistlines as that man who fills-out expectedly with age, a few pounds (teams) at a time.

And the biggest change? Baseball’s gone bratty. Got Maturity?

I have no doubt, individually, most ball-players are mature, ambitious, hard-working, responsible guys that’re good friends, husbands, fathers, sons, neighbors and teammates. But as a group, on the diamond, too often it turns into Goof-ball Country.

The 6 Sillies (& 1 Sin*)

1) home run derby

When other sports are running from exhibitions & kiddie contests (NFL just wishes Pro Bowl would die already, while LeBron sees dunk thing for what it is, small playground kicks), MLB gives the All Star game a big, wet kiss, dolls it up with Derby (and its steroid-baggage) and now it’s their biggest event of the year…of the year. Incredible.

All Star break was meant to be a respite for players, coaches and fans alike. A player invested (Rose), or not, at their own risk. Then a tie-game in Milwaukee, a baseball town, 500 chuckleheads throw a collective conniption fit, litter Miller field with beer bottles and the same brilliant idea-department which gave us Derby decides the game will “matter” by awarding Series home-field to the winner, which nobody likes.

2) Fun-zone (F-Z): Walk-off bunny hop, shave-cream pies, player-pantomime & Gatorade®

Cele-brat-ing every come-from-behind win as if each were a World Series clincher. Then the hero gets a creamy towel or sticky bath. Thanks. Even ESPN pros are rolling eyes.

3) Mitt-face

Nobody cares about your classified conversations. If anyone does steal a sign, just pull a John McGraw next time you cross paths with the thief in the tunnel. Problem solved.

4) *PEDs: Cheaters are bad behaving children.

5) Challenging hot hitters

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again? Nyet. More pitchers are stubbornly refusing to pass on hot hitters who’ve burned ’em before, putting ego ahead of team. Discretion, and the win, can be better part of valor. “That’s why…we play…the game. (Edwards).”

6) Sabermetrics

Numbers & baseball have been inseparable since 1869 (Chicago), providing a necessary measure of worth and historical touchstones (Quizer: .440, 61, 511, 755, 1.12, 191, 262, 59). But assessing play / value in strict adherence to numerology at exclusion of human element is a talking-point perversion of a sacrosanct aspect of baseball and smacks of a mindset which doesn’t fully grasp the entirety of the game. Mr. “Moneyball” might agree.

7) Bench brawlers

The chess-match worked by pitcher & batter is baseball’s key component. That tempers can flair over ownership of home-plate, prompting fisticuffs, is to be expected. But if teammates can’t control the urge (NHL) to leave the bench and join the melee in some school-boy display of loyalty, MLB must stop it with sufficient deterrent.

All Star week brings out talk of storylines: what’s happened so far, what lay ahead.

In truth, it’s been the same storyline every season the past 30: baseball’s tanking.

It’s the best scene in one of the best films ever made, and that’s saying a lot ‘cause this one had a ton. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest (‘75),” Jack Nicholson plays inmate and baseball fan “R.P. McMurphy” who re-creates from his own mind the telecast of the ‘63 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers, to the raucous approval of fellow trustees and the utter annoyance of in-charge nurse “Miss Ratched (Louise Fletcher).”

That’s how it was. The loonies were in the bin, most the dangerous ones, anyway, and baseball was king. America would stop, listen & watch. It was a national passion.

If players & owners want to reverse their game’s steady slide toward less irrelevancy ($5B monopolies don’t go bust) and get back out front of football, they need to do four things:

1) Bring back afternoon World Series

No decision, not DH, not inter-league nor a blinds-eye on PEDs has done more to take the heart & soul out of baseball than under-the-lights WS. I get the sell: more viewers, more pizzas in the PM, but: 1) there is now much more competition, choice at night for viewers than the 80s; and 2) night play starts / runs so late, most fans, most games, bail by the 7th.

While other day-timers like football & auto-racing can keep fans fixated until wee hours, baseball’s slower, more measured cadence won’t afford such patience long into the night.

And who else could hold 4 to 7 championship games in the light of day, giving millions excuse to cut classes & close shop early? Be bold, and in time, it’ll pay dividends.

2) Close window on PEDs…tight

The pro game has always had a seamy-side or at least competitive crudeness, but muscle bound PED users speak to kids in a persuasive voice that the game-fixer and sign-stealer never could. Because MLBPA leaves that window of opportunity ajar for cheats by not drawing every player’s blood twice each year (spring & in-season), we fans are put in limbo, not accusing hot players (C. Davis / Mi. Cabrera), but not daring to trust, either.

Ruffian rounders got class when Landis got tough (1920). MLB needs that again.

3) Stop pandering (Ditch the Derby & ASG home-field)

Whether it’s the home run derby, freaky mascots and fantasy fun for kids, or inter-league, instant replay, playoff expansion and “God Bless America” for adults, MLB marketing mavens are always working an angle, slowly but surely removing baseball’s century’s old patina of tradition, style & substance in the process of profiteering.

As for GBA, American ball-parks are no place for religious & political chest-thumping. Might as well put out ‘Members Only’ signs at the ticket windows. In its place, and that of the “Star Spangled Banner,” sorry Francis, should be “America the Beautiful.”

Course, if you see any “Angels in the Outfield (‘51),” that’s a whole ‘nother ball-game.

4) Grow-up

I’m no child psychologist but kids don’t want MLB dumbed down. They want to look up to ball-players, emulate them, just like the days of Ruth & Johnson, Clemente & Koufax, Ripken & Gwynn. They don’t want to see their heroes acting like, well, like them.

Baseball’s not alone. Immaturity abounds.

TV is officially the “wasteland” presaged (Minow), canines are promoted as club couriers to double as billboards (RIP: Chase), winner trophies are engraved before play is completed (British), avalanches triggered by cool board runs and stadium ball-hawks grab at believed booty with reckless abandon, sometimes to disastrous results. Immaturity never looked so greedy, and vice versa.

Sport will mirror society. Coincidental, maybe, but ever since Michael Jackson’s “We are the world, we are the children (85),” business has youthenized most every facet of the consumer market. NFL and NBA seek young fans as well but their athletes show much less tendency towards to F-Z.

It’s time MLB reclaimed its manhood. Dad and plenty a’ players too, would agree…definitely.

Steven Keys

Can o’ Corn

Photo Credit: SD / Y.Alonso / W. Venable / K.Crull / Chris Hanewinckel USAT / 5-29-13


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