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Mudville: December 3, 2022 4:25 pm PDT
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Death of the Sandlot

On a beautiful Saturday here in northern Florida, I saw something that should scare the heck out of those in charge of Major League Baseball and those who play MLB.

A lonely empty baseball field at a nearby park.

That’s all you need to know about the health of the game – a game Rob Manfred and Tony Clark seem determined to ruin.

It is a small park, but a perfect park to gather with your friends and play. Maybe not a full game, who has 17 friends anymore?

But maybe a couple friends to throw the ball around or hit.

The basketball courts are usually jammed. Same goes for the tennis and pickle ball courts. The playground equipment always has young children scampering around. The dog park beyond the outfield fence is in constant use. But the baseball field is empty most days.

During the summer this is also a sight you see in other parts of the country more often than not. Ballfields that used to be teeming with kids are empty.

Sure, there still is Little League during the season and Travel Ball, but old fashioned, let’s go have fun on the baseball field, whether it is playing three-flies up or whatever you called it – or a pickup game has pretty much gone by the wayside.

The classic 1993 movie The Sandlot about kids getting together and playing baseball every single summer day, those days are long gone.

In many ways, game over, baseball.

That is the future baseball is facing and to baseball’s disgrace, not a lot is being done about it. My friend Kevin Gallagher, who wrote the book: “Teach Your Kid to Hit … So They Don’t Quit’’ has a new venture called Save the Game and The Story will be taking a deeper look at his plan in a future column.

You have to see a problem to fix a problem.

MLB is in the business of creating new problems, not fixing the game’s old problems and that is The Story this Sunday.

MLB and the Players Association are both so out of touch with the everyday fan they have no clue what is heading their way with this lockout.

If the lockout continues or there is a strike and the season is hurt to any degree, baseball officially will become a niche sport.

With the ridiculous rate of inflation currently in the US and families being hammered financially do you actually think people are going to care about billionaires arguing with multi-millionaires?

With baseball having lost its hold on the young fan for a number of reasons, do you think those fans are going to come back to a greedy game when there are so many more options out there for them? There is good reason why World Series television ratings are in the tank and it is not just because the game has become so methodical, over technical, so little action, such a yawn.

Close play, Out at first on a great stretch and stab by the young first baseman, There's more real action per square inch in sandlot baseball than in most major league play, August 18, 1946. (Photo by USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images)

While the NFL and NBA celebrate athleticism, they allow their athletes to be athletes, baseball prefers to hold back on the athletic aspect. They don’t put the ball in play enough to create more action. They are afraid of running into outs. They don’t run the bases well because they don’t practice running the bases like they once did. They don’t do hit and runs, steal bases, saying there is too much risk. The outfielders don’t have strong arms, and something as simple as even knowing what base to throw the baseball to at the right moment is a challenge. And, of course, they strike out way too much.

This generation of player does not anticipate the action as well as past generations.

The game is so much more than a power lift swing.

I think back to the great Roberto Clemente and how he fielded his position in right field, how he threw the baseball and how he hit any pitch he could get his bat on and I smile. That was baseball fun.

“You would always go, they aren’t stupid enough to have a lockout or strike, and realize, no they are.’’

It’s not a fun game anymore the way it is played under the Nerds’ watch. Analytics have created a new game and it’s not baseball… at least not until the World Series. Then teams get serious for about a week and do some baseball things, hit behind the runner, a sacrifice fly, maybe even a bunt and some aggressive baserunning. Defense matters during the World Series.

If you think a few bat flips and mid-summer tearing off a jersey after a walkoff win by a team that is well under .500 is fun, you don’t know what makes the game fun.

You know what’s a fun play? A double with runners on base. I’m only going to throw one set of numbers your way and it says everything about the offensive state of the two New York baseball teams in 2021.

Amazingly, with runners in scoring position the Yankees and the Mets each hit the exact same number of doubles last season, 47, and that was tied with the pathetic Pirates for the least amount of doubles with RISP in all of baseball.

As AMBS often says, imagine that.

With all those millions on each New York payroll, all those analytics, especially from the Nerd-heavy Yankees, and you have the exact same amount of doubles with RISP as the minor league Pirates, a grand total of 47. Again, the three teams tied for dead last in that category. The Astros led baseball with 91, the Red Sox were next at 79.

1950s 10 NEIGHBORHOOD BOYS PLAYING SAND LOT BASEBALL MOST WEAR BLUE JEANS TEE SHIRTS (Photo by D. Corson)

The Mets have upgraded their Nerd population in the past year under new owner Steve Cohen and it is working out perfectly don’t you think?

Buck Showalter can’t get to the Mets fast enough.

As one Mets insider told me recently, “The pitchers and the hitters were both confused last year, too many voices in their ear.’’

That can happen.

Clint Frazier, who hit .186 last year with 65 Ks over 183 at-bats for the Yankees, is not going to get young kids excited about the game with some of his Twitter comments. He is no longer with the Yankees and is with the Cubs, maybe his game will mature in Chicago.

Here is some of what he posted this week: “me being happy i’m on the cubs has nothing to do with yankees fans. it has to do with the fact that i’m happy to be able to play somewhere i’ll get a better chance at playing 😂’’

A better chance? Clint is a good kid, he’s just a bit over sensitive and his tweets rubbed some players the wrong way. Former Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson fired back on Twitter, saying, “Here is something for you. You can talk the talk but, you have not walked the walk. Love the confidence but, you have to do something on the field.’’

Yep, do something on the field.

Since coming over from the Indians with his “legendary bat speed’’ Frazier got 807 plate appearances with the Yankees and that translated into 169 hits, a .239 batting average and a .761 OPS and way too much drama. His defense was bad and injuries slowed his progress, but some of his injury woes were a direct result of his clumsy defense.

I think Frazier has to go back to some hitting basics, get away from that tip-toe front foot setup that just looked uncomfortable and focus on hitting and focus on playing better defense. Work at it.

Twitter will take care of itself.

When I was growing up the only social media we had was Yogi Berra telling us how much he loved to drink Yoo-hoo, “a big energy boost’’ in newspaper and magazine ads. Yeah, I know I’m old.

We’ve gone from Yoo-hoo to Boo-hoo.

Hey players, just go out and play the game with a smile on your face. I got a big kick this week seeing Rays shortstop Wander Franco crushing a home run in a softball game in the Dominican Republic and enjoying every moment of it.

In so many ways baseball has forgotten it’s a game, and, again, a lot of this goes back to the Nerds, they have turned it into a 24/7 technology course. As soon as hitters get back to the dugout after an at-bat they rush to their hand-held screens for another fix of technology.

Talk to your teammates about your at-bat, talk to your hitting coach, every team has two or three of those now, or just relax and get the feel of the at-bat. Baseball is a feel game as much as it is a technology game.

The Nerds have created a new language for the game and has re-defined terms, but it’s still baseball and any player worth his salt is going to take a duck fart single to right field with a man on second base over crushing a 104-mph line drive out.

It’s not about the process fellas, it’s about the result.

There is still a scoreboard in the game and they can’t take that away.

In the big picture now, even though that cheap single drove in a run it is not worth the same on the Nerd scale of grading success as the line drive out. And we all know now that RBIs aren’t important. It’s luck. Yeah, right.

If that is the case, tell me why every time a hitter gets a cheap hit, he is smiling at first base with the coach or the opposing first baseman, who basically acts as a talk show host, which is fine.

You know what else is fun – winning.

Consider these words this week from a baseball insider, who has been in the game for decades and is watching this labor war closely.

“Amongst baseball people for the last year after Covid, the general thought was that the egos on both sides were going to be stupid enough to get where we are now and not find a common ground for something that is bigger than themselves, which is the game of baseball,’’ he told BallNine.

In other words: baseball people could see this coming.

“I thought that their greed and their egos would get in the way and I think everybody in baseball felt the same way,’’ he reiterated. “You would always go, they aren’t stupid enough to have a lockout or strike, and realize, no they are.’’

So how long will this go?

Those I have talked to think it is realistic this will go until the first week of March.

“The players all think spring training is too long anyway,’’ one insider said. “Of course, they are wrong. They don’t want to go through the monotony that it takes to be a good baseball player.’’

That last comment is strong.

It takes monotony to excel at this game. But with monotony comes some fun. Every day in spring training and the regular season Derek Jeter would play competitive hitting games in BP to get the juices flowing and the trash talking. I watched it all the time. Winning in batting practice was a thing. I remember Tony Gwynn doing the same thing on a daily basis when I was a beat reporter in San Diego.

Jeter and Gwynn grew to be baseball legends. We go back to The Sandlot again for some baseball wisdom.

When Babe Ruth visits Benny the Jet in a dream, the Babe offers this advice: “Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.’’

Follow your heart. It seems everything in baseball nowadays is follow the money.

The great Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell summed up the game in the most simplistic of terms: “Baseball? Just a game as simple as a ball and a bat. And yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, business and sometimes almost even a religion.’’

If the owners and players would follow their heart just a little bit more perhaps baseball fields, those sandlots, would not be so empty on perfect days. Baseball is more than the gambling money the two sides are fighting over this time around in the labor war.

The Sandlot game was the best game, growing up in Kenilworth, NJ we played on the 16th Street field all the time, but we also played it on vacant lots and in the streets.

It was the best of times and it was fun. I only wish today’s kids could find the same type of fun on a ball field and maybe find the MLB game fun to watch again.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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