Make Baseball Fun Again
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Around the corner and up the block from me, there’s a large field that’s used as a multi-sport, multi-age play area, for everything from softball to baseball to Frisbee to soccer to dog run. Kids and adults (and dogs) of all ages use the grassy field in the summer, both male and female.
On any given sunny afternoon you might see high school girls’ softball practice, Little League baseball, or a game of adult Ultimate Frisbee being played there – and the field is large enough to host several sports or games at once.
Later in the evenings, there are people who bring their dogs for a run post-work and just socialize in friendly groups, dotting the full square block-sized field till after dark.
The field is fenced in and mowed regularly. And it’s like a slice of a different time in Americana, a neighborhoody, comfortable place to spend a few hours on a spring or summer day enjoying some organized sports, and some decidedly not so organized sports.
Going to a baseball game used to be an extension of playing the sport yourself – or the other way around. Either way, not only did kids grow up listening to baseball on the radio or watching it on TV, they played it themselves – at recess in school, after school, during summer holidays, with adult supervision, without adult supervision, through organized groups like Little League or the local Y, or without formal organization, as well.
Sometimes stickball was played instead, or softball, or baseball with a tennis ball; but the popularity of the game was evident throughout the culture. Now, not so much.
Going to a ballgame used to be less formal, as well. Tickets cost less, the food offerings were simpler, many stadiums were accessible via public transportation, and there were more day games and double headers. Lots of fun that you could enjoy pretty spontaneously.
Right now it’s MLB hot stove season. Back in the day of blockbuster trades at the mid-season trade deadline, the only time of year that compared to the speculation and anticipation of the hot stove was the trade deadline.
But the winter months were all about who was going to get the next managerial position, who was going to fill out the starting rotation for your favorite team, and which position players would sign where – regardless of their contract length or size.
You would eagerly scan the newspaper every day for updates, and listen to sports radio, and as soon as ESPN came along on cable TV, study the bottom line every evening for MLB news and information.
Now in the days of social media, all you need to do is open X (formerly Twitter) or Instagram or Facebook on your smart phone to see the latest MLB news – or better yet, just get alerts from your favorite sports site throughout the day. You can even just download the MLB app and have it send you alerts; and avoid social media and sports sites altogether.
But if you do choose to use social media, the activity around the hot stove is mostly fan GM-ing, deciding for their team which players to acquire, which ones to let walk, and what the size and duration of contracts ought to be. Even which cities should be MLB expansion cities and which not; and which owners ought to sell their team because they’re simply not invested enough in the success of said team.
These topics get so overly chewed and digested for fans, it’s a wonder baseball fans have any energy left to care about their MLB team and its season by the time spring training rolls finally around.
What’s changed about sports in general, and baseball in particular, isn’t just the addition of analytics and the (some would say outsized) role they’ve been given in the game; it’s that there are no mysteries left to the imagination anymore about how club rosters come together, how their leadership was chosen, and how the internal workings of the operations occur for any individual club.
All is now exposed. If you’re an owner or a GM or a player agent, best of luck putting your best foot forward on a daily basis – because all your yesterdays are most likely being dissected and criticized without you even knowing about it, so you’ve got to walk softly and carry your own kind of big stick.
I’m not advocating for fans knowing less about what’s going on in the sport or the team they’re supporting, just for a little bit of mystery and surprise to surround the game and its participants once again. Just for fun.
Since we’ve already mentioned analytics, do they kill some of the fun of being a baseball fan in the 2020s?
It all depends whom you ask. There are those who live for launch angle and exit velo and BABIP and WAR, not to mention XSLG, XWOBA, or XWOBACON. And there are those who just want to watch a baseball game and not think about all the metrics for each player’s plate appearances or fielding or pitching.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with devising and using analytics for sports in general, nor for baseball in particular.
What’s changed as a result, however, is THE WAY you watch a game now. If you’re old enough to recall the time when there was no strike zone box hovering over home plate on your TV screen, you recall that fans and team managers got just as angry at imperfect umpires as they do today. That little box on your TV or tablet screen didn’t create that frustration. You might not have had the frustration for as many pitches as you do now, but it’s not like anyone ever thought home plate umpires were perfect at calling balls and strikes.
The difference is it didn’t become a constant issue, because you didn’t have a graphic reminder of the strike zone for Every. Single. Pitch.
So you watched the game in a different way. You also weren’t told what the exit velo was on each hard hit ball or launch angle on each home run. Instead of marveling at how hard a hitter hit the ball because you had the exact measurements, you marveled because of how quickly it left the ballpark or where it landed in the seats.
And then there’s the impact of the pitch clock. Sure, Mike Hargrove took forever to get in the box and get ready to swing. And let’s not even discuss Nomar Garciaparra. Annoying to fans? At least to some it was. Would a pitch clock have helped? No doubt.
But there are those who’d argue the pitch clock removed some of the human element of the game – some of what made it so organically great to watch. Now, there has to be some mechanism for getting hitters to not constantly step out and pitchers to not walk around the mound after every pitch; but the question is whether that could be regulated in a more human, more organic way. I don’t profess to have the answer – but I think the question is a valid one.
I recall the pitch thrown to Jim Leyritz of the New York Yankees by Mark Wohlers of the Atlanta Braves that turned around the 1996 World Series – as the ball left the ballpark. I recall being completely focused on which pitch in Wohlers’ arsenal was the one that was coming in that particular pitch count. And predicting it would not be the fastball. And it wasn’t.
I wonder if I would even have been thinking about which pitch was coming had there been a strike zone box hovering above home plate on my TV screen. Truthfully, probably not. But being a home spectator was a different experience in 1996.
Sometimes, knowing a little less can make guessing a whole lot more fun.