This is going to be brazen.
From the Little Leagues to Major League Fandom
Let me begin by giving you my credentials as a baseball fan. I moved from Montreal to West Palm Beach, Florida as a 7 year-old who played hockey, My father, wanting to integrate me into the American way of life and keep me active, teach me the character-building virtues of a team sport that did not require frozen water or bashing into others, signed me up for Little League Baseball. It changed my life for the better. I immediately loved the game.
My coach, Jack Boyd, was an old-school south Floridan country boy with a fantastic disciplinarian profile. When we were lollygagging or cadillacing or showboating or hotdogging (Each of these are actual technical baseball terms, by the way. I have seen Pete Rose use them, for example.) Coach Boyd would throw down his wood fungo bat and circle his right hand, the signal for ordering us to run laps in the 90-degree, 100% humidity of South Florida summers. We learned quickly the right way to play baseball from a fundamentals point of view and from a character point of view. These life lessons, at seven years old!! still serve me today. I can remember those practices and those games like they were last week. I will also add that we won two league championships in our three years with Coach Boyd so the results speak for themselves. He also taught us another lesson, and I quote:
“Nobody remembers who finishes second.”
and this beauty, on the first day of practice:
“From this day forward each of you will eat, drink, speak and think about baseball and only baseball.”
All this for kids 10-12 years-old!
I remember the incredible excitement of the evening games with the first pitches at twilight, the freshly-chalked lines, the beautiful polyester uniforms, and the wads of bubblicious or hubba bubba bubble gum. This was 1977 and the radio was playing Barry Manilow, the Bee Gees and some Led Zeppelin for good measure. It was glorious. I remember my mom driving me to practices and my dad taking me to games.
It was the same year, in our first American home that I discovered Major League Baseball, thanks to the 1977 World Series and Reggie Jackson. It was the Dodgers-Yankees and it was epic. It was the when Reggie became Mr. October and I remember the electricity coming through our little black and white TV. Since that series I became a diehard fan of the Major League game with my hometown Expos being my team but always watching a big league game when I could, on the television.
What Is a True Baseball Fan?
I have always believed the true measure of a fan is that he or she will watch any big league team with interest and curiosity. I was such a crazy fan that I even would happily watch Little League or High School games with whomever was my girlfriend at the time. It became a kind of litmus test of her patience and coolness if she did not complain. Throw in the fact that I played all the way into American Legion level and then tried out for the University of Florida (where my claim to fame is making it past the first cuts!) and you can see where my passion comes from.
MLB Makes the Ghost Runner a Permanent Rule for Extra Innings
This is why, my beloved Giants and baseball fans, I feel it is important to write you today as I learned that yesterday Major League Baseball and Pete Manfred, the Commissioner, announced the permanent rule change of the extra inning “Ghost Runner.” There is no need to go into all the historical aspects and ramifications of this stupid rule that makes a mockery of the game and destroys the inherent drama of extra inning games. Here are the official rules for the “Designated Runner” rule, as the Ghost Runner is called by MLB.
We all know that I’m old-school, as in, a fan that loves the game for its purity. It is easy to criticize my point of view as out-dated, conservative and resistant to change but let me pre-empt that argument with this: By trying to improve the game Manfred and the Owners are avoiding the real reasons why baseball is suffering in the popular imagination and why MLB in particular is addressing this loss of fans with a synthetic series of stupid, thoughtless rules that harm the historical fabric and statistical history of the game. Want proof? Look at the NFL, by any measure, the nation’s most popular sport. You want to know what my theory is to that game’s popularity? It’s a combination of many factors of course but let me focus on one. The NFL has a salary cap and a competitive balance that allows for every team to more or less believe it has a chance to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season. That belief in your team’s chances is perhaps the key ingredient to NFL fandom.
The Real Issues Affecting MLB
We all know that Major League Baseball is suffering from low television ratings, fan apathy, and a loss of relevance within American culture. Emphasis on “American” because this is not the case in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other nations south of the border. In Canada there is also a generally strong interest in baseball but it will always place second to hockey. The point is that the owners and the commissioner are trying to make the game more appealing to fans by shortening the games, accelerating the pace of play, and amping up the so-called entertainment level of the fan experience. I get it. We live in an era of shortened attention spans and competition for entertainment from all kinds of other stimuli that range from television and movies to other sports to video games, social media and many other phenomena.
In trying to make the Major League Baseball game better Manfred has so far done the following:
- Added the DH to the National League
- Added a pitch clock
- Enlarged the bases (still SMH on this one)
- Expanded the postseason
- Add the Ghost Runner (Officially the “Designated Runner”) for extra innings
- Limited Pick-Off attempts
- Banned the Shift
For the full set of new rules to be implemented in the 2023 season read this superb overview at ESPN.com published by Jesse Rogers.
What Do the Players Think?
The players are not happy. For those who have spoken on the record the general feeling is that the rule changes are too emphatic, being instilled too quickly and not being undertaken with their consent or guidance.
In that ESPN article Austin Slater is quoted and here is what he has to say:
“Guys were a little uncomfortable with the clock, for the most part. The thing that players were most concerned about, regarding the pitch clock, was in conjunction with that fact you’re only allowed two pick-offs. I understand the league’s take, if you add pickoffs, you go down a slippery slope. But that’s one that’s going to take getting used to.”
One of the critical lessons in problem solving (and in living a good life) is understanding the root, the source of an issue or problem. The mistake MLB and Manfred are making is trying to fix the game without addressing the root causes of the decline in popularity, attendance, and viewership. They are taking the easy way out rather than addressing what I believe to be, the core issues that impact baseball and the fans. There are many and they include the pace of play, the length of games.
To its credit the MLB RBI program is working towards renewing interest in the game at the youth level in urban areas (I reject the term “inner city”). That’s a start. But in my opinion the biggest issue with the game as it is today is the ownership and the disparity in payrolls. There are far too many teams and owners who are simply using the teams as a cash machine to line their pockets without regard for trying to win. We all know who they are (Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cincinnati, Colorado, etc.) This has made MLB really two leagues: the haves and have-mores. The haves don’t care about trying to field a winning team as long as they are generating revenue from television contracts, licensing and the occasional fans in the seats. The owners of the Marlins are a case in point. The same goes with the Athletics. This is the biggest issue for MLB today and of course, the Commissioner is doing nothing to address it.
Where We Are Today
The other issue is that children and families are forgetting the virtues of the game at a cultural level. Whether you are an African-American in Chicago or Atlanta, a Hispanic-American in Miami or Los Angeles, or an Anglo-American in Boston or Philadelphia one of the things that makes you an American is the embrace, fandom of sporting and cultural activities. Within baseball that meant a sport based on gentlemanly codes of behavior and conduct coming from the 19th century and now deemed irrelevant, or passe. The benefits and virtues of the game of baseball are the same but the way your culture learns and receives them changes depending on the context, the home, the parents, the friends, the schools, etc. Baseball, in attempt to keep with the ever-changing times has evolved into a more culturally all-encompassing game with new standards, both superb and terrible. The Good; an embrace of the multi-faceted cultural and national roots of its players with special honor and celebrations (Roberto Clemente Award, Jackie Robinson Day, etc.) The bad: showboating, hotdogging, cadillacing and preening, gestures now considered art-forms with their own instagram and Youtube pages). We have lost touch with the idea of sports(wo)manship and fair play, dignity and honor.
This evolution represents a crisis of culture and value conflict within American society. As Americans we would benefit by asking ourselves what we want from our children and our parents (our future and our past). How do we want to be? How do we want to behave?
We need to teach our children the virtuous offerings of honesty, humility, dignity, honor and respect for one’s opponent. These are not specific to one or another culture. They are part of the universal language of sport and transcend baseball. These are ways of life that baseball, indeed all sports, can inspire in our children. This is where baseball can play a part in not only entertaining kids but teaching them the far-reaching benefits of its life and game-lessons. When baseball becomes another avenue of the selfishness, vanity and narcissism of the worst of our culture then we all lose out and we get insipid rule changes like making the bases bigger and starting extra innings with a runner on second.
The Role of the Commissioner Today
It used to be that the Commissioner of Major League Baseball had a mandate to work as a steward for the good of the game and not as a representative for billionaire owners. Think I’m romanticizing things here? Read the above link and the section on Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
That mandate of acting “for the good of the game” is now gone, in flames, up in smoke, insert your cliche here. It used to be that the Commissioner and the owners had a love for the history of the game and a duty to field a winning team for their fans and their city. There was an actual mandate and a desire to field a good team. That social contract between fans and owners is now gone.
Throw in the nefarious influence the Analytics-based philosophy has had on Major League Baseball and the overall quality of the game and you see how dire the situation is.
These are your real issues, Major League Baseball.
Stop messing with the rules. Stop diluting the game and messing with its history in the process. You are about to lose me as a fan.