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July 13, 2006

Prospectus Today

State of the Game

by Joe Sheehan

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Hey, no wonder the AL teed off on Trevor Hoffman’s splitter Tuesday night: he doesn’t actually throw one. My error; Hoffman is a fastball/change-up guy, something a number of readers pointed out to me, and I’m pretty sure the extra-base hits he allowed were on change-ups. I wish I were better about this; not so much recognizing pitches, which is hard, but at least remembering repertoires. I know Hoffman’s out pitch is a change-up and just whiffed Tuesday, but I’ve given guys sliders they didn’t have and splitters they wish they did.

I’m pushing the second-half preview back a day, because it’s really long and it’s not ready yet. Stupid parity.

OK, that’s only part of the reason. Actually, I want to vent about some stuff today. Tuesday, Bud Selig spoke to reporters, and during that exchange, he expressed the idea that a rule should be established that would prohibit pitchers selected to the All-Star team from pitching on the Sunday prior to the game.

The staggering ridiculousness of that idea--let’s impact the championship season for the sake of an exhibition game in which 45 players will appear and Matt Holliday will be among the leaders in playing time--strains my vocabulary, my imagination and my patience. It is, however, wholly consistent with Selig’s apparent view that baseball isn’t a terribly interesting game, and desperately needs bells and whistles to keep the attention of the public.

See, the All-Star Game was never meant to “count.” Although it did mean more to players of two generations ago, that’s largely because the two leagues were distinct entities, with a rivalry, with history, with animus. The National League looked down on the American as an upstart, even 60 years into its existence. There was a difference in style of play and the NL’s pace of integration. All together, it made for All-Star Games in which the teams cared about winning. The usage patterns--the stars played and substitution patterns more closely resembled baseball rather than P.E. class--reflected this passion.

Interleague play is just the most recent and most visible reason for the decline in the All-Star game’s popularity. When you can see the stars of each league square off in June, why care as much about one night in July? But the last decade has seen the National and American leagues reduced to mere conferences under the banner of “MLB.” Bud Selig wanted this very much, wanted the leagues folded into one house for all kinds of administrative reasons, but you can’t do that, then take away the uniqueness of the All-Star Game, and expect no cost.

Of course, those factors never actually enter the discussion. As I’ve written in the past, all of the landscape changes in the Selig Era are assumed to come without a cost. MLB doesn’t self-evaluate well at all, and hasn’t made the connection between the structural changes and the lack of passion about the All-Star Game, or the role of the expanded playoffs in the perception of competitive balance in the 1990s, or those same expanded playoffs and the loss of drama in September.

When you look deeper at these cycles, what you see are decisions that are driven by a complete lack of trust in the product. Selig, who I’ll blame individually for a process that certainly involves more people than him, doesn’t believe that the greatness of major-league baseball is in the day-to-day of a six-month regular season. Virtually every decision he’s made over the course of his comissionership has detracted from that element, that thing that really does make baseball great, in an effort to garner short-term attention with parlor tricks. The three-division set-up, wild card and expanded playoffs all cheapen the regular season in an effort to add false suspense and more postseason baseball, assumed to be all that people will watch. Interleague play was designed to heighten interest in-season, but MLB trusts that concept so little that it restricts the games to good-weather months and plays them mostly on the weekends. Tricking up the All-Star Game, which really should sell itself, by linking it to the World Series was more sleight of hand, not to mention ignorant of how little home-field advantage means in baseball.

That Selig would even suggest that teams do the exact opposite of what they should—use their best starters on the weekend before the All-Star Game, so that they can start shortly after it, essentially squeezing an extra start from them—shows that he doesn’t get baseball at all. The regular season, the races, are the sacred part of the game, not a commercial-laden dog-and-pony show that is often rendered unwatchable by the broadcaster. (Seriously, how do you stretch what would have a been a 2:15 game into a 3:20 telecast?)

I’m writing about this today because it’s personal. I’ve come to realize that baseball doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me. I’m a 35-year-old white guy with no kids, a decent but not great living, who has no memory of a time when he didn’t love baseball. Baseball has me, and like any relationship where one partner loves the other more, baseball will abuse that relationship with no fear of reprisal. Virtually every change to the game in the Selig Era has been designed to diminish my experience at the expense of the much larger base of people who don’t care so much about baseball. That’s never so apparent than at the ballpark; I don’t mean to sound like I'm twice my age, but the NBA-ization of a ballgame has gone well past the point of sanity.

True story: at Petco Park two weeks ago, I watched the game in the upper deck in a row with a handful of BPers. And as you might expect if you’ve ever hung out with this crowd, it wasn’t a quiet group. We talked, mostly baseball, for virtually the entire game, and because of the ear-splitting PA system, it’s fair to say we weren’t able to use a conversational tone.

Come the bottom of the ninth, I think Jason Grady and I were kicking around something…pinch-hitting choices, Jeremy Accardo closing, something like that…and a woman seated in front of us turned, exasperated, and asked us to be quiet. We were, to a person, astounded, I’d like to say I had some witty retort, but I think my exact words were, “Huhblubberoog?”

The baseball fans got yelled at for talking about baseball at a baseball game. Scream at dot races, knock over your neighbor for a free T-shirt, do the wave, get yourself on the big screen doing the macarena, but by god, don’t talk about baseball.

That’s where we are now, and we’re there because the game’s leadership has sent a consistent message that the baseball season isn’t terribly interesting, and that the people who think it is are less valuable than everyone else. So my plea to Bud Selig is this: trust the game. Stop running away from what is, at its core, an absolutely amazing product, some of the greatest athletes in the world playing the best game ever invented. Embrace what makes baseball different and better than the other major sports, a meaningful and story-laden season that culminates in the very best playing for a championship. Refocus the ballpark experience on the product, rather than pandering to the short-attention span crowd.

And maybe, just maybe, remember that the things you love about the game are the things you’ve been chipping away at for 15 years.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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