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April 24, 2007
The Good New Days
As I get older-and in my particular case I mean that in a fairly literal sense of the word-I keep waiting to break the Curmudgeon Barrier. When is that first morning coming that I will wake up and begin to rue that I am living in the modern world? When will I see my first sunrise as someone who thinks the past was a vastly better place in which everything was hunky dory until we somehow managed to screw it up in the name of progress?
Happily, it doesn't seem to be on horizon. This is especially true when I think about the thing I enjoy most, baseball. I think there's a pretty simple explanation for this-it's better than it used to be. Instead of starting sentences with "In my day…" and then detailing from there how much things have gone to ruin, I find myself instead doing just the opposite-pointing out how much things have improved for the fans of our national game. That's what I'm going to do today. Much of this is personal observation and may have the reek of reverse nostalgia, a feeling that life just keeps getting better until it ends. So, just to provide a little balance at the outset, I will say this: interleague play remains a wholly unnecessary exercise and I do miss the real pennant races that four-division baseball produced.
This really began to occur to me while watching the Red Sox-Yankees series this weekend. I kept having to look at the calendar to make sure it was April. The players and fans were behaving as though it's six months in the future, and that made me wonder: Did it always use to be like this? The answer, I am pretty certain, is that no, it didn't. There appears to be a great deal more joy displayed on the field. Players celebrate more readily and generally look like they're having more fun than they used to. I am willing to admit that this is a trick of memory, but I've run this by several other fans my age, and they agree-you see a lot more spirit on the field you used to. Is this spirit contagious? Does it carry over into the stands and through the television? I'd like to think it does, but I can't prove it.
Players' Physical Preparedness
Bigger, faster, stronger-you've heard this a thousand times about modern players compared to their counterparts of yore. Putting that aside, one thing that is undeniable is that they are better prepared physically. With several obvious exceptions, today's players are in fantastic shape. True, some of them have gone a little too far in the pursuit of physical superiority. Perhaps because the monetary stakes are so much higher than they used to be, players expend a lot more time honing their instruments than they used to. I am always amazed when a player in the middle of a long-term contract goes on a rigorous offseason makeover program. How effective these are (remember Rey Ordoñez doing this?) can be debated some other time, but the fact remains: more effort is being expended by players to get themselves into the best physical shape they can be.
Old ballplayers have been crabbing about the shortcomings of the modern player since as soon as the first batch of professionals got old enough to be old ballplayers in the 19th century. You can find examples of "in-my-day" assertions of superiority throughout the game's history. Complain though they might want to, the current crop of old ballplayers certainly can't say that they were in better shape than the player of today.
Do you know what a chore it used to be just to get game scores? If you weren't watching or listening to a game in which the broadcasters would read an out-of-town scoreboard every once in a while, you really had to work at it. Perhaps you lived in a city with an all-news radio station that would update the scoreboard every hour or so. Maybe the local television news would deign to give all the scores in addition to just those of the locals. Chances are, though, you had to wait until morning to read them in the paper-unless of course you lived on the East Coast and the games in the Pacific Time Zone ended too late to make the early edition. Take a second away from your Game Tracker to ponder how frustrating this was.
As for statistics, the Sunday paper in some towns might run the major league averages for qualifying batters, and you might have found a bit more depth on the local team. You might not be aware that by the late '70s, box scores had gone completely to ruin, containing only the barest of information. If you subscribed to The Sporting News, you were more wired-in than most and when USA Today came along it did a lot to move the information ball forward, but even McPaper was still hampered by time constraints.
As for in-depth statistics, the kind that we take for granted now, it was probably easier to come by government encryption codes than it was to get anything beyond the most basic information. For instance, when I was working for Bill James, he devised a plan to get platoon splits for players. The leagues didn't give out that kind of data, so we had to approach the teams on an individual basis. All he wanted the teams to divulge was how batters did at home and away and against left-handed and right-handed pitching. He had me send every public relations department a self-addressed stamped envelope with two dollars in it. Some of the teams sent the stats and the two dollars back. Some kept the two dollars and sent the stats. Some sent the two dollars back without the stats, and some kept the two dollars and didn't send the stats. (I don't remember which teams fell into which category, but I'm pretty sure that Ned Colletti, the current general manager of the Dodgers who was a public relations guy with the Cubs back then, fell into the first, most generous group.)
Now, in defense of the teams that didn't send the data, many of them simply didn't have even this most basic information. They didn't value it and, therefore, didn't assign anybody to track it. The ones that did had to type up a report by hand and send it to us. Your typical fantasy owner now has about a thousand times more data available to him than did a real general manager of 20 years ago.
Growing up in New Jersey, what I knew of minor league baseball was that it was something that was done someplace else. Seeing games at that level meant a road trip. My friends and I would have to drive to Reading (which remains one of the more beautiful baseball settings in the country) or all the way to Hagerstown or Frederick, Maryland to experience what was, for us, a novelty. Now? I have in front of me a copy of Professor Pathfinder's Baseball Travel Map. So dense is the minor league team population along the Northeastern corridor that it has to be boxed out and detailed in a separate map alongside the larger map of the country. Over a dozen teams are now within commuting distance of where there used to be none. As it turns out, people everywhere-including large population centers that have access to big league ball-want to see minor league action.
There was a time not so long ago that proposing such a notion would have been laughable, and when the minor leagues were more like an afterthought. We were told that they had been killed by television, and were seen largely as a necessary burden to their major league parents. Thirty years ago there were 113 minor league teams. One team-the Reds-had six affiliates, and a number of others had five. Quite a few, though, had only four. Indy leagues, save for the ahead-of-its-time Inter-American League (a concept that will work at some point in the future), were unheard of.
Now there are 240 or so minor league teams, give or take, depending on how the new Continental League comes out of the gate. For some reason, the media loves to report the impending demise of baseball based on things like low television ratings during the World Series. The fact is, the game is succeeding at its roots as well as on the big stage.
There was a time when movie theaters and drive-ins would show a "public service" advertisement about the looming doom of "pay television." As I recall, it was a poorly-animated piece in which a television would transform into a Frankenstein's monster and swallow coins out of the pocket of a viewer. The ad would emphasize how evil pay television was going to be and how it just might destroy entertainment as we knew it. I miss drive-in movie theaters as much as anybody, but their demise is more of an urban sprawl-related issue than a matter of victimization at the hands of cable television. Now we have The Sopranos and about as many baseball games as you would want to process in a given night. Yes, you have to pay for most of them, but there they are, available in quantity in a way that we could barely imagine 20 years ago.
This is the most ephemeral bit of supporting evidence on this list, and it hasn't been in place that long, but isn't it nice not to have to read about that crap anymore? Unless you're a fan of labor negotiations-and I'm not here to judge you if that's your favorite roller coaster ride-the absence of labor strife in baseball is a blessed respite that will, ideally, continue in perpetuity.
How bad was the multi-purpose stadium phase of our sports culture? Consider that inside of 50 years of their creation, these constructions will have mostly all been stricken from the land. Yes, the reasons for that extend beyond the fact that they were aesthetically hideous and detracted from the baseball experience with their symmetrical dimensions and artificial turf. Say what you will about the bamboozling of the taxpayer and a peculiar misdirection of civic priorities, but The Camden Yards construction revolution has resulted in a host of better venues in which to watch our national game.
So things are pretty good, huh? So good, in fact, that someday you might attempt to regale a coming generation with tales of this decade's baseball wonders; except it won't work, because things will be even better by then.