I needed baseball more this winter than in any offseason I can remember. I lost my son last spring; we buried him on Opening Day. I had a hard time coming back to the game at first, but eventually I did and (almost without my realizing it) the game wrapped itself around me. In a famous essay, former commissioner and baseball poet laureate Bart Giamatti wrote this:
Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn't this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio–not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television–and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind. There, in that warm, bright place, what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come.
I felt some of that, although in just my 28th summer, and for different reasons, I suppose. Unwittingly, I put baseball to work, asking it to separate me from my grief for a stretch every day. As much as I tried to analyze it and comment on it, I see in hindsight that I was largely using it to analyze and comment upon myself. (That ended almost exactly the way one might have expected.)
Anyway, last season offered some great drama, with races for the Wild Card spots in each league going down to the wire. Then the postseason came, and offered not only some of the most compelling storylines in recent memory, but the best pure baseball I’ve seen in my lifetime. For all of that time, it was easy to remain heavily cloaked in the game. I blissfully buried myself in it. That I was and remain a Cubs fan added to it all, of course. It heightened the catharsis. Still, much of my immersion was more about needing the game (and finding it so satisfyingly suited to my needs) than about who won or lost.
When the whole thing was over, for the first time since I was in high school I still needed more. I usually turn to the other sports during baseball’s offseason. In recent years, having usually written a great deal about baseball during the season (and during October, in particular), I’ve turned away just for a break. I thought I would need an even longer break this time. Instead, I felt I couldn’t bear any break at all.
I also didn’t want to dive headlong into the Hot Stove League and I found only a few of the 2016 games I re-watched on MLB.tv fulfilling. I started going back to classic games archived on the At Bat app—Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS, or Game 3 of the 1995 version, or Game 7 of the 1982 World Series. They weren’t quite satisfying, either. Those games were selected because they’re so famous, and because their outcomes were so famous and important. Precisely for those reasons, I already knew how they ended and in most cases I also knew how they unfolded.
It didn’t take long to realize, with that suspense gone and with no emotional connection to the winners (or losers), the games themselves were unremarkable. That’s OK. Unremarkable baseball was what I needed. Still, it was more interesting, and easier to remain engaged, if the story wasn’t stale. That’s how I found ClassicMLB11. It’s a YouTube channel to which someone has uploaded (amid a steady stream of ancient highlight reels, old This Week in Baseball episodes, and the familiar classic playoff and All-Star games) dozens of almost random games from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
I must have watched 20 or more of those games this past winter. (I branched out from that one channel too, but I wanted to make special note of what I consider a wonderful public service.) It was delightful. The games I watched featured players I had heard of but never seen on video; players I had forgotten all about; and players I should have known about but never had. They featured contenders and also-rans, and they were full-bodied broadcasts, including commercial breaks and announcer banter. I learned as much from watching those random games as I did from the dozen books I read this winter.
Here, I offer a few of those lessons, for our common enjoyment and discussion:
Everyone used to swing at the first pitch.
They say that, without statistics, you couldn’t feel the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter. I believe that. However, this little (unintentional) experiment offers evidence to refute it. The league swung at the first pitch 28.4 percent of the time in 2016, but 32.6 percent in 1988, 31.9 percent in 1989 and 1990, and 30.4 percent of the time in 1991. I watched games from all of those seasons (and some from 1981, 1983, and 1984 too). I could feel the difference between batters swinging at one first pitch every three times and two every seven really easily. I feel supremely confident in saying the following: if we had data for years prior to 1988, we’d find that the league was swinging at the first pitch a solid 35 percent of the time, and maybe more.
I’m much less confident in my ability to tell you whether the global swing rate, in all counts, has risen or fallen over the last 30-plus years. I looked it up and the answer is, of course, some of each. It fell for a while, but has trended up over the last decade, and the net effect is that overall swing rates are very close to the same for 1988-1990 and 2016. That could be why I didn’t notice a difference, I guess. On its own, though, that erosion in first-pitch aggressiveness explains some things about the game as we know it now. Batters feel much less certain that the pitch they’re looking for will come as soon as they step into the box. They’re much more willing to wait for that pitch, which makes the game a bit slower (hello, Mr. Manfred), but probably also makes it better.
Far more hitters swung down at the ball.
Like the last lesson, this is probably not news to you. We know modern hitters are waiting for a pitch they can mash. We also know that they’re retraining themselves to take full advantage when that pitch does come. Many of them have developed an up-tilted swing that stays in the zone a long time, but also tends to generate lift and gives the ball a chance to fly out of the park. I would not have guessed, however, that this was just the latest in a series of league-wide swing path changes over the years.
The league is always made up of ground-ball and fly-ball and line-drive hitters, of slappy speedsters and slashing sluggers, of up-swingers and down-swingers. The number of guys who swung in 1984 the way players swing now, however, is roughly equal to the number of guys who threw as hard in 1984 as pitchers throw now. So many great hitters, guys I know had long and fruitful careers, were prone to stabbing swings at any well-executed pitch low and away.
I had to watch highlight videos to prove to myself that they occasionally did hit the ball hard. The level swing was in vogue. It lessened the value of a lot of contact, such that maybe swinging at the first pitch as often as they did served the hitters of the 1980s poorly. (As a corollary, we’ve seen a general rise in first-pitch swinging over the last few years. As hard as today’s hitters swing, and given the loft they gear their bat paths to create, they might do well to be even more aggressive on that first offering.)
The game looked as fast as it looks now.
This was a real revelation for me. You should know, if you’re any kind of sports fan, that all sports are now played at what the previous generation would have considered breakneck speed. When you go to the ballpark, you can see just how hard the ball is thrown, how hard it’s hit, how fast everyone runs, and how quickly everyone fields the ball and fires it to the proper base. When you go to a basketball game, you can see how much taller everyone is, how much faster they run, how much quicker a release on a three-pointer needs to be, and how much more important explosiveness has become—at the expense of mere agility, body control, or creativity.
For some sports, those things are just as obvious on TV. Most of the playing field is within the view of a TV fan most of the time. They can witness the faster ticking of the clock in the quarterback’s head, and the way a penetrating guard needs to be at the hoop in one blink, with one dribble, if he’s to get there at all. In baseball, it’s harder to see all of that. The ball is pitched almost directly away from the center-field camera, so while it might be easy to see relative differences in the shape or speed of pitches within a game, it’s hard to tell that Dwight Gooden didn’t throw nearly as hard, even at 19, as Aroldis Chapman throws.
Then, when the ball is put in play, there’s a camera cut, because wherever the ball is headed it’s almost certainly an area of the field we couldn’t see from the original camera. That cut deceives the viewer in every possible way, especially the viewer who has synced their internal clock to the speed of the game in a different era. I would watch a batter hit the ball to shortstop, see the cut, watch the fielder pick the ball up on a short hop, see him put his whole body into firing the thing across the diamond, and see that the throw just barely beat the onrushing runner. The runner seemed fast. The fielder seemed fast, for getting to the ball, throwing it so hard, and getting that fast runner. It was all an illusion, though. That ball wasn’t hit as hard back then as it would be hit now—not even close.
Anecdotally, far more grounders in those days seem to have been mis-hit to the opposite side of the infield. (Maybe there’s a good reason why the shift took a long time to find its way into the defensive playbooks of even data-driven teams.) The fielder grabbing it had an extra split-second to get to it, because it was hit more slowly, but that fielder also tended to be a 160-pound wisp of a guy who needed a running start to throw as hard as Andrelton Simmons throws from his knees. The runner almost got to the base because the ball was hit slowly (by modern standards) and the fielder stunk (by modern standards), and my mind just made him seem faster than he was then, because in today’s MLB, you have to be a burner to almost beat out a routine ground ball to short.
Is this part of why people think baseball has gotten slower? I really don’t know. The chief complaints of even the pace-of-action crowd seem to be about dead time and the length of games from end to end, but maybe they’re being subtly fooled by TV’s inability to communicate the speed and precision and excitement of the modern game.
Everybody ran, all the time, and it was fun.
We all know, now, that stealing bases is only as valuable as the success rate at which you steal them. We all know that teams ran too often back then, and that today’s teams are much more rational. Still, it was really fun back when almost any runner on first base represented a chance for a theft. An anonymous player recently suggested (to Buster Olney) removing the requirement that a pitcher stop for a full second before beginning his delivery with runners on base.
The idea was that doing so would eliminate the cat-and-mouse game pitchers and runners play, stop hurlers from holding the ball and stepping off so often, lessen the need for pickoff throws, and speed up the game. I like the creativity, but (apart from my general objection to the idea that pace of play is a problem players should fix at all) I’m not willing to trade the running game for that benefit. Steals are fun. We should, maybe, eventually, look for ways to incentivize them more and we certainly shouldn’t do anything to further curtail them.
The typical batting stance was more closed then than it is now.
It’s just one small thing in a constellation of differences between 1980s hitters and today’s, but it captured my attention early on and just built up. Someone smarter than me can offer insight into why this change occurred, but inarguably more players used to set up looking right over their front shoulder at the pitcher, with their feet even or their front foot a bit closer to the plate than their back one. Strictly an observation.
Bunts! There were so many bunts.
If you’re about my age, you vaguely understand that the battle over bunting is one the stat-heads won easily, and early. You might not understand, though, just how worthwhile a battle it was. My god, the bad bunts piled up. In anything resembling a close game, there was usually an inexcusably foolish bunt during what would otherwise have been the most interesting, taut moment.
Commercials! There were hardly any commercials.
I clocked the average commercial break for the 1984 Wrigley Field opener, between the Mets and the Cubs. It was 1:30. Some breaks were 1:00 flat, with a 15-second fill by Harry Caray (or Milo Hamilton) and Steve Stone coming out of them. The clocks that keep the league so nicely on schedule these days start at 2:35. Seriously, folks, the one and only legitimate starting point for pace-of-play conversations is the time we spend having products shoved down our throats while Ender Inciarte and Matt Kemp slowly take their positions and toss the ball around.
Old baseball games are such fun to watch. I strongly recommend it. Now that spring training games have begun, I’ve returned to watching players younger than me play live baseball. I no longer lean so much on the game to manage my personal life; I have better coping tools. What’s left, the return on my investment of emotion and attention in games that mostly took place before I was born, is a new layer of understanding of some elements of baseball. It was a winter well spent.
Thank you for reading
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