Major League Baseball ain’t what it used to be.
The style of play of the game that “used to be” – its philosophy, practice, execution, strategy, tactics, daring, anticipated action, and excitement – have been replaced by a mundane game of strikeouts, home runs, and bases-on-balls. We should have seen this coming 20 years ago.
In 2001, I had the good fortune to attend Major League Baseball games in two cities, Baltimore and Dallas-Fort Worth, and was struck by the dissimilarity of the fans who attended the games. The Baltimore Orioles fans obviously understood the intricacies of the game. The Texas Rangers fans obviously did not.
The Orioles crowd, for example, watched a classic pitcher vs. batter duel between the Montreal Expos right-handed pitcher Javier Vazquez and Orioles right fielder Jeff Conine. With a base runner on second base, Conine hit a nasty curve ball up the middle, a ground ball that was fielded by the Expos shortstop who threw Conine out at first. But Conine’s ground ball advanced the base runner to third, and that runner scored later in the inning on a short single.
The crowd applauded Conine for a productive time-at-bat. Baltimore won, 3-2.
The game at the Ballpark in Arlington, where the Rangers play their home games, had a similar play, but the crowd reaction was different. Rookie right fielder Cliff Brumbaugh hit a one-ball, two-strike slider thrown by the Minnesota Twins left-hander pitcher Eric Milton, a tough pitch that broke down and in on Brumbaugh who managed to slash a ground ball to the first baseman. It was a ground out, but he also advanced a base runner from second base to third.
The crowd boo-ed Brumbaugh. The Twins won the game 6-3. The realization came to me that Texas Rangers fans understood only two plays in baseball: home runs and strikeouts.
Now we are all “Rangers fans,” trapped in this new baseball era of home runs, strikeouts, and bases-on-balls. This is not the game I grew up with and loved.
The nuances of the game, and the truly cerebral and craftsman-like and exciting aspects of baseball have mostly been lost to MLB fans. The rationale behind their team’s batting order, the defensive positioning of players in the field, the stolen base, the double steal, the delayed steal, the hit-and-run play, the bunt-and-run play, the sacrifice fly, the sacrifice bunt, hitting behind the base runner, the double play, the pick-off play – these were the excitement and action of MLB that has become misunderstood (or more accurately, no longer understood and forgotten).
Home runs and strike outs. That’s what the fans want, according to the MLB team owners. So we are all lumped with those Rangers crowds of 20 years ago, unable or unwilling to understand and appreciate the real gamesmanship of baseball.
But the game of home runs, strikeouts, and bases-on-balls is boring. About one time in three, a player’s at-bat produces one of those results: a strikeout, a base-on-balls, or a home run. A drab statistic.
And this drab game of MLB has had drab consequences, the most apparent being the slow but steady decline in baseball attendance. Since 2007, MLB parks have seen ticket sales decrease from 79.5 million to 68.5 million in 2019. Based on a full season of 2,430 games, that means crowds have shrunk from about 32,700 per game in 2007 to about 28,200 in 2019. This loss of 11 million people in the seats means a whole lot of lost revenue from tickets sales, concessions, merchandise, and parking fees. Maybe that will be a wake-up call for team owners.
Fans don’t want to watch the boring game that MLB has become. And they especially do not want to sit through a three hour and fifteen-minute game, which was the average length of a nine-inning game during the 2019 season. By comparison, before the strikeouts and home runs and bases-on-balls era, game used to average about two and one-half hours. Strikeouts, home runs, and bases-on-balls are really sloooww.
Of course the game of baseball is different in 2020. The players are bigger, stronger, faster, and more astute in applying the technologies of videos and biomechanics to their batting swings. And they get paid more money, a whole lot more money, for hitting home runs. They hit a record-breaking 6,776 home runs in 2019. That is an increase of 11 percent over the previous record year of 2017 when they hit 6,105.
Remember the year 1961 when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were in the race to break Babe Ruth’s home run record for one season? There were 2,730 total home runs in MLB that year.
The number of strikeouts has increased every year for 12 consecutive years. For the 2019 season, the number was 42,823. (That is more than six strikeouts for every home run, so if the long ball lifts your endorphin levels, you’ll have to endure many opioid blockers between the euphoric highs.) By comparison, during the 1968-1970 MLB seasons when “something had to be done about pitchers dominating the game” with all those strikeouts, the yearly average was 21,321.
Pitchers gave up 15,686 bases-on-balls during the 2018 season. For that “pitcher dominated year” of 1968, the number was 9,156. More boredom, more slow-downs.
Baseball is not a changeless game, much as we old timers would like it to be. Major League Baseball has gone through many transformations in its style of play over the preceding 120 years: the Dead Ball Era from about 1900-1920, the Live-Ball Era of Babe Ruth in the 1920s and 1930s, the New York Era of the 1950s, the Small-Ball Era of the 1960s to name a few. And of course the Modern Era did not really begin until Black and Hispanic players were finally admitted to MLB beginning in the 1950s.
Baseball has been constantly changing, but it has preserved its appeal to fans whenever the game has lost the entertainment value of exciting play. Keep in mind that the Dead-Ball Era came to an end not only because of the arrival of Babe Ruth but because pitchers were forbidden to throw the spit ball. In the 1960s, when pitching threatened the excitement of the game (Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting championship in 1968 with an anemic average of .301), the pitcher’s mound was lowered. With some rules and regulations adaptions, can we hope that the Home Run Era of baseball has reached its zenith and will return to the game we used to know?
As I mentioned, MLB players are bigger, stronger, faster, and better coached for power hitting. But the ball parks have remained pretty much the same dimensions for a hundred years: about 330-340 feet to the fences down the left and right field foul lines, about 390 feet in the power alleys, and about 410 feet to dead center. There are some exceptions; Fenway Park’s unique configuration with the Green Monster wall in left field and its shallow 390-foot center field is the best example. The Houston Astros play in Minute Maid Park which has the deepest center field at 426 feet.
To restore the excitement of the game, those dimensions should be about 400 feet down the lines, about 450 in the power alleys, and about 500 feet to dead center. Then a whole lot of those boring home runs will become long fly outs, and the game will return to valuing singles and doubles hitters, high batting averages, base stealing, the hit-and-run, and the whole gamut of offensive skills that should be displayed by a professional ball player,
Team owners and executives will cringe in horror at the prospect of this alteration to their ball parks (and to their rosters of power hitters and power pitchers), but I remind them that attendance has taken a dive in recent years, it will continue to decline, and the once lucrative television contracts will also shrink as they lose viewers. Because the game is mundane. And long. And slow. And boring.
Eleven million fans lost. Conservatively, that is $1 billion in lost revenue. And it’s going to get worse, much worse, unless something is done to rejuvenate the game.
As we know, 2020 will be a “lost” season for MLB. This may be the time to restructure the game and make it exciting again.
Major League Baseball ain’t what it used to be. But it could be.