March 11, 2022

Article at Steven on Authory

What I Love[d] About Baseball

I announced, perhaps prematurely (one never knows, does one?), the severing of my lifelong ties to baseball a few weeks ago,  before negotiations between the owners and the players broke down, threatening a delay if not a cancellation of the 2022 season, and specifically distinct from that issue. As an addendum, I mentioned that the possibility of a truncated season pushed me closer to my decision, but the decision itself, to stop following MLB, was rooted in the Commissioner’s previous announcement  that the DH would henceforth be universal throughout organized baseball, at which point I threw up my hands, and nearly threw up.

There is something wonderful, almost romantic, about that brief moment when we first realize how attached we are to something, or to someone. It’s elevating to one’s spirit to understand for the first time that this thing, or this person, will always be entwined with oneself, even if we’re able to sense that somewhere down the line, we may grow estranged from that wonderful object of our veneration. For me, with MLB, that period is the 1960s, when each league had ten teams, each team had twenty-five players, each World Series was between the winningest team in each league with no interfering static of playoffs, Wild Cards, divisions. That’s the game I fell in love with.

Part of my attraction to MLB in the 1960s was my realizing that I had, or could acquire, mastery of the game. Not playing it, of course; a few years into the 1960s, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, I realized that I could never play the game without a disqualifying level of incompetence, poor coordination, very dubious running speed, and a weak throwing arm, any of which in itself was sufficient to relegate me to getting splinters in my ass at any reasonably advanced level of the game.

But my advantage in the game was strategy: I could master the game mentally, and the easiest part of that task was memorizing every player on every MLB team, and his weaknesses and strengths. This also worked for me on the real-life baseball field—I wasn’t much a pitcher, but I could tell which opposing batters had tendencies to swing at low pitches, or to swing at first pitches, or to pull everything, and this sort of understanding was what kept me on the playing field among far more talented teammates for a while. At one point, I probably could have named for you, without reference to a printed roster, at least 23 or 24 players on each MLB team, a colossal expenditure of mental energy.

I didn’t even understand the extent of this process, or the persistence of it, until I was writing about some 1960s game in the 2010s for Bill James On Line, and realized that some 50 years after the game had been played, I could tell you two or three facts about each player in that long-ago game: his hometown, or the shape of his career, or some trade he was involved in, or some oddball feat of his. I knew stories, in other words, about hundreds and hundreds of players, and all of these stories tied in somehow to a much larger mosaic. I was, somewhat to my astonishment, a genuine expert in the subject of major league baseball, or at least as much of one as anyone who didn’t work full-time in MLB for a living.

As a teenager, I found myself talking with adults about MLB, and often (and obnoxiously) correcting their misstatements, misunderstandings, misconceptions about the game, which certainly made me feel older than my years, and which gave me a certain sense of useful skepticism about the competence of the adults around me that has served me well.

So baseball was one of the first paths I walked on as a grownup, and I will carry with me that special sense of fondness for the game that bestowed such a blessing upon me.

My sense of competence, however, did not last long. After the DH had been introduced in 1973 as an experiment in the American League, and divisional play had taken its first steps, I was able to tolerate these radical changes to the game I had gotten some mastery over by reasoning that all experiments did not end in success, so I rooted for the DH to flop after a few years, and then, after decades of the DH’s persistence, I tolerated it by reasoning that it was established only in the American League, which I could try my best to ignore.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the sheer number of teams had long expanded beyond the point where I could still maintain my familiarity with every big-league roster, so I became content to specialize in the National League anyway. The American League had become a kind of clown league suitable only to provide foils for World Series play. So my decision to stop following baseball in the year 2022 is actually a delayed decision stemming from almost 50 years earlier.

My antipathy towards the DH stems from my delight in baseball's symmetry. Baseball is literally a zero-sum game: every run scored by the offense also marks a run against the defense, every hit by a batter is also a hit against a pitcher, every win by a team is also a loss by its opponent, and somehow the DH upset this symmetry. In order to earn your four at-bats per game, you had to be able to field at least well enough to play a relatively undemanding position like first base or left field. If the price of your fielding was much greater than your offense could pay for, you had to gather splinters and make most of your appearances as a pinch-hitter or as an emergency position player.

It's a small thing, I know, but my favorite moment in managerial strategy happens to be that moment a weak-hitting pitcher comes to bat in a game he is pitching well in, but his team badly needs a hit at that juncture. Does the manager decide to replace that picture with a pinch-hitter and lose the pitcher’s defensive excellence for the rest of the game? Is the offensive advantage, in other words, enough to offset the presumed defensive disadvantage?

In 1960s baseball, the presumption is, of course, that a starting pitcher performing well will complete the game, but in recent years the presumption has been the opposite. It has become an easy choice for the manager {really, not even a choice at all) because managers in this century will routinely remove the starting pitcher from the game at some early point anyway, so this has become just another cause for my loss of interest in baseball. “Should he take the pitcher out? Should he leave him in? Is he still pitching well? Is he starting to tire? Is his bullpen fresh? Is it deep? Are weak hitters due up in the next half-inning, or especially strong ones?” are the type of puzzles I enjoyed thinking about, and I still could, in National League baseball, at least, where the manager still had to decide when to hit for a pitcher.

Perhaps because I did a little pitching, or perhaps because I first followed the game during the pitching -rich 1960s, or perhaps because the teams I most liked to follow were Sandy Koufax's Dodgers and Tom Seaver's Mets, I focused so much of my attention on the choice between removing the pitcher from the game or leaving him in there. When I managed games in Strat-O-Matic baseball, I sometimes learned the hard way that I had chosen to leave Koufax or Seaver to bat futilely in some late inning, only to find that he needed to be removed because he had lost his effectiveness. (Strat-o-Matic became much improved, btw, when the concept of a pitcher’s “point of weakness” got introduced.) Other times I would learn the opposite lesson, being rewarded for my faith when my weak-hitting pitcher came through against all odds, driving in that crucial run, and then would go on to pitch effectively through the ninth inning. What a guy! (Or in the case of Strat-o-Matic, What a card!) Either way, that one strategic choice often had a huge impact on the outcome of the game, and it was one of the few choices that didn’t depend on brute strength or happenstance but rather on the manager’s thinking. That was what I liked.  

Removing the pitcher for a pinch-hitter wasn’t the only part of the game that was upset. Rosters changed when the DH was introduced. I also enjoyed recognizing when a position player could no longer play the position. Recognizing a loss of range, or speed, of arm strength in a player, or sometimes just recognizing that he didn’t have the skills he needed to play that position in the first place, was an important part of the game, but now when players could no longer field but could still hit, they could play at DH. I hated this, because again it upset the zero-sum nature of baseball.

A strange argument was used to justify the DH: you may recall the argument being trotted out that the DH would allow aging stars a way to stay in MLB for a few extra years.

I hated that argument. For a number of reasons. The zero-sum reason, of course, but also the logic was appalling: every job it saved for an aging batter was a job it kept a young batter (or pitcher) from getting. The roster size was still the same, wasn’t it? And I enjoyed watching young players take jobs away from veterans who could no longer play the game, or play the complete game, as they needed to. I was supposedly tempted by the spectacle of Orlando Cepeda or Tommy Davis or Harmon Killebrew adding a few extra weeks or months to his MLB career, but I hated it.

For one thing, those extra weeks amounted to stat-padding. Why should Cepeda or Davis or Killebrew get a few extra at-bats, and home runs, and RBIs, that were denied to earlier aging sluggers? One of the beauties of baseball was the constant attempt at comparing players from one era to those of another, so comparing Killebrew to Jimmie Foxx just became harder, and not easier, with the advent of the DH. Now, I was required to add some imaginary RBIs to Foxx’s tally, on the basis that if he’d played with a DH rule, he might have hit another 10 or 100 home runs. It is hard enough to compare players from different eras, and I did not appreciate the way the DH adds more complications to my mental equations.

But mainly I wanted there to be a cost to filling a roster with players of limited skills. I detest specialization in sports. When I suggested to someone last week, in response to my farewell to baseball article, the notion that the next step after the DH was fielding a defensive team and an offensive team in baseball, batters who never had to wear a glove, fielders who never had to touch a bat. His response? “Now you’re being ridiculous.”

But am I? It’s really not such a far step at all. If you object to pitchers with .175 lifetime batting averages trying to hit MLB pitching, why is that any more ridiculous than a .200 hitting batter trying to do the same?  It’s a matter of degree, not of kind, and a wide variety of skill levels in baseball, with an accompanying trade-off, is what gives the game its quality.

The beauty part of baseball, more than any other sport, is its permanence: it exists apart from the world around, or at least it should, in theory. Theoretically, I would like to take one element of the game and compare it, reasonably and equitably, to another element. How does strategy in the AL in 2016 compare to the strategies used in the NL in 1916? Were the Cardinals in the 1940s a better ballclub than the Dodgers? How do Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn compare? The outside world, of course, factors into all such comparisons: World War II, for example, affected the Dodger and Cardinal rosters differently in the early 1940s. But in theory, the game is a sealed-off test tube in which purely internal reactions can be examined regardless of the world outside that test-tube.

There are other reasons I’m giving up on baseball. (Even if the 2022 season opens on schedule, don’t expect me back.)  Many others have suggested numerous sensible ways to eliminate the grotesque dead time that has added an hour or more of sheer boredom to the average baseball game—I’ve devoted several columns of such sensible suggestions to the discussion, but it’s clear that MLB is more devoted to ignoring these suggestions, even though some of them would make the games not only shorter but better. My own favorite, that of refusing to grant “time out” to batters between every pitch, is already on the books and would both improve the skill-level required of a batter but would radically cut at least a half-hour of dead time off the average game.

I could go on and on and on—the shift, the number of pitching changes, the tendency to extend each at-bat to a full count—but I’ve been complaining about each of these things for a long time, and it’s obvious to me that they are only going to get worse the more I try to analyze and suggest solutions for each of these problems.

Did you ever have a conversation with someone where you realized that the person you’re trying to persuade is not only unpersuaded but is actually paying no attention to you? Maybe even laughing silently at you? That’s how I feel my conversation with MLB has been going for the last half-century. I think it’s time I just walked away from the conversation.