I wrote this one day out frustration.
I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been trying my best to preserve the memories I have of America’s pastime, but it’s become too difficult.
The other night on ESPN’s highlights of the day’s games, there was a replay of a home run hit by the young, acclaimed “superstar” outfielder for the Atlanta Braves. That it was hit well was corroborated by the announcers who had it disappearing into oblivion. Informed then as to the speed with which it rocketed out of sight, and the launch angle that determined its trajectory, there was nothing more I needed to know. That a ball clears the fences is enough. I don’t need its atmospheric journey decoded, but we are all now held captive to having to listen to the poor play on the field being disguised as something it isn’t by an endless torrent of embellishments and numerical nonsense. If this is supposed to endear us to the game, it is not working. In the case of this young man’s home run, I had every right to feel cheated by not being informed of the spin rate of the sphere as it left the yard. Surely some mathematical genius must have ascertained that number. How was I supposed to enjoy the full impact of this mighty blast without it?
I don’t watch the game much anymore. I want to, but it’s not easy with what’s happened to it. When I do, it’s usually just for an inning or two, and then it is often without the sound because it’s hard to listen to how the poor play on the field is glossed over by the commentators, Making excuses for the mistakes and miscues that occur, or couching them in superlatives, does not change the fact that they happen. And I don’t want to hear any personal insights or stories from the two or three people that inhabit the broadcast booths these days. I certainly don’t need to be taught how the game should be played. I find myself yelling at my tv way too often lately.
It’s tough enough listening to the two or three analysts telling us things about the game that they assume we don’t know, but now there are reporters stationed on the field and in the dugout who provide us with up to the minute responses from either a player or the manager about something that just happened on the field. The one or two very predictable questions that are always asked are ridiculous as are the vacuous answers they elicit. And I am uncomfortable watching how uncomfortable those who participate in these little spot interviews appear to be. The one or two minutes this takes is a waste of time, and that this interruption might be intrusive to the player and manager seems not to matter.
Much of what bothers me about the game is maybe not within your purview, and because I don’t know what it is you are or are not aware of, I’d like to mention a few things that may open your eyes as to what I and the public are deeply concerned about, and find annoying.
Every major league organization should have a mission statement of some sort set- ting forth their objectives and goals. What any of these might be I don’t know, but every franchise seems to have little understanding of what affects play on the field. Is there no one who realizes that something is not working? I’ve heard too often from reliable sources that the players don’t work on anything, that they are not asked to. How true that is I don’t know, but I witnessed the condoning of a lack- adaisical work ethic more than thirty years ago during my time as a minor-league coach. Fear of injury and overworking the millionaires was a very serious and growing concern within the game. It was believed that too much time on the field and an excessive work load was contributing to the rise in the number of injuries, and the poor play that we were beginning to see. What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t is that scaling back on the work load accelerated both of those concerns. And when changes were made, some that were good, they made sense, and were necessary, none of them had anything to do with how the game was being played. The players were merely being taken better care of on and off the field.
If today’s athletes are better than those in my era, and I do believe they are, why is the game not played as well? How has it come to be nothing but strike outs and home runs? There have always been dozens of hitting philosophies and gimmicky inventions that have been tried and tested, and hitter’s approaches will often change, but the strike zone has been a constant since the game began, yet no one seems to know what it looks like, or what to do with it. And that I don’t under- stand. The number of swings and misses that occur are alarming, and when replays show by how much a ball is missed, or how far out of the strike zone a pitch was, you have to wonder what is being taught. There are approximately 9 strikeouts for every 27 outs recorded. This is almost double what occurred in 1980.
To know the direction the game has gone was clearly on exhibit in this year’s Little League World Series in Williamsport. Play by some of the youngsters was a carbon copy of what occurs nightly in the major leagues. The pitching and hitting approaches were similar, and there were entirely too many “little” repeats of the big-leaguer's antics by the little guys. It was hard to watch the innocence and purity of the sport that was always on display at that young level being tainted.
Rule changes have been instituted to protect the players because they can no longer execute certain fundamentals of the game properly. That in itself says a lot about what has been happening. One change being considered is allowing pitchers only two attempts to hold runners. That would surely be interesting. Players have been prohibited from sliding into or knocking down a middle infielder on the double play, the catcher has to give the runner “home plate;” walking a hitter is now just a wave of the arm, and pitchers must face three hitters which lessens managerial strategies. The “shift” has been “outlawed” so we should see more hitter’s with averages about .200. The only reason the “shifts” worked was because the hitters refused to take advantage of them. I’d love to know why.
The TSA-like body searches that pitchers now suffer when an inning ends in the hope of decreasing the alarming number of strike outs have not made a difference. The belief that seven inning games would somehow have the game played better during the pandemic also didn’t. The ghost runner in extra innings ate at the in- tegrity of the game, and made a joke of it. Bigger bases? Why? And what is gained by the “cheat” sheets players have stashed in a pocket or under their hat? Catchers appear to call pitches telepathically now while something should be found that helps the direction in which they get thrown so they can be caught. Pitchers can’t seem to find the plate, few can hit their “spot,” and it would be nice to know how many really know what “to locate” means. Flashing lights should indicate where the plate is, not only for them, but for the outfielders whose throws are liable to wind up anywhere. Errant pitches are always a possibility; balls in the dirt are beat- ing up the catchers; backstops are often stopping more balls than the receivers, and too many times the poor umpire takes the brunt of a “cross up,” or an inept catcher who can’t put his glove up in time.
So many of today’s pitchers just throw, they don’t pitch. The windups and deliveries that I see tells me that little is being taught. Everything goes, every style of re- leasing a pitch is accepted. Velocity is the common denominator, but throwing 100 miles per hour does not make someone a pitcher, and the increase in velocity...if it is accurate...has not cut down on the home runs, so what good is it? The strikeouts are more the result of no one knowing what a strike zone looks like. I received dumbfounded looks when I asked the assemblage of position players that I was managing one year to tell me theirs. I got no answers. The number of bad pitches that are swung at is astounding, especially when the count gets to three and two.
I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard talk of having pitchers step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff...something to that affect. What brainiac came up with that? “Stealing” first base has apparently already been tried in one of the minor leagues, and I can’t wait to see the problems the robotic umpiring will cause. Technology will surely find a way to one day eliminate the men in blue.
Why players are coddled as they are is a mystery. There is a pervasive philosophy that has infiltrated every organization that requires the players to be treated with love and understanding. They are to be made to feel good about themselves. This is not demanded, but field staff members understand to do it or else. Be nice to the players. Don’t ask anything of them. Psychologists work over time to see that this occurs. Following this policy was supposed to improve play on the field, or so it was thought. I listened to the edict of not saying anything negative to a player in more than one meeting. This refusal to recognize limitations sometimes allows mediocrity to develop into an incompetency that...oh, my God...catches everyone by surprise! I always thought it important to know what someone could not do. You don’t dwell on limitations, of course, but an evaluation would be more accurate if they were considered because you would not be expecting something that could not be delivered. You can pretend not to recognize deficiencies if you want to improve an estimate of someone’s ability, but that makes no sense. A limitation in one of the five baseball skills can change an overall evaluation quickly. Sweeping negatives under the rug, and hoping they won’t surface is not working.
It was a privilege to know that at least one owner wanted my services. Players now choose the owner for whom they want to play. Baseball’s thirty kingdoms battle each other for their services, and in doing so, cater to them much more than they should. I was one of the players who first fought for our “rights” fifty years ago. As captive as we were, all we wanted was some fairness from the game we loved, but with every subsequent strike, walkout, or lockout, the players gradually gained more and more control until now they pretty much dictate how teams are put to- gether. Once indentured laborers, they are now masters of their own destiny. In the late 1800s the players offered a mutually beneficially compromise that would have been good for both sides, but the owners refused. They were not going to give up something that they did not have to. During the work stoppage in 1994 when the World Series was canceled there was another chance of forging a compromise. but the players refused. Both sides are doing fine. The game is very healthy financially.
Thirty years ago I remember saying that the attrition of the best of the professional players at that time was going to open the door for the lesser talented pool of colle- giate players to draw from. The talent that was being lost was not going to be replaced. I believed that one day the major leagues would look no better than a top collegiate team. And look where we are. Why this was going to occur has a some- what complicated answer, but for now, suffice it to say that a societal transformation had a lot to do with it.
Many of the players on today’s major-league rosters don’t have what decades ago would have been recognized as major league ability. You, of course, don’t know that, sir, because you don’t know anything about the game’s past, but this is a reality that is here to stay. Those of us who realize this have become accustomed to a lesser skilled athlete. And until there is accountability within the individual organizations to halt this decline, it will continue. One reason for this is that players are being force-fed through the minor league system, missing years of much needed training because talent of some kind is needed at the big league level year after year. I would not doubt that players will be getting to the major leagues even quicker in the years ahead.
Let me close by taking you back to the Atlanta Braves superstar and his antics once his home run ball was airborne. He knew it was “gone,” and everyone at home was reminded of that by the numerous replays of its flight. Instead of beginning his jog around the bases after hitting the ball, this young man stood at home plate for a few seconds admiring his Ruthian clout as if he had just ended world hunger. I don’t know the distance the ball traveled; it could have been 350, it could have been 550, it didn’t matter. Then, with all the energy he could muster, he began his journey around the bases, not on the run, but on the “walk” for four or five steps as he puffed his chest and beat it with both fists like King Kong did after scaling the Empire State Building. He then raised his hands to the heavens as if to thank God, and looked into the dugout at his teammates with a look on his face while seemingly mouthing something that seemed to say, “What do you think of that?” as, finally, he got on his way around the bases. These antics have become too often the accepted norm. It’s a shame. What’s sad, and it’s already been mentioned, is that our Little League players are beginning to copy this arrogance.
Commissioner, you had nothing to do with the game you inherited. Its slide had al- ready begun, and blaming you is unfair, but you are in the midst of what is happen- ing. Please use your power in some constructive way to save America’s pastime.