(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is Baseball No Fun Anymore?

Players are bulky, seemingly overtrain, get hurt a lot and just are not hitting.

Pitchers seem to get hurt as frequently as they did when medical and training techniques were not as enlightened. 

The games seem interminably slow; the weather seems infernally hot. 

A single beer is almost the price of a good book.

And yet,  what's killing baseball is that the quants, whom I like a lot, are taking the guessing, the fun, the art, out of the game.  Put simply, they can predict what David Wright will hit on a Tuesday night after a Monday day off after a 3,000 mile flight on which he ate only hot donuts in a coffee caramel sauce and downed it with sparkling water.  It's not to the point where there are huge databases that go over every possible scenario involving every possible player from high school on up and indexing by weather, competition, frequency of training,  body type, and any other metric you can find, but we are fast approaching that day.  And, when we do, will the fun still be there? 

We used to argue the high-class problem of who was better, Mays or Aaron?  There wasn't much to it, there were now dissed numbers of batting average, home runs and RBIs, as opposed to all of the other metrics that the math folks have thrown at us.  (By the way, if relativity is everything and wins for a pitcher don't matter either, Frank Tanana should be in the Hall of Fame because had he pitched for anyone but the woeful Angels, he would have had a plus-.500 career winning percentage and won 300 games). 

You can imagine that conversation in 50 years.  There will be looks at all sorts of statistics involving things like Total Average, Batting Average of Balls in Play, Wins over Replacement Player and the like that most of us cannot begin to understand, and then there will be more metrics atop that.  And that's my worry.

That instead of going to the ballpark, enjoying the weather, the colors of the signs, seeing little kids with programs and Sharpies trying to get an elusive autograph, eating a hot dog and looking for the late-inning pinch-hit double off the wall that knocks the other team's pitcher out of the box, that we'll be reduced to very nerdy discourses about why the pinch-hitter doesn't have a chance because he has difficulty at this time of night in a pitcher's park on the road in a day game after a night game hitting the left-handed specialist who usually throws his slider as his outpitch.  At some point, there is something in the algorithm of the brain of the pinch-hitter that says, "I ate kale last night with a Vitamin B boost, slept on my new pillow that I bought from the Marriott store, enabled my new hyperbaric chamber and ate restorative dark chocolate after my Bikram Yoga flexibility workout and I can summon out of my thirty-five year-old body enough vision to pick up the nuances of this twenty-four year old star's ninety-four mile an hour slider (as opposed to his 100-mph two-seam fastball) and hit it in the gap in right center, especially because they're shading me to pull the ball to left center and even the track star they have out there in center won't be able to get to it" and then whacks a slightly off-kilter slider into that gap because the star reliever's gastrointestinal system was acting up in the morning because he had a few too many margaritas and mussels at the seafood restaurant with the rest of the bullpen the night before and the air conditioning unit in his condo left him with a sinus headache and a slight battle with dehydration. 

Take away the art, the texture, the poetry, the back stories, the smells of the hot dogs, the sounds of the balls hitting the glove,  take away all that and quantify the outcomes in every which way, and, well, what's the point of watching -- especially if the so-called geniuses can tell us what will happen before it happens?  We all like a good story, and what's particularly irksome to any good story teller is when you're sitting with a family audience in rapt attention and someone without the best social sense or cues feels compelled to guess the outcome prematurely, interrupting you, robbing you of your rhythm and your joy in relating the tale.  That interruption -- unless done with great timing and humor on occasion -- deflates not only the teller but also the rest of the audience, each member of which could probably guess the direction of the outcome but sits there listening because the art of the telling is entertaining.  Well, to me, it seems that the math folks, while brilliant, well-intentioned and increasingly right, are inadvertently going to do just that. 

I don't watch replays of old games, and I don't tape games to watch them later if I can see the outcome on my iPhone.  There's not a lot of joy in that for me -- sports is a pastime, a hobby, something to enjoy precisely because you just never know what could happen in a game.  The quants are encroaching upon that spontaneity of enjoyment,  and if the powers that be don't reinforce the art, the smells, the sounds, the poetry, the things that the numbers folks and quantifiers and bean counters cannot get to, the joy, the relaxation and the fun will be sucked away.

And perhaps people will turn to other pastimes.  There's only so much a game can do to hold onto people because "dad used to watch it with grandpa."  There's only so much a game can do to hold onto fans when it has slowed down to a crawl, the ball has become increasingly harder to hit and the players still look like linebackers and not wide receivers.  And there's only so much a game can do when each team has 81 home games and it can cost over $200 to take a family of four to sit downstairs at the park and experience -- close up -- all of the things that the numbers folks cannot reach.  

Nothing, it seems, can last forever.  The NFL defenders currently argue that the retirements of young players who obviously have other ways to make a living doesn't signal a potential extinction spiral for the most popular game in the United States.  Yet, other countries haven't adopted this game, and the data about injuries -- long-term injuries -- deriving from repetitive knocking of heads -- seems to suggest that to permit your child to play this game is dangerous if not irresponsible.  The loudest defenders, of course, are the football industry -- those who played it (because they are either hopeful that awful consequences don't manifest in them or they are defending what they played and don't like to see it attacked -- it's just too close to home) and those who cover it and/or make money off it (Mike Greenberg of ESPN is in this category the same way his colleague Mike Golic of ESPN is in the former category).  While the NFL is popular now, change can happen fast, and I wouldn't be surprised if, as the data emerges, if our culture doesn't change pretty quickly away from such a violent sport.  And that's whether one likes it or not -- major long-term injuries are nothing to be avoided let alone scoffed at.  This is the submarine that could potential emerge and blast the NFL -- society will innovate and evolve its culture quickly if the NFL doesn't get ahead of this vexing problem.  After all, who wants to say that he/she enjoys a sport where the players are at big risk and could end up with major problems in their thirties and forties?  Is that what we want to say about ourselves?  Our society?  And it wouldn't be "just okay" just because this happens to others' kids and not our own.

Back to baseball.  Now that the steroids era has passed (although the legacy of it is sad and a terrible reflection on the character of those who own baseball teams and many of those who played baseball at the time), Major League Baseball has to look at data within context and remember that say 40 years ago boxing and horse racing were among the top five spectator sports and today are almost irrelevant.   That MLB has millions of fans and great revenue perhaps doesn't show people are spending less of a percentage of their discretionary recreational spending on baseball than they did, say, forty years ago.  That's a guess, but something that they should examine, along with the demography of their fan base.  I used to love going to games with my dad -- it was a solid part of our bond.  Today, the game is too boring for my son, took too long to play when he played it, and was dominated by dads who for the most part wanted to win way too much when they coached in Little League and on many occasions acted poorly and were not encouraging.  For my son, baseball is the game that his father went to with his grandfather; my son and I have bonded over English soccer and have our own rituals around that.  That said, we still try to go to a few games, but the luster has diminished.

Of course I might be wrong. 

And I'm sure that there are numbers out there from someone that could prove it.


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