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The State of Baseball is Strong. But it could be better. How do we make that happen?

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Tom Verducci has a very long but very well thought-out analysis of the State of Baseball as we enter the 2014 season. In a lot of ways it’s the intelligent person’s take on the “Is Baseball Dying?” thing. Being a creature of baseball he understands the current strengths and weaknesses of the game from a competitive, demographic and financial perspective so he isn’t trafficking in the alarmism and broad-brush paining of the non-baseball writers who make a sport of declaring the game dead each fall. As such, it’s an important read.

The facts:

  • While financially flush, the game is dependent on TV money to a huge degree and what happens if something radical happens in the structure of the TV business?
  • A lot of that flushness is based on increasingly local fandom, not national, and while that’s OK for most of the season, it really does bollocks-up the national showcases like the World Series and the All-Star Game and stuff;
  • While still extremely popular on its own merits, baseball’s fan demographics are somewhat worrisome compared to other sports. Yes, people “come back” to baseball when they’re older, but if fewer are with it as kids in the first place, there are fewer to “come back” later;
  • While baseball will never be a kinetic thing on the level of basketball and football, it is slowing down even by its own standards with fewer balls in play, longer games and more down time/farting around time during games;
  • Less quantitatively, there is something culturally anachronistic about the overall vibe of baseball. The fascination among those inside the game and many fans with a conservative culture and a disdain of youthful exuberance, style and attitude. There are structural reasons for baseball not appealing to the young like football and basketball do and we can’t do much about a lot of that stuff, but baseball is really making it harder on itself by insisting on a code of orthodoxy that punishes and shames the Yasiel Puigs and Bryce Harpers of the world while elevating and venerating old farts with 19th century moral codes.

How severe a problem any of these things are is debatable. How severe all of them taken together are is as well. And while it’s possible to acknowledge all of these as problems, even potentially serious ones, and to still think the game is healthy, it is also the case that anyone who cares about an institution should care about improving it and addressing its faults, even if everything is going well in general.  This is where Verducci is coming from here, and I agree with a great deal of what he says in the part of his essay in which he critiques the state of the game.

The second part is a bit more fun and is likely to be the focus of more talk. In it Verducci proposes some changes to the game to address the problems he identifies. Some are great ideas. For example, he talks about instituting The Summer Game. Sort of baseball’s answer to The Winter Classic in hockey, and I think it’d be terrific:

It makes no sense that in one of the few windows when baseball has the sports calendar to itself — the All-Star break in July — it goes dark for two nights after the All-Star Game. It needs an “event.” It should schedule one game for the Thursday after the All-Star Game, bill it as The Summer Game, and play it at an iconic American venue, such as the foothills near Mount Rushmore, the mall in Washington D.C., the Field of Dreams field in Iowa, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. . . . one regular season game out of 2,430 that is visually stunning, brings Major League Baseball to a place it never has been before, appeals to the “event” appetite of demanding sports viewers, and underscores baseball’s unique place in Americana.

This is fantastic.

Other ideas are not so good. Neutral-site World Series. Allowing managers to mess around with the batting order to send whoever he wants up to bat without losing players once a game. Starting hitters off with 1-1 counts. To be fair, Verducci knows some of these are never going to happen and acknowledges their flaws. He’s merely trying to get a conversation started about such things, and that’s a great idea.

I think one of the bigger things baseball needs to figure out — and how they do it I have no idea — is how to change its conservative culture, how to do better at promoting the game’s young stars and how to do better at promoting the game in general to younger fans. And how to do all of that without being gimmicky or lame.

I feel like this is hard because so much of the dynamic is dictated by baseball’s very structure. Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. You do your time in the minors, where conformity and humility is drilled into you. The very socialization of a player into the game is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. This goes for the coaches too. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Between their education in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through. And even then the showman is roundly criticized and given a way shorter leash if his performance falters than is someone who Plays The Game The Right Way.

Given all of that, how does a young star make the kind of splash a young basketball player or football player does? How does baseball market a cog who has every incentive to eschew a claim to uniqueness given the almost militaristic structure that produced him?

I don’t know how you crack that nut. I don’t know how one can come up through the system required to learn the skills of the game without necessarily losing that flair and that style. The rare cases that are able to bypass a long conformity-instillation process because of their talent — like Puig and Harper — had better be the absolute best right out of the chute. And even if they are, the scrutiny by their peers and the media is still pretty high. How do you sell these guys to young fans if they’re being punished for what’s so marketable about them in the first place?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. Most people don’t. But I like that Verducci has started this conversation publicly. I also like that those inside Major League Baseball — people you don’t hear from or see much of on a day-to-day basis but with whom I have some contact — are wrestling with these issues too.

Baseball is a great game. The greatest game. But so much of what makes it great is holding it up from a wider and deeper audience and could, possibly anyway, present problems for it in the future. I want baseball to always be the greatest, so I want to think about these things too. I hope you do as well. And that, as a community, perhaps we can come up with some small ideas of our own. Because, whether you believe it or not, those people in the game who are wrestling with these ideas are paying attention to folks like us.

The Braves and Fulton County are fighting over a Hank Aaron statue

FILE- In this Nov. 12, 2013 file photo, a statue of Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron stands outside Turner Field, the home of the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta. The Atlanta Braves pulled perhaps the most surprising move of the year. They announced after months of secret talks with Cobb County leaders plans to move to a suburban stadium and leave downtown where they’ve played since moving from Milwaukee in 1966. The impending Braves’ departure aside, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed managed to keep the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons happy. He agreed for the city to cover part of the construction costs for a new retractable-roof stadium to replace the Georgia Dome downtown. Both new stadiums are projected to open in 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Associated Press
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Divorce is hard. It’s hard on the kids and hard on your own emotions. Then, of course, there’s the fighting over money. Eventually you sort that stuff out too, but at some point you’ll come across something that cannot be divided between you and for which visitation schedules simply aren’t suitable.

Maybe it’s the family photo album. Maybe it’s that 60-year-old cast iron skillet which you got at that estate sale and which is perfectly seasoned and, oh God, you can’t imagine making fried chicken in anything else YOU GOT THE HOUSE, JENNY, MY GOD I GET TO KEEP THE SKILLET!!!

Um. Sorry. Got carried away there for a second. Where was I? Oh yes. Maybe it’s that statue you and your ex both love. You know, that one of the guy who hit 755 home runs and who has served as the face of your franchise for over 60 years:

For about three hours Wednesday, it looked like the statue of baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron would be staying in Atlanta.

The agency that owns Turner Field proudly announced it holds documents showing “the people of Atlanta and Fulton County” own the bronze, and that a deal had been struck with the Braves to keep the statue at Turner Field.

Then came a statement from the Braves saying, in effect: nuh huh. The statue, the team said, should go wherever the Hammer wants it.

And with those dueling press statements, the fate over one of Atlanta’s treasured sports landmarks remained in limbo, just as it has been since the day the Braves announced plans in late 2013 to move from downtown to Cobb County after the 2016 season.

The latest: Hank Aaron says he wants no part of the dispute and that the club and the city should solve it themselves. Which is absolutely the right move. And, frankly, kind of crappy of the Braves to throw it in Aaron’s lap in the first place. They’re the ones who, figuratively speaking, broke up the marriage by messing around with that younger, richer suitor after all. Now they’re trying to make Aaron either be a bad guy to Braves fans who attend games after 2016 and don’t get to see the statue or the city of Atlanta who would have yet another piece of their baseball history transplanted to the burbs? Forget that.

If I were Aaron I’d propose that we saw the thing in half. Then we’d see who values it more. I heard that approach has worked before.

Tim Lincecum is working out in an “secret location”

Tim Lincecum
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A free agent pitcher on the decline coming off of major surgery and still looking for work on February 12 isn’t exactly the definition of Big News. But as newspaper men have known for ages, if you make a bit of information sound cool enough, it becomes news.

Or, in some cases, you can make a lack of information sound cool. If you hear about a trade rumor but aren’t able to actually find out the identity of one of the teams, call it a “mystery team.” Oooh, isn’t that dramatic? Aren’t you privy to all kinds of intrigue! Or, how about this: that free agent on the decline is doing what scores of other ballplayers looking for work are doing and is working out in the Phoenix area, trying to catch on someplace. That’s kind of boring. And you don’t even know who he’s auditioning for or where to boot. Man, that’s not the sort of information that’s gonna be fun or interesting to report.

Wait!

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There. “Secret location.” THAT sounds exciting. THAT separates this bit of news from the dog-bites-man “baseball player playing baseball” non-story. *reporter cracks knuckles* “Now to sit back and wait for the plaudits for my amazing reporting skills to come rolling in.”

CC Sabathia: getting in shape and ready for baseball

sabathia getty
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CC Sabatha made headlines in October when he abruptly left the Yankees to go into alcohol rehab. After a month there he came back and gave interviews about his decision and his battle with the bottle and then disappeared into the offseason the way most players do.

He emerged the other day and spoke with the New York Daily News’ Mark Feinsand and says that he’s ready for baseball once again. Indeed, in some ways he’s more ready now than he usually is by mid February. He’s been throwing bullpen sessions for the past three weeks — he normally waits until he gets to Tamps — and he says his troublesome knee is feeling good.

 

Sabathia will turn 36 during the season. In 2015 he was 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA in 29 starts and posted his lowest strikeout rate in a decade. Late in the season, however, with the help of a knee brace, he was at his most effective in some time. He won’t need to return to 2008 form in order to help the Yankees this season, but he will need to look more like he did in September if he is to help the Yankees to the playoffs.

Jacob deGrom open to extension with Mets

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom talks during media day for the Major League Baseball World Series against the Kansas City Royals Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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The Mets are currently enjoying the spoils of the best young rotation in the game, but the big question is whether this is just a brief window or the start of sustained success. Given the huge prices on the free agent market, it’s going to be next to impossible to keep the band together, but at least one member of the rotation is open to sticking around for the long-term.

While there haven’t been any talks yet, All-Star right-hander Jacob deGrom told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he could see himself discussing an extension with the Mets.

“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,’’ deGrom told The Post at Mets pre-camp. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.’’

It makes sense from deGrom’s perspective. He broke into the majors later than most prospects, so he’ll be 28 this June. Depending on whether he qualifies as a Super Two, he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time after either 2016 or 2017. Either way, he’s under team control through 2020, which means that he’s currently on track to hit free agency after his age-32 season. The market might not be kind to him even if he manages to stay healthy, so it could behoove him to get as much guaranteed money as possible right now. The Mets could always decide to play things year-to-year, but perhaps deGrom would be willing to settle for a discount in order to get them to buy out a free agent year or two. It’s a really interesting situation to think about, but odds are the two sides will wait on contract talks until he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

DeGrom owns a 2.61 ERA in 52 starts over his first two seasons in the majors. Among starters, only Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA since the start of 2014.