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Baseball: the only sport people expect to be stuck in the past


These two tweets came from ESPN’s Howard Bryant yesterday morning. They came exactly three minutes apart:

The first tweet: a smart reminder to NCAA fans and hand-wringers that the future is not to be feared, that the past is not the only way to do things and that people and institutions adapt to change. The second tweet: a complaint that baseball isn’t like it was several years ago when managers barking loudly and creating controversy was the rule rather than the exception.

That second part is endemic to baseball analysis: “Baseball was best before, and these new things are going to send the sport straight to hell.” Most of the time, you’ll find, baseball was best was when the speaker was a kid. Or, sometimes, when they were a young writer making their first mark in the industry.

I mean, ask yourself, do we seriously compare sprinters, tennis players, basketball players, football players or soccer players to those of the past? Maybe by analogy, but in those sports everyone appreciates that Rafael Nadal, transported back via a time machine, would never lose if he played in the 70s, that a college long-jumper would sweep the medals in the 1956 Olympics, or that if we put Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick in charge of a team in the 50s that they wouldn’t win several consecutive championships. They don’t think like that with respect to baseball, though. No, people still seriously think Babe Ruth would hit .360 with 60 homers if he were facing today’s pitchers. It’s ridiculous, of course, but we allow such magical thinking in baseball for some reason.

And, as Bryant’s tweet shows, it applies to broader analysis than analysis of just the sport on the field. The old, headstrong barking managers like Ozzie Guillen, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella either barked themselves out of jobs or burnt themselves out and front offices have almost uniformly decided to go in a different direction. In any other sport it’s characterized as innovation or evolution. In baseball, whoa, this is the end of the world.

If you dig down into the conversations Byrant’s tweets spawned, you’ll see that his larger point is that baseball is scared to death of losing young fans and thus, the change to what he calls “science” and what he thinks is “boring as shit” is the worst thing to do. I suspect he believes this applies to broader sabermetric thinking and not just manager choice.

If so, I’d ask him to think about who was leading the game, who the managers were and what the game’s character was as it slid into unpopularity. Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams — two company men cited in the Ken Rosenthal article that inspired Bryant’s tweets — aren’t responsible for that. Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker were on baseball’s scene from the 1960s-on. Which isn’t to say it was their fault either. It is to say, however, that baseball’s popularity and demographic challenges are bigger than the philosophical orientation of a handful of managers and general managers.

And in no event are the solutions to baseball’s problems more likely to be found by looking harder at the past than at the future. Because that’s not the case for anything.

Ohio Governor John Kasich Says Baseball is dying, you guys

COLUMBUS, OH - MAY 4: Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks to the media announcing he is suspending his campaign May 4, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Kasich is the second Republican candidate within a day to drop out of the GOP race. (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)
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For reasons that are not entirely clear to me the governor of my state, John Kasich, was on The Dan Patrick Show today. He had some bad news, unfortunately. According to Kasich, “baseball is going to die.”

It’s based mostly on his belief that, because some clubs are rich and some clubs are not so rich, and because players make too much money, poor teams cannot compete and fans cannot find a basis for team loyalty. He cites his boyhood rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ability for fans to root for players on the same teams year-in, year-out and claims that, if you don’t root for a high-payroll team, “your team is out before the All-Star Break.” Which is demonstrably not true, but he was on a roll so Patrick let him finish.

The real issue, Kasich says, is the lack of revenue sharing in the NFL-NBA mold. He makes a reference to “my buddy Bob Castellini,” the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and says stuff about how the Reds can’t compete with the Cubs on payroll. His buddy Bob Castellini, by the way, is worth half a billion dollars, purchased the Reds for $270 million, they’re now worth an estimated $905 million, and they just signed a lucrative new TV deal, so thoughts and prayers to his buddy Bob Castellini and the Reds.

Kasich is right that baseball does not have straight revenue sharing like the NFL and NBA do. But he’s also comically uninformed about the differences in financial structure and revenue sources for baseball teams on the one hand and other sports on the other. He talks about how NFL teams in small towns like Green Bay can do just great while the poor sisters in Cincinnati can’t do as well in baseball, but either doesn’t realize or doesn’t acknowledge that local revenue — especially local TV revenue — pales in importance in football compared to baseball. If the Packers had to make all of their money by broadcasting games to the greater Green Bay area their situation would be a lot different. Meanwhile, if the Yankees had to put all of the revenue they receive via broadcasts in the greater New York area and give it to the poorer teams, it would something less than fair, would it not?

Wait, that’s it! I realize now why my governor did not do as well in the Republican primaries as he expected to! HE’S A COMMUNIST!

Billy Williams, Bill Murray and . . . Fall Out Boy!

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 08:  Former players Ferguson Jenkins (L) and Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs throw out ceremonial first pitches before the Opening Day game against the Milwaukee Brewers during the Opening Day game at Wrigley Field on April 8, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Major League Baseball has announced the on-field ceremonial stuff for tonight’s Game 3 of the World Series. There are a couple of good things here! And one bit of evidence that, at some point when he was still commissioner, Bud Selig sold his mortal soul to a pop punk band and now the league can’t do a thing about it.

The ceremonial first pitch choice is fantastic: it’s Billy Williams, the Hall of Famer and six-time All-Star who starred for the Cubs from 1959 through 1974. Glad to see Williams here. I know he’s beloved in Chicago, but he has always seemed to be one of the more overlooked Hall of Famers of the 1960s-70s. I’m guessing not being in the World Series all that time has a lot to do with that, so it’s all the more appropriate that he’s getting the spotlight tonight. Here’s hoping Fox makes a big deal out of it and replays it after the game starts.

“Take me out to the ballgame” will be sung by the guy who, I assume, holds the title of Cubs First Fan, Bill Murray. It’ll be wacky, I’m sure.

The National Anthem will be sung by Chicago native Patrick Stump. Who, many of you may know, is the lead singer for Fall Out Boy. This continues Major League Baseball’s strangely strong association with Fall Out Boy over the years. They, or some subset of them, seem to perform at every MLB jewel event. They have featured in MLB’s Opening Day musical montages. They played at the All-Star Game this summer. Twice. And, of course, they are the creative minds behind “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” (a/k/a “light ’em MUPMUPMUPMUP“) which Major League Baseball and Fox used as incessant playoff bumper music several years ago. I don’t ask for much in life, but one thing I do want is someone to love me as much as Major League Baseball loves Fall Out Boy. We all do, really.

Wayne Messmer, the former public address announcer for the Cubs and a regular performer of the National Anthem at Wrigley Field will sing “God Bless America.”

Between that and Bill Murray, I think we’ve found out the Cubs strategy for dealing with Andrew Miller: icing him if he tries to straddle the 6th and 7th innings.