TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — Baseball: Best Of Times Or Worst Of Times?

The All-Star Break has come and gone and baseball junkies can go back to their daily fixes this weekend as a full schedule of games resumes Friday. But the annual downtime in mid-July has again ramped up discussion about the general state of the game.

Just by chance, I attended the Minnesota Twins’ final game before the break. It seemed to fittingly represent so much of what’s good and bad these days about “America’s Pastime.” Does that longtime slogan still apply or has baseball passed its time?

My first hint that the game might be in trouble came the night before, when my son, Pat, turned down the offer to join me at Target Field. Pat played both high school and Legion ball, still loves watching Twins’ games and seldom passes up the chance to get a beer and a brat with his old man.

But on this occasion, the game conflicted with soccer’s World Cup final. Like a lot of millennials, Pat has caught the bug for that “other” football. It has global appeal, offers a faster pace than baseball and is really taking off in the Twin Cities now that a major league team has arrived. There’s even a new stadium close to completion.

Having better luck with someone closer to my demographic, I convinced brother-in-law Jim to join me, as the Twins took on the middle-of-the-pack Tampa Bay Rays on a warm, muggy Sunday afternoon. While Jim likes the game, he only attends occasionally, so I privately hoped the home club would put on a good show.

What followed was a mixed bag of pros and cons I could never have imagined. So let’s begin with one that somehow qualifies as both:

Jim was immediately impressed with Target Field’s amazing amenities. Countless food options include a new “Bat and Barrel” restaurant with big screens, numerous locations to sit in air conditioned comfort and avoid the high heat index, plus endless great spots to stroll around the stadium and still get a clear view of the day’s action. In fact, the Twins have done such an efficient job of appealing to the casual fan,  few are sitting in the stands. With so many choices other than baseball, it also appears debatable how many are paying attention to the action on the field.

What followed was a four hour and 38 minute marathon that included 18 runs, 14 walks, two bench clearing confrontations, a costly Rays’ balk related to a defensive shift and ultimately, a thrilling walk off grand slam by the Twins’ Brian Dozier. The Rays used nine pitchers and the Twins six. Tampa Bay started a reliever who only pitched two innings. Minnesota used their closer in the fifth inning. And, oh by the way, there was also a controversial video review of a play at the plate that left Twins’ fans skeptical of an “out” call that went against the home club.

During this time, Jim and I consumed two Polish sausages, two beers, a bag of peanuts and two Gatorades. We made four visits to the restroom, three walks around the park and discussed both in-game strategies and family vacations.

As we walked out of the stadium with dinner time approaching, Jim called it one of the “most exciting” games he’d ever attended. I agreed. Then again, we’d both contemplated leaving just minutes before. Such is the state, of a sport struggling to determine its identity while still trying to attract a wide base of followers.

 PRO: Stadiums have never been more interactive and fan friendly. Selfies, Twitter responses, quizzes and kiss cams are all ways for spectators to get noticed on the big screens.

CON: Too many of these distractions have separated fans from the game itself. Attendance is down for all but six of the 30 Major League teams in 2018. Even winning teams are seeing dwindling numbers.

PRO: Aware of its slow pace, Major League Baseball has made attempts to speed things up. There’s a running clock when pitchers take the hill, a limit of six mound visits from coaches and the waiving of four wide pitches for intentional walks.

CON: None of these cosmetic efforts has made much difference. In fact, the average game now lasts more than three hours, as batters step out frequently, pitchers shake off signs and lengthy challenges eat up minutes.

PRO: Baseball has tried to stay pro-active, with heavy reliance on analytics, defensive shifts based on statistical data and video replays to make sure umpires get important calls right.

CON: Traditionalists doubt the validity of analytics. Defensive shifts have created declining batting averages since most hitters fail to adjust. And even with numerous angles and slow motion replays, calls remain controversial and often drag on far too long.

PRO: Even the innovators and forced to look for an edge against teams with bigger budgets, teams like Tampa and Minnesota have smartly experimented with relief pitchers as starters or exaggerated shifts against dangerous pull hitters.

CON: The divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting worse, not better. Already in late July, the five American League playoff qualifiers look fairly predictable. Wealthy MLB clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers all own good records and are poised to add key pieces for the stretch drive.

PRO: Baseball was wise to select young, rising stars for its’ recent Home Run Derby in Washington, D.C. Bryce Harper and his pitching father winning it at home didn’t hurt, either. Throw in the live interviews with fielders during the All-Star Game and the 10 homers launched that night and the pros scored big points with young viewers.

CON: Baseball’s silly blackout rules and unwillingness to share streaming video rights have limited their social media presence. So they shouldn’t be surprised when megatalented Mike Trout is still far less recognizable than stars like LeBron James or Tom Brady.

I’ve seen some of the suggestions for improving baseball: Shorten the game to seven innings. Ban the shifts, so sluggers can rip impressive shots in the hole and increase batting averages again. Put a runner on second base to help end extra inning games quicker.

Call me old school. But I hate all of those ideas because they water down an already beautiful game.

What has always attracted me to the sport is probably what keeps many from finding it appealing:

  1. I love the leisurely, unpredictable pace of a game with no clock. But that doesn’t mean 10-inning games need to last 4½ hours. If you want a faster game and must have restrictions, keep hitters in the box, force pitchers to work quicker and limit the actual number of pitching changes.
  2. I miss the spontaneity of a questionable call. I miss the managers and umpires going toe to toe. Use the technology if you must, but make the decision in a minute or so and live with it. We’re finding that, in all sports, there are plays that will never be clear-cut no matter how many ways we dissect them.
  3. I hate the overdependence on the long ball. Yes, home runs are eye-catching and majestic. But teach and embrace the nuances of the game we’ve gradually shifted away from. Base stealing is way down. Bunting is a lost art. Would you rather encourage inflexibility by banning shifts and encouraging strikeouts or make adjustments to an always changing sport?
  4. One of baseball’s greatest attractions has always been its personalities. I remember nicknames like Walt “No Neck” Williams. “Stan the Man” Musial. “Charlie Hustle.” Make the promotion of your most colorful and talented players your highest priority, regardless of the price. Make your product more accessible and be less greedy.

Those of us old enough to remember the Twins’ Game 7 of the 1991 World Series will undoubtedly recall the level of drama that played out that night. Many consider it the most exciting game in team history.

Interestingly enough, there were no home runs. The Twins used only one pitcher. A well-executed bunt helped set up the winning run. Defensive shifts and video challenges were not employed.

Twenty-seven years later, analytics are a smart and natural progression of the game. Advanced technology is a good thing, too. Fan-friendly stadiums and faster forms of communication all come with the territory.

Is baseball in trouble in 2018? Not necessarily. But the caretakers of the game need to remember what made it “America’s Pastime.” Taters and technology are terrific.

But I’ll still push for pace, performance and professionalism.

Leave a Reply