Thursday, June 3, 2010

Baseball's Really Rough Day

Baseball might still be considered America's pastime, but it sure took a beating yesterday in the press. There's something nostalgic about forgetting about the world passing by when you sit in a ballpark, and time is essentially rendered mute because baseball will in most cases have 9 innings and 27 outs for at least one side. There's obvious exceptions, but baseball has essentially remained unchanged in its rules of play for decades.
And when you have armies of sports writers that wax on about the glory days of the game during simpler times and when players weren't known as much for the sometimes idiotic things they did off the field, for some, it triggers a flood of memories. Baseball is historic, and while it has some wonderful aspects to the simplicity of the game, the fan experience for me is really not what it once was.
Going to watch baseball used to be a special treat, on the rare occasion that I could find time to watch a game and just take a few hours off from the world. Now, games are all over television, and it's almost become a better situation to watch the games at home. Fans adopt teams from cross country just because they want to, rather than actually following their local team or a player that they've admired for years that plays on a team. Players change teams to the point where sometimes they can't be identified as being part of a city, where in baseball's history, players became part of a team fabric and often times, never played elsewhere.
With the advent of all of this, it's hard for me to sit down and actually be patient enough to sit through all the interruptions. Teams now take time outs as much as they can, introductions take a while, and baseball has now become a game that takes over 3 hours to play simply because of so much idle time. And as much as some fans want the game to speed up, many others prefer to leave it as it is. And that's probably the biggest crux of baseball's problem right now - how to update the game without completely alienating the game's history.
Baseball fans cling to history probably more that any fan group I've ever been around, because statistics and history are paramount to understanding baseball on a more integral level. A love of numbers and strategy led to the advent of fantasy baseball, as fans thought they could build a team better than paid professionals. And baseball fans argue history more than anyone because the measuring stick of the Hall of Fame or great players is all based upon stats and their playing history. When you cling to history, though, there is the risk that you cling to what you know and changes aren't as accepted because it's all about preserving the game.
Baseball hasn't adopted any technology that could help speed up games or assist in making calls recently with one notable exception - allowing instant replay to determine if a ball is a home run or not. So they still rely upon the eyes and ears of umpires to make most calls. They flirted a bit with an computerized system that would help determine strike zone, but have phased that out in most cases to keep the human element. Yet, most television broadcasts have added computerized graphics and slow motion cameras to allow viewers to see whether pitches are strikes or balls and whether close plays are valid or not. While this is good for the viewer at home, it reinforces problems when umpires get the call wrong.
Nothing reinforces that better than last night in Detroit when the final out of the game there was slightly delayed when an umpire missed a relatively easy call at first base on an easy grounder. Normally, this wouldn't be news, but in this case, the pitcher from Detroit had thrown a perfect game not allowing a hit or walk up to that point. And if the call had gone correctly, we would have witnessed the 22nd perfect game in baseball history. Instead, the game ends officially as a one hitter, the umpire ends up endlessly apologizing for a blown call, and fans all over are grousing about how a call like that could have been missed. Even MLB is now reviewing the situation to see if they might step in and fix the result allowing the perfect game to stand.
The idea of that sets a rather bad precedent of going back to fix things that there should be a system to allow in the first place. Instead of shunning technology, MLB should have allowed instant replay to help make calls in cases like this, but instead, it found protecting history and the integrity of the game more important. And now if you make this change without really addressing the full issue at hand, what happens if a championship game is decided on a close call that ends up being blown? Instead of enacting solid change and embracing ways to update the game while keeping the essential spirit of the game going, baseball has put its head in the sand and now is paying the price. Which frustrates more and more fans every day, and instead of sticking with the game, they've chosen to move to other pursuits.
For me, I prefer soccer because of its compartmentalized time clock and relative simplicity of the game on the surface yet complexity abounds. Yes, the game isn't without its own brand of controversy, but at the same point, teams and leagues are starting to embrace change and making sure that calls go correctly. While I admire MLB for trying to tackle this issue, unless they completely look at enhancing instant replay, changing the call from last night does nothing more that open the door for more problems. It might correct an injustice from a horrible call and give a pitcher the nod in history that he deserves, but it undermines the very integrity of the game to just change it without addressing the underlying causes. Mind you, baseball already has issues in this area from years of steroid problems and other cheating incidents, and they've barely scratched the surface of the issues behind those situations, so what would I expect here?
Baseball will fix the immediate problem and move on to the next thing, and fall closer and closer to a game that is losing fans and interest simply because of their own desire to keep things status quo. It's not that I don't appreciate history, but at the same time, there are ways to update the game without disturbing the legacy, but it appears the ownership and management of MLB are more interested in counting money and television ratings that truly address the problems going on right now.

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