The problem of progress in baseball

It’s ironic that baseball is often termed “conservative”—not necessarily in a political or fiscal sense— but in terms of its willingness to move into the future, to incorporate technology, to “get with the times.” Ironic doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent descriptor, but when you sit and think about it, sport at its root cannot be conservative, especially a mainstream one.

The debates rage on and on about how to bring the game forward into the future. A little bit of replay, a dash of realignment, an expanded playoffs and—BOOM—you have a sport ready for mass consumption. Yet, by suggesting that the game is stagnant as it stands, the argument that follows disregards the other ways the sport has embraced change and how we’ve all changed along with it.

It depresses me, the writer here, to no end when I see the birth certificates of new stars in baseball. I understand I can’t complain too much because I am younger than many of you who will eventually read this piece and have had to deal with this for years. You have probably gotten used to it and I have not, so bear with me.

As a resident of Toronto, I frequent the Skydome (or Rogers Centre as the rebrand goes) to catch Blue Jays baseball. Frequent may actually be a gross understatement because I may as well start bringing a sleeping bag for homestands. The quality of my week is directly proportional to the number of quality performances I witness firsthand. First-world problems, I know.

At any rate, as an almost-23-year-old individual, I am in an interesting generation gap here, baseball-wise. Some of my earliest sports memories pertain to the “Glory Jays”—that Joe Carter home run, for instance. I’ve had arguments that there’s no possible way I could remember that at four years old. I do. I don’t recall the lockout because there are no memories to be made of nothing. I grew up and watched the torch pass from Pat Hentgen to Roger Clemens to Carlos Delgado to Roy Halladay and now Jose Bautista and eventually Brett Lawrie.

Cheering on Lawrie is difficult at times. Not because he’s a hothead or because his power has virtually disappeared this year, but because he’s too young for my liking. He is a reminder that I could probably be bringing in more income and generally be a lot more famous. Believe it or not, I’ve never been approached on the subway and asked if I’m that guy who writes for The Hardball Times. I hold fast hope that it’ll happen, and until then I’ll keep hoping.

In the last month, I’ve seen Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg up close—luckily for me, Strasburg is older by a hair—and I’ve already got designs on catching Mike Trout in person before the season expires. This game has become a cavalcade of kids in recent months. It is equal parts unsettling and cause for pause because it is an active reminder of how far it has come.

I know many of you are probably reading this and thinking back to when Ken Griffey Jr. was “The Kid” who reminded you that you could probably be doing more. Or maybe it was Alex Rodriguez. Or maybe it was Jeff Francoeur. Or maybe you haven’t had it yet. You will.

That moment is an interesting one because, in this context, you think of how much things have changed. Personally, I get melancholy over the fact that there are kids out there who think Blue Jays baseball begins and ends with Bautista—as impressive as he is—but have no recollection of when Shawn Green patrolled right field.

I find it funny that I have friends who are new to the sport and have a hard time grasping that the events in Moneyball actually happened. I find it inspiring that baseball analytics have moved past a brilliant guy self-publishing abstracts to today where there are plenty of brilliant people discussing this game all over the world, very intelligently in places like this very website.

When you begin to boil it all down this way, I find it challenging to concur with the thought that baseball is reluctant to change. Let’s also not forget that these are just instances of progression directly pertaining to on-field events. The way in which we, as fans, consume the game has evolved drastically.

When I wanted to be Griffey as a kid, I would find a friend to throw a baseball at me while I mimicked his batting stance—from the waggle to the follow-through—and, as it turns out, that was as close to being a star center fielder as I will ever get. Now you pick up a video game, select home run derby, and let the buttons do the work. It’s a very different experience, but one very in much in line with where we are technologically.

To watch your favorite team on the other side of the continent, you no longer have to hope for a national timeslot once a year. The internet has resolved that problem. Have disdain for your local columnist? There are plenty of great resources to get opinions you find more insightful. If you want to break down Justin Verlander’s pitching mechanics for the kids you coach, you can.

Now this isn’t to proclaim some sort of “everything’s great” manifesto. There are still plenty of ways the game can improve. There have been enough blown foul ball calls and strike zone problems for all of us. We’re seeing a parade to the disabled list that certainly will warrant an examination of how to train and play better while keeping healthy.

One day we may even have an MVP vote that we can all agree on, but until then, baby steps will do.

It’s not a perfect game, but I challenge you to find one that is. Basketball has difficulty with competitive balance. Football is struggling to deal with player safety. Hockey is paddling along in the same boat as football and may even have another lockout to talk things over. And once these games resolve those issues, new issues will crop up, and we will be back at square one.

Sports and progress are inexplicably intertwined. Baseball is always planting the seeds progress, but the forest isn’t fully grown yet. The challenge is making sure the trees don’t block your view.

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  1. bucdaddy said...

    Beautiful. I’m tearing up just a tiny bit, but that might be because I just had to spend $100 to replace a flat tire.

  2. Mike Erickson said...

    I’ve gotta say I disagree entirely with your premise of somehow we should be depressed that the players coming into the game are younger than ourselves. On the contrary, I believe the excitement that youth generates in the game of baseball is invigorating.

    It’s great to watch the veterans play, but the site of watching older, used-to-be stars like Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Manny Ramirez is painful. And it’s fine to see wily old veterans like Andy Pettite and Jamie Moyer hang on, but it’s much more thrilling to see the stars of tomorrow: Mike Trout, Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper, etc.

    Sure young players at times make you want to cringe when you watch them butcher the fundaments (see Cubs Starlin Castro). But witnessing the awesome potential in the hall-of-famers-in-the-making is a thrill and makes ME feel young again.

  3. Hans said...

    I’m sorry, Chris, but complaining about feeling old at 22 is ridiculous. Complaining about players being “too young” is even more so.

  4. Chris Lund said...

    Sorry folks, my complaining about my age was in jest. I apologize for being painfully unfunny.

  5. Dorothy Seymour Mills said...

    I’ll say baseball shows signs of progress when the minor leagues open hiring to women players.

  6. ERIK said...

    I agree with the authot of this.  It is weird watching players younger then you are.

    Being 23 I always can’t help but feel the fact that these guys are living the dream and it’s damn WTF happened.

  7. Tom said...

    We moved from my first house when I was four years old, and I have hundreds of memories from that home.

    I am also sure that many of those things occurred even younger, but since moving was such an obvious line of demarcation in my life, there is not a shadow of a doubt that I could not have been older than four.

    So of course you can remember things from when you were four years old, Chris. Especially something as dramatic as a home run to win the World Series for your home town team.

    Don’t let enyone ever tell you otherwise.

  8. Paul E said...

    There are certainly many things to complain about regarding MLB, however, youth is not one of them. Probably the saddest thing I’ve seen on a baseball field is Willie Mays hanging on till age 42….Mantle breaking down physically before his time and Steve Carlton taking the vestige of a Hall of Fame career to about 4-5 different places before he finally acknowledged it was over.

    Interesting thing about MLB: If you’re a “troublemaker” with talent and can’t play anymore, you’re done immediately. If you’re a “team” guy, you’ll get several chances to confirm you can’t play anymore….In any and all events, “youth must be served”

  9. Chris H said...

    The age thing is just starting to hit me. Carlos Correa is about a month younger than me, and it hurts.

  10. bucdaddy said...

    I can call Jamie Moyer “son.”

    The second worst thing about being old is, no matter how long you stand at the urinal and shake it, as soon as you zip up, that last drop is going down your leg.

    The worst thing is that in 25 years the young girls won’t even look at me anymore.

  11. Adi said...

    This misses the core issues in play here. Chris – you rely only the distinction between “conservative” and “new.” The issues people are really talking about when they say baseball is losing touch are more about the business run by MLB, not the way fans think about what they’re watching. Issues like game length, the integrity of the results on the field,  and the viewership and participation of casual fans, all have nothing to do with your point about improved analytics. The concern that the game is too slow for a generation raised by iPhones is very real, and the longterm health of the game we love depends on it being able to replenish its fan base and, more directly, its revenues.

  12. Edmundo said...

    Chris, my 25 year old son is worried that there will be no major leaguer who was born on the same day as him.  You’ll get over it. smile  At least I have Joel Youngblood to share a birthday with.  Woo Woo!

    Like others said, it’s invigorating to see young players with seemingly limitless potential come along.  It’s exciting to see Harper, Trout and Stassburg all coming along.  Some of them turn into Griffey, Jr. some like Heyward, look like they are not going to be stars in spite of how promising they looked. 

    Last year, I started playing softball again after a 20+ year hiatus.  Now, it’s just on a company IM team but it’s been a lot of fun.  I’ve been playing 1B a bit this year and have had big problems with low throws.  I was getting mad at myself until I realized that as I near 61, my knees just don’t bend much any more—I just can’t get my body low enough to do anything but stab at the ball.  I’m playing around with footwork and positioning to see if I can do better than I have been.  I hope I’m not looking like ‘73 Mays as that was a sad, sad image.

  13. Mitch said...

    I’m pretty sure the author was kidding about the age thing. Having said that, Alex Rodriguez is just a few days younger than I am. I remember being slightly melancholy when the first whispers of his age-related decline began. For those of you in our 20s getting a little blue over the emerging stars who are younger than you, don’t worry – it passes. The really depressing thing is when your doctor, dentist, and lawyer are all younger than you.

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