Every now and then I pay attention to sports. I don’t examine box scores, or peruse standings or statistics. I visit once in a while.
But if you’re of a certain bracket, to borrow a sporting term, some idea of what’s going on has a way of subliminally seeping in. So, for example, in the very late 1970s I was able to maintain an idea of how the Yankees were doing (which was not all that well) even though I was in Europe and there was no internet or cable or SportsCenter and you couldn’t find a hot dog. If you’re an American, this subliminal general knowledge tends to cover football, baseball and basketball, and if you’re from just about anywhere else it involves football, which involves Americans so little we call it soccer.
But I was surprised to learn the other day that baseball is in trouble, or, as an opinion piece by Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press put it: “Baseball is a mess, but Smoltz has ideas to fix it.” John Smoltz is a former phenomenal pitcher who is a member of something called the Major League Baseball Competition Committee, which is impressive and he has the credentials, but I don’t think baseball needs fixing. Or, to be more precise, I don’t think changing the game needs to be a first response to the drop in attendance (making it less expensive to go to a game would be at the top of my list).
That’s because I’ve noticed that there are crazily enthusiastic crowds at games that involve teams still in the pennant hunt, and hardly anybody at games that involve teams that are not. This does not strike me as a dramatic departure. It’s still better than, say, the 1950s, when if your name was not the New York Yankees your team didn’t have a chance, and that was before the season even started.
My old-fashioned perspective demands disclosure: I still think the nine players you put on the field should be the nine players you send to the plate. But the designated hitter doesn’t ruin it for me. Neither does the current scourge, which is analytics. Last I checked it was still one, two, three strikes you’re out in the old ball game. So what’s the big deal?
Well, there’s this: “I think the shift is single handedly killing the game because now you’ve got everybody lifting the ball over the shift. If you were rewarded for hitting the ball and there was no shift you would have more action. You’d have guys not just basically trying to hit the ball over the fence.”
That’s Smoltz, who as the headline suggested, “has ideas to fix it.” Analytics shows where a player is likely to hit the ball, and so that’s where the defending players line up. It’s called the shift, also known, as Dahlberg put it, as the “universally hated shift.”
It seems to me the game is not ruined, and particularly not by the universally hated shift, as long as the advice from Wiliam Henry Keeler (aka Hall of Famer “Wee Willie” Keeler) holds sway, which is to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” It’s just that these days where they ain’t is considered the bleachers. So it’s either home runs or strikeouts, but will that always be the case? You can either outlaw the shift or let the game evolve along the time-honored “hit ‘em where they ain’t” perspective. In other words, let the game fix itself.
Because here’s the thing: Dahlberg notes that a blind allegiance to analytics “likely cost the Los Angeles Dodgers a World Series last year,” while the Astros manager “used his gut when it mattered most.” Isn’t that an argument for letting things evolve?
Feeling the need to respond to a worrisome drop in attendance is understandable, but be cautious when it comes to dramatic rule changes. Baseball will do what it thinks it must, but I hope it won’t reach a place my subliminal self won’t recognize.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.