Thursday, February 23, 2012

Baseball Is Better Now Than It's Ever Been

Spring training is underway. Pitchers and catchers, and fitness obsessives, have reported to their camps in Florida and Arizona.

This is a far cry from the old days, when the purpose of spring training was to get players in shape. Because, in the reserve clause era, up until 1975, lots of players needed off-season jobs to make ends meet. Since then, they’ve had the time to work out instead of work at a “real job.” So, for the most part, they’re already in shape when spring training starts; so they’re in even better shape when Opening Day rolls around.

This is one reason why baseball is better now than it has ever been. Another reason is that it’s more competitive. The late anthropologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould once decided to figure out why there are no more .400 hitters. He decided that it was because pitchers had gotten better, and hitters had, too. The best players of the 1980s, when he wrote an essay on the subject, were no better than the best players of the 1920s, when there were still .400 hitters; but the average player was better. For this reason, there were, on the average, better pitchers, so they could stop the better hitters from batting .400; but there were also better hitters, so there were fewer hitters batting under .200.

This would not seem to be the case with pitchers: There are fewer pitchers with ERAs under 3.00 and many more with ERAs over 4.00, and even a 5.00 isn’t seen as a disqualifier. But that’s because the hitters have progressed farther than the pitchers. Which merely makes the best pitchers even more of a valued quality. What Connie Mack said around 100 years ago, that pitching is 75 percent of baseball, still holds true. We’ve also heard that good pitching beats good hitting, thus the best pitchers are probably more important now than they’ve ever been.

The talent pool is also wider than it’s ever been. Up until 1900, most Major League Baseball players were from the Northeast and the Midwest, where the teams were. Within 10 years, Southerners such as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson had come to the forefront. By 1930, players from the West Coast were becoming stars. Still, up until 1947, you had to be a white male to play in the majors; any Hispanic players who made it were unquestionably white, such as the Cuban pitcher Adolfo Luque and the Puerto Rican outfielder Luis Olmo. Branch Rickey brought in Jackie Robinson, and the color barrier was broken. In the 1950s, black Hispanics came in. By the mid-1990s, Asians arrived. Now, we even have South Americans and Australians.

Face it, when people like Chris "Mad Dog" Russo say baseball has to contract, they're idiots. There's enough players available that MLB can expand from 30 to 32 teams. There are, in the baseball-playing countries of this world, 800 men capable of playing the game at the major league level. Who knows, one day, there may even be women in the game.

The players are better. The ballparks are better. With instant replay (if only for home runs), even the umpires are getting better. Baseball is better now than ever.

Except for the ticket prices.

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