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Baseball: the only sport people expect to be stuck in the past

Mar 31, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 1.45.58 PM

These two tweets came from ESPN’s Howard Bryant yesterday morning. They came exactly three minutes apart:

The first tweet: a smart reminder to NCAA fans and hand-wringers that the future is not to be feared, that the past is not the only way to do things and that people and institutions adapt to change. The second tweet: a complaint that baseball isn’t like it was several years ago when managers barking loudly and creating controversy was the rule rather than the exception.

That second part is endemic to baseball analysis: “Baseball was best before, and these new things are going to send the sport straight to hell.” Most of the time, you’ll find, baseball was best was when the speaker was a kid. Or, sometimes, when they were a young writer making their first mark in the industry.

I mean, ask yourself, do we seriously compare sprinters, tennis players, basketball players, football players or soccer players to those of the past? Maybe by analogy, but in those sports everyone appreciates that Rafael Nadal, transported back via a time machine, would never lose if he played in the 70s, that a college long-jumper would sweep the medals in the 1956 Olympics, or that if we put Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick in charge of a team in the 50s that they wouldn’t win several consecutive championships. They don’t think like that with respect to baseball, though. No, people still seriously think Babe Ruth would hit .360 with 60 homers if he were facing today’s pitchers. It’s ridiculous, of course, but we allow such magical thinking in baseball for some reason.

And, as Bryant’s tweet shows, it applies to broader analysis than analysis of just the sport on the field. The old, headstrong barking managers like Ozzie Guillen, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella either barked themselves out of jobs or burnt themselves out and front offices have almost uniformly decided to go in a different direction. In any other sport it’s characterized as innovation or evolution. In baseball, whoa, this is the end of the world.

If you dig down into the conversations Byrant’s tweets spawned, you’ll see that his larger point is that baseball is scared to death of losing young fans and thus, the change to what he calls “science” and what he thinks is “boring as shit” is the worst thing to do. I suspect he believes this applies to broader sabermetric thinking and not just manager choice.

If so, I’d ask him to think about who was leading the game, who the managers were and what the game’s character was as it slid into unpopularity. Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams — two company men cited in the Ken Rosenthal article that inspired Bryant’s tweets — aren’t responsible for that. Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker were on baseball’s scene from the 1960s-on. Which isn’t to say it was their fault either. It is to say, however, that baseball’s popularity and demographic challenges are bigger than the philosophical orientation of a handful of managers and general managers.

And in no event are the solutions to baseball’s problems more likely to be found by looking harder at the past than at the future. Because that’s not the case for anything.

  1. chiadam - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    What? Anyway, Samardzjia is on pace to post a tidy 0.00 ERA for the season. That’ll bring in two or three more touted middle infielders to add to the pile.

  2. cocheese000 - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Howard Bryant looks like a ninja turtle.

  3. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    I’m really confused about the juxtaposition of these two tweets. The first one almost seems to be a cheap shot at Hank Aaron. The second one is Bryant just acting like an old man with his “kids these days” approach.

    • paperlions - Mar 31, 2014 at 4:04 PM

      In the first one, Hank Aaron is the old man saying “these kids are going to ruin the sport I love”, which obviously didn’t happen, which is why Bryant tweeted it.

      In the second one, Bryant is the old man saying “these kids (GMs) are going to ruin the sport I love”, which obviously isn’t happening or going to happen, which is why Craig posted it, and both of them together.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 31, 2014 at 4:53 PM

        Yeah I’m not asking why Craig posted them, more like “can Bryant be any more of a moron”. Doesn’t he see they are the same thing?

      • paperlions - Mar 31, 2014 at 5:00 PM

        Oh, sorry.

        If you are familiar with Bryant’s work, the answer to that question should be evident. Nope, he really couldn’t be more of a moron.

  4. stabonerichard - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:38 PM

    Samardzjia vs. Liriano was really fun to watch as part of Opening Day. Liriano getting out of trouble when he started the 1-5-3 double play (which was upheld as part of MLB’s first 2014 replay challenge) was awesome, followed by Frankie working out of a jam with his 10th K of the game an inning later.

    But yeah, as for this article, I admit I have a shorter attention span than normal with it being Opening Day and all, but from what I skimmed of the article taking a couple snippets from Howard certainly made him sound more interesting and on point than his full length pieces I’ve struggled thru in ESPN mag.

  5. deep64blue - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    or that if we put Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick in charge of the NFL team that they’d In baseball?

    Hmm, editing problem??

    Apart from that yeah what a doofus Bryant is!

  6. serbingood - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    All sports are at their best when viewed through aged faded memories, or though the eyes of a child.

    I remember Mickey Mantle. It was 1968. His legs were gone, he couldn’t hit. Yet as a 15 year old kid, he was still THE MICK!

    Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels,

    • chiadam - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:49 PM

      Sounds like the time I could not quite place the woman sitting across from me in the airport. I sat there through numerous delays (eff you, polar vortex!) trying to place her. Finally, it hit me. It was Elvira. Her fastball is long gone now, but it’s still Elvira!

    • baberuthslegs - Mar 31, 2014 at 4:35 PM

      Baseball felt good when I was a kid. I was naive, innocent, didn’t know a thing about drugs, gambling, cheating. I just loved baseball and learning all I could about the players… past and present.

      It was fun. It was satisfying, mystifying, exhilarating. That is why I hold on to the past. I love the game now, but I’ll never forget how it made me feel then.

  7. thetoolsofignorance - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:47 PM

    i’m from the past. I liked some it. But, now that I’m here, I like here too. Both have something to recommend them but I don’t pretend one is better than the other. Somethings are better. Some are worse. Deal with it and don’t whine about it.

    • chiadam - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:59 PM

      Marty McFly? Is that you?

  8. rbj1 - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:57 PM

    Yes, base ball was ruined once they allowed gloves into the game.

    • infieldhit - Mar 31, 2014 at 4:28 PM

      It’s funny how one generation will gripe about how “soft” or whatever the following generation is, even though the preceding generation said the exact same thing about them.

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Mar 31, 2014 at 6:47 PM

      Gloves hell. This newfangled overhand pitching has made the game unwatchable.

  9. Old Gator - Mar 31, 2014 at 4:13 PM

    Lou looks like he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk in that photo.

    • paperlions - Mar 31, 2014 at 7:26 PM

      That or he’s choking and that other dude is giving him the Heimlich.

  10. Marty McKee - Mar 31, 2014 at 5:23 PM

    Babe Ruth would be a HOFer no matter what era he played in. Would he hit 60? Maybe. Why wouldn’t he? He hit ten homers off Walter Johnson in his career, so I can’t see any reason he couldn’t take Kershaw or Verlander deep.

    The great players would still be great in any era. Tony Gwynn would have hit .400 in 1937. DiMaggio would be a HOFer if he started his career today.

    • anxovies - Mar 31, 2014 at 5:58 PM

      Exactly, except that the Babe would probably be a pitcher. A 24 year old lefthander who wins 78 games with a 2.20 ERA before he is 23 years old is not going to be moved to the outfield in today’s game, no matter how hard he hits the ball.

    • campcouch - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:36 PM

      with the variety of beer and fast food these days,the Babe would’ve gotten too tubby to play.

    • kardshark1 - Apr 1, 2014 at 3:12 AM

      Silly comment.

      Imagine what an unremarkable player like Willy Mo Pena would have done if he only had to face white pitchers from primarily the East Coast that were construction workers and what not during the off season. He’d hit 100 homers and bat .500.

      Ruth was the best of a pool of a few thousand mostly part time players. Players now are the best of a pool made up of tens of millions around the world.

  11. hockeyflow33 - Mar 31, 2014 at 6:02 PM

    I didn’t know Bryant wrote abut anything other than race-baiting.

  12. nbjays - Mar 31, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    The ironic part about Bryant’s second tweet is that “scientific” managing of ballgames is not some newfangled thing. Earl Weaver started turning that science into an art form in Baltimore, aptly enough, the year that Howard Bryant was born.

  13. nothanksimdriving123 - Mar 31, 2014 at 6:50 PM

    In other sports, no one in the NHL is scoring even close to the way Gretzky and Lemieux did; long jumpers are not coming close to what Carl Lewis and Mike Powell did (or Bob Beamon in his freaky super jump). Back to baseball, no one is stealing bases even half as often as Rickey Henderson did. But I still enjoy all 3 sports.

  14. umrguy42 - Mar 31, 2014 at 6:51 PM

    Most of the time, you’ll find, baseball was best was when the speaker was a kid.

    Hrm. When I was a kid, my team won 1 out of 3 WS appearances in 6 years. Recently, they’ve won 1 out of 3 WS appearances in 10 years. Seems pretty close :p

  15. straightouttavtown - Mar 31, 2014 at 7:14 PM

    People who want the reserve clause back need to work under it themselves in their day job. Get their bosses to tell them they can’t go to a better city or pursue a higher salary elsewhere because they’re well-paid slaves here for life.

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