Baseball. Long, boring games. Long, boring, 162 game seasons. It challenges a fan’s vitality and loyalty when September comes and your team is 30 games out of first place. That’s just about the time you switch to football and pay as much attention to the final month of the MLB season as you did to Spring training. Can you blame even the most ardent fans? Baseball fields the smallest playoff pool of the four major professional sports and requires half a calendar year just to get there. Those who stick it to the end deserve commendation.
I had all but given up on baseball before last season. Changes to the game’s drug policy have rendered in-game excitement to a shell of its Steroid Era glory. I’ve often wondered why people just accepted the argument that using performance enhancing drugs is cheating and has no place in America’s Pastime. Artificial enhancement is surely American. Steroids gave Major League Baseball a marketable product to stem the football tide from encompassing every sports fan in the country. There was actual palpable excitement every time Barry Bonds stepped up to home plate in 2001. In high school, I’d stay up with Baseball Tonight to check in on the fusillade of home run balls terrorizing pitchers nightly. The show would often cut into its analysis with its trademark jingle, indicating a major development in one of the west coast games that extended into the early mornings. In those days it was common for every Bonds at bat to be the subject of these interludes. He chased and broke Mark McGwire’s single season (steroid-fueled) home run record that year. 73 home runs. A couple seasons later, Hank Aaron’s All-Time home run record fell. I was riveted. Even as the New York Yankees dynasty of the late 20th century began to fall, baseball kept me engaged and satisfied.
There were twelve players with 40 or more home runs in 2001, including seven with 49+. Nelson Cruz alone led MLB with 40 home runs in 2014. Do more frequent home runs make the game more exciting? That’s arguable. Purists appreciate skillful managerial strategy over constant fireworks. Sort of the same way football purists love to dissect the finer points of defensive play. But you don’t win casual fans producing 1-0 pitching duels any more than you can with a 6-3 mud drenched gridiron battle. It’s no coincidence football’s rise has been accompanied by increased emphasis on quick striking pass offenses. At the same time, baseball’s offensive stats have sunk well below the status quo of the 90s and early 00s.
The NFL’s other, under-appreciated strength is its salary cap. Strict spending rules have allowed frequent turnover of top teams. Management skill and scouting savvy are still vital to producing effective end products. Look at the sustained success of the New England Patriots and the perennial failure of the Oakland Raiders. However, both the cap and a strong, collegiately developed talent pool help maintain more parity among the league’s teams. It’s why teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh compete for titles as often as the New York Giants. Salary caps are essentially a form of socialism, whereby the largest market teams can’t spend substantially more than the smallest. Ironically, the game supported by the most stereotypically American fans is structurally the least stereotypically American.
Baseball, on the other hand, maintains its patriotism. In 2014, the top five team payrolls were:
- Los Angeles Dodgers – $235 Million
- New York Yankees – $203 Million
- Philadelphia Phillies – $180 million
- Boston Red Sox – $162 Million
- Detroit Tigers – $162 Million
While the bottom five team payrolls were:
- Houston Astros – $44 Million
- Miami Marlins – $47 Million
- Tampa Bay Rays – $77 Million
- Pittsburgh Pirates – $78 Million
- Cleveland Indians – $82 Million
Is it any wonder why the Astros are bottom feeders when the Dodgers can spend almost $200 million more on players’ contracts?
Since 2003, MLB has instituted a laughable luxury tax system on payrolls over a certain threshold. The assumption is that you can take money from higher spending teams and distribute it among the rest of the league. But the New York Yankees are frequently exceeded the cap and absorbed the tax as the cost of doing business. If it doesn’t act as a deterrent to overspending in free agency, you may as well throw it out. Power has been consolidated in the top tier programs, similarly to how wages have stagnated for the middle class and the wage gap has increased exponentially. The truth is that Major League Baseball banks on the revenue of its big market teams while the smaller ones are just props for the appearance of competitiveness. One breaks through to the upper echelon on occasion, using tricks like those described in Moneyball. Over the last two decades, though, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago constitute a large majority of the titles won.
Baseball should be the blue collar, Everyman sport. When the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, the comically high ticket prices were criticized. The face value of the highest priced tickets landed somewhere in the range of a nice family vacation. Ticket prices to an NFL game can also get pricey, but each game is a weekly event. When you’ve been to a football game, you feel like you’ve experienced one of eight vitally important home games in a given season. You getting drunk and screaming yourself hoarse in support has significance. Over the course of 81 MLB home games, the odds you will be watching a meaningless display increase tenfold. Even the best pitchers have off days. Hitting is considered prolific at 30% success. If you’re paying $200 for a decent ticket to watch an overpaid, hungover pitcher yield eight runs in 3 innings while his impotent offense shrugs this one off as a loss before the seventh inning stretch, it’s hard to find the value. The exciting contest you’ve saved money for means little to players in the long slog of a hot summer. I resolved to never pay for a seat in Yankee Stadium before it even opened.
It was overwhelmingly refreshing to see the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals compete in the 2014 ALCS. Both defied every aforementioned criticism of Major League Baseball. It was like a mini-rebirth of old baseball, when everyone still held the annual hope that this would be their year.
I also had a personal baseball rebirth last season. When I saw the Yankees play the Red Sox at Fenway last July, it filled a void I never realized had formed. The smell of wood, plastic, metal and grass under a sizzling hot sun returned me somewhere. The energy of 37,000 Red Sox fans united in hatred of these invading Yankees filled me with anticipation I hadn’t experienced for years. Major League Baseball, the institution, still retained all its faults, but I was no longer thinking as a removed observer. I was deep in the heart of the action. This was baseball as it was meant to be. There is something so compelling about the in-person experience. Baseball is as much a social affair as anything. It’s no wonder Don DeLillo set Underworld’s prologue at the Dodgers-Giants National League Pennant game of 1951. You aren’t just there watching a baseball game. You are sharing a series of moments with friends, family and strangers. Only an exalted few can lay claim to it. When that’s the case, you don’t need the home runs.
Perhaps baseball’s slow pace urges us to think more. For the better. Football is visceral. It’s constantly moving. It mirrors our own lives, ever combative, where we struggle to catch our breath. Baseball is what we want life to be. It’s deliberate. It gives us a chance to appreciate not only the main action, but the periphery. We discover things about ourselves in those moments.
The unpredictability of each baseball game can actually be a virtue. Football demands preparation above all. Talented, well prepared NFL teams ascend. Upsets happen, but the urgency of a short season requires constant vigilance. Baseball has leeway. If they played enough games, those lowly Astros will defeat the Dodgers at least once. What could be more positively American than the ever present hope of the underdog vanquishing the giant? Even if it’s one meaningless game in early July. It belongs to you.
America was dazzled by baseball’s Steroid Era. It was daily gratification. The barrage of home runs allowed us to remain entertained from afar. Remove that and it sure can be boring. I’ve stood firm against visiting Yankee Stadium. Never again, on principle. Timing and circumstances what they are, I’ve necessarily gravitated towards supporting the Red Sox. It wasn’t easy abandoning the team I was raised on for the one I despised. I still consider myself dedicated to the pre-2009 New York Yankees. But I’m starved for the experience. I don’t want to watch baseball, I want to live it. Fenway Park allowed me to reclaim some of that sentiment.
Now, it’s time for MLB to reform. Top heavy influence is detrimental to all fans. Those of the large market teams become too accustomed to winning. The expectation of an annual World Series title makes anything short seem like a waste of time. This entitlement forces teams to spend even more money, driving ticket prices up, accessibility down and diluting the value of the product. Small market teams contend with longer odds of ultimate victory. They often fail to fill stadium seats enough to support anything above a paltry operating budget. These teams become Washington Generals-esque opponents, doomed to a fate of elevating the enlightened few. Baseball will continue to lose as long as only the elite can win. Let’s institute a hard salary cap and finally socialize the game. As I’ve come to learn, it’s still worth saving.
Happy Opening Day to all. Every team’s still in it in April. Except the Mets.