National Pastime Gone International

FlagBaseballWith so little change on the political front since sequestration went through, and since I believe the last of the snow will melt by the weekend when the patio furniture company I work for is having their season opening sale, I would like to talk about baseball.

I finally figured out how this WBC (World Baseball Classic) actually works; but if there is any validity to Murphy’s Laws, three years from now the format will change.  In the first round, the teams are divided into four pools each with four teams. A team of a particular country plays each team in their pool once for a total of three games.  Just like a regular season, each team plays three games even if they are 0-2 and mathematically eliminated.  After everyone has played their three game season; as it were, the teams that finish first place in each pool advance and six other teams are picked according to winning percentage, with complicated NFL-type tie-breakers that involve statistics, not playoff games, and two pools of four teams are created, each with at least two pool champions.  The teams are ranked and in the first round, 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3.  Unlike the infamous brackets that are followed by college basketball buffs religiously, the round is double elimination like in our little league days.  This means the four teams are re-ranked based on who wins and who loses and déjà vu all over again.  Teams are not eliminated until they lose two games.  After the double elimination, the two teams that win their pools plus two wild cards determined by WBC percentage and tie-breakers implemented if necessary play final four style (single elimination).  Since the world-wide teams are pasted together and not determined by who wins a world series or some form of championship in their home country, since they do not play 162 game season to decide who will represent a respective country, I guess it is as good a format as any.  I just wish they could have gone with something easier to explain.

The intended purpose of the WBC is to promote the game of baseball across the globe.  While Japan, Latin American countries, and South American countries have been playing baseball for a long time, even Europe, which has been the soccer continent for ages, has a lot of representatives in this tourney.  I suppose they have as much right to play baseball as anyone else in the world.  It just seems as baseball is losing its identity as the American National Pastime.  In the twenty-first century, MLB has almost double (30) the number of teams it had in the first half of the twentieth century (16).  This results in what is called talent pool dilution which means players that back in the day would have been career minor leaguers at best play in the big leagues because thirty 25-man rosters have to be filled with somebody.  MLB’s answer is to incorporate talent pools of other nations of the world.  Many of these nations foster ballplayers that play baseball in America’s Major Leagues; others have little to no history.  MLB is attempting to seek out talent pools in countries that are traditionally either not baseball countries or do not have a reputation of sharing their talent players with us.  For many years, the United States and Japan, the second largest baseball nations both had leagues with reserve clauses that indentured players to one team unless traded or sold for cash, to one team.  Both countries agreed not to tamper which each other reserve clauses.  This is why Sadaharu Oh, the Babe Ruth of Japan who hit more home runs than Ruth, Aaron, or Bonds played his entire career in Japan even though George Steinbrenner was very interested in importing him to The Bronx when America’s reserve clause was broken.

I would like to see the re-Americanization of American baseball in America.  They can continue to play the WBC, but it is should be separate from MLB and other baseball leagues in America.  One bridge that has to be crossed eventually is a reduction in the number MLB teams, followed by a restructuring draft for a more concentrated talent pool.  Unfortunately, just about every team including the most financially troubled franchises got new ballparks during the post Camden Yards ballpark boom.  Major League ballparks are like buying a new car—they cost billions of dollars and MLB will face a major law suit by a city whose team is contracted leaving them with a multi-billion dollar white elephant.  The newest ballpark has to become at least twenty years old before contraction can be considered.  But it is a bridge that will inevitably have to be crossed.

1962 expansion did not have the talent dilution effect that more recent expansion did for two reasons; in fact it may have enhanced it.  The first was Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 and the consolidation of the Negro Leagues throughout the 1950s gave the best of the African American talent pool jobs in the Majors.  The Hispanic talent pool would also follow suit.  In addition, the first of the baby-boomers born in 1946 where 2-3 years away from their early twenties increasing the talent pool mathematically; if one percent of the population has the born-ability to play professional baseball, the result of the baby-boom was one percent of a larger number.  In contrast, the final waive of expansion in 1998 saw the last of the baby-boom ballplayers retiring and in addition to two extra teams requiring 25-man rosters, Generation X (and subsequently Gen Y) are significantly smaller than the baby-boom generation resulting in one percent of a smaller number with the born-ability to play professional baseball.

It is the talent pool dilution factor that inspired MLB to explore talent pools outside the United States.  For the next twenty years or so, this is as good as it gets.  But in the meantime, there are a few things MLB can do to make baseball in America special again.  I have a few ideas.

One of the first things I would do is pull the plug on the season opening with two major league teams playing each other in some foreign country.  I understand they are not doing that this year.  The two Texas teams (Astros-Rangers) will play Sunday night, March 31st and everyone else the next day.  In the future, MLB is looking into restoring the tradition of always opening in Cincinnati, home of the first professional baseball team in 1869, the Red Stockings.  But I what I would really like to see, if not on opening day, is to bring the game to small town America.  The firm HOK, who is responsible for all those new ballparks from Camden Yards to Citi Field is pretty much done building ballparks.  But what they can do is build fields in small towns, say one a year with an asymmetric outfield indicative of those classic ballparks built before World War II that met their doom with the wrecking ball in the sixties and seventies.  HOK could build a V-Shaped grandstand that could be carried on a wide load flatbed truck and placed around the field from third to first base.  High school football bleachers could be brought in for cheap seats beyond the baselines.  Bucket trucks could house temporary lighting and every year, one MLB game is shifted to his rural small-town venue; perhaps on a Sunday night televised on ESPN.  This will give folks in these rural towns a chance to experience major league baseball.  After the game, the V-shaped grandstand is carted away to be used in another small town next year and the town has use of a world class baseball field for amateur baseball from that day forward.

2008 saw the last Hall of Fame game; the Monday after the Sunday of Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, New York which was an exhibition game between on National League and one American League team.  I would like see regular season major league game played at Doubleday Field.

I would like to see baseball uniforms where the players show socks old school style, not these hip hop pant legs down to the shoes.  Players wore stirrups because they wanted to wear socks indicative of the team color (e.g. Boston Red Sox) and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the colored dyes used in the fabrics were toxic if ingested by the pores when athletes perspired from playing hard.  So they wore a white sanitary sock and a stirrup in the team color over it.  Going back to stirrups may not be practical, but let the colored sock show so they look like traditional old-school ballplayers.  Put names on the backs of road uniforms only—keep the home uniforms as traditional as possible.

Once and for all, get rid of the designated hitter.  We have finally seen the last of artificial turf; just two remnants in Toronto and Tampa.  Now it is time to play baseball the way God intended baseball to be played where all nine players on the field including the pitcher must take their turn at bat.  National League baseball, which is still played that way, has a lot more strategy and much shorter games as not all pitching changes are made on the mound; the manager may have a reliever warming up in the bullpen while the team is still batting and pinch hit for the pitcher to drive in an extra run before the reliever comes in to start the next inning.

I may have some other good ideas later on.  I have no problem with a peaceful coexistence with the re-Americanization of American baseball and the WBC, I just want to see more focus on baseball as our national pastime.  The game is rooted here and the American baseball fans deserve it.

1 comment
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