I usually enjoy Lisa Fabrizio’s baseball columns but this morning I think she dropped the ball by writing one of those “baseball isn’t as good as it used to be” pieces:
This year, like most, has had its moments; particularly with Derek Jeter’s pursuit of the 3,000 hit milestone, which has occasioned the usual folly of comparing today’s stars with the game’s immortals. This business gets sillier and sillier every year, even as the overall quality of play gets worse and worse. Now I like Derek Jeter as much as the next person and his achievements are indeed worthy of praise, but the qualities most people admire in him — humility, hustle, and all-around “baseball sense” — could probably be found in the majority of players who suited up 40 or more years ago.
It is often said of Jeter that he does everything well; they way it should be done. And that’s the point: he stands out because most of his contemporaries just don’t match up. He is a throwback; a clean-cut, well-mannered young fellow, as opposed to the bearded braggadocios that populate most Major League clubhouses these days. But that is the state of baseball today.
If today’s players spent as much time practicing the fundamentals of the game as they do preening before mirrors and mugging before cameras, the fans might be treated to a steady diet of fine Major League Baseball. As it is, a short series of well-played ballgames is as rare as a player hitting for the cycle.
So to sum up:
a) Baseball players don’t have the humility, hustle and baseball instincts they had prior to 1971;
b) Bearded baseball players can’t be well-mannered;
c) Baseball players care more about being on camera than about practicing fundamentals.
How does Fabrizio know any of this to be true? Does she hang around in MLB clubhouses? If the quality of Major League Baseball is as poor as she suggests then she would not heed it any attention whatsoever. Yet by her own admission, at the conclusion of her piece, she can’t get enough baseball.
The fact of the matter is that people have always complained about the state of baseball and always will. She laments that players aren’t as clean-cut as they were forty years ago. Yet I seem to recall that forty years ago, ballplayers began wearing their hair long with matching sideburns. Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley paid his players to grow facial hair. Rollie Fingers still looks stylish with his handlebar mustache.
Fabrizio also laments that no one has approached hitting .400. Well, Rod Carew did hit .388 with the Twins in 1977 and three years later Kansas City Royals legend George Brett batted .390. When the 1994 players’ strike hit, perennial NL batting champion Tony Gwynn was hitting .394. Who knows what could have been? Yet forty years ago, people were complaining about a lack of offense. After Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson posted an ERA of 1.12 and Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average in 1968, MLB lowered the mound and umpires began lowering the strike zone. By 1973, the AL introduced the designated hitter offending many purists and good hitting pitchers.
A generation later, homeruns and league ERAs had ballooned (and so had many players.) But now the homeruns have diminished and so have the ERAs. Indeed, ERAs have declined in both leagues every year since 2006. In fact, both leagues have a chance to post their first sub-4.00 ERA since 1992.
Yes, baseball players make bad plays and commit errors both physical and mental. But errors are part of the game. Always have been, always will be. Honus Wagner is considered amongst the greatest shortstops who ever played the game. Yet it wasn’t uncommon for The Flying Dutchman to commit 50 errors a season. In 1905, Wagner committed 60 errors for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When the Pirates won their first World Series in 1909, Wagner recorded 49 errors. And yet he tied Babe Ruth for the second most votes (only Ty Cobb received more) for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1936.
As for Jose Reyes, Fabrizio might think his defense his atrocious in comparison to Jeter. Yet their career fielding percentages are nearly identical (.976 for Jeter, .974 for Reyes.) And at this stage of Jeter’s career, he simply cannot get to the baseball the way Reyes can. The way Reyes plays shortstop might not be Fabrizio’s cup of tea but perhaps she should bear in mind that while Jeter cut his teeth in the schoolyards and the playgrounds of suburban Michigan, Reyes learned his craft barehanded on the streets of Santo Domingo. Eventually he made a glove constructed out of a milk carton.
Like Fabrizio, I can’t get enough baseball. But unlike Fabrizio, I think the game is as great as it has ever been. To quote Carly Simon, “These are the good old days.”