The longest day of the year came and went last month, followed by its longest week; for baseball fans, that is. And so the All-Star break, the so-called Mid-Summer Classic, has come and gone again. There can be no equivalent to the seemingly interminable span between meaningful baseball games which the All-Star break represents. No matter the result, we can be sure that it was chock full of meaningless posturing and artificial pathos. Yet the All-Star Game does mark the approximate halfway point to the season; a time to gauge the progress of players and teams. So, how to assess the current state of the game?
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; the 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.
For instance, that great offensive weapon, Jose Reyes, is a cringe-inducing spectacle at shortstop. He is the poster-boy for modern infielders who feel that no batted ball is worthy of being faced head-on. On nearly every play, they must circle around the ball in order to backhand it and show off their arms. But not to worry, the errors resulting from these fielding gymnastics are seldom charged to the perpetrators; they are — much to the chagrin of pitchers — most often scored as hits. It used to be that any grounder that glanced off leather was an error; nowadays, balls that graze the wickets are regularly scored as hits.
Indeed, anyone who watches baseball regularly must admit that there are probably at least two “hits” a game that only a few decades ago would have been deemed errors by even the most liberal of hometown official scorers. A quick check shows that the 25 lowest averages of errors per game have occurred in the last 25 years. Indeed, the number of errors per game has steadily decreased since the 1930s, when it was twice what it is today. This must mean that today’s players are better fielders, right? Um, no.
The canard that modern equipment has improved fielding is a particularly cruel joke since too many of these guys couldn’t, as they used to say, catch a ball with a bushel basket. And it’s not just a lack of ability; bad defense is also the result of downright stupidity. One has only to observe the hideously awful throws from today’s outfielders to know that the current proclivity to awkwardly leave one’s feet in order to peg a five-hopper to home plate, defies all laws of both baseball and physics.
Yet we are constantly reminded that today’s players are bigger, stronger, faster and better trained than their ancient and untalented predecessors. Of course anyone who follows the game must acknowledge that for all their strength and conditioning, lots of these boys go down like so many toy soldiers when performing complex and strenuous activities like running to first base.
And speaking of baserunning, Tyrus Raymond Cobb must be spinning in his grave with all the over-sliding and under-sliding that pollutes the basepaths at modern ballparks. But that’s okay, because today’s catchers, with their new penchant for launching throws which jettison their masks at the same time, have little chance of nailing them outright anyway.
Given the over-expansion of MLB and a woeful lack of minor-league preparation, it’s not surprising that players make more errors and yet are assessed at a lower rate. The real mystery is; with the incredible decrease in the number of errors, a postage stamp-sized strike zone and no real threat of brushbacks, that no player has broken Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or approached the lofty .400 mark.
And yet, for all its many flaws — folks like me have been decrying “modern” players since Ty Cobb said homeruns were ruining the game — real baseball fans can’t get enough of it; least of all me. In fact, I have an 80 year-old friend who is a lifelong Pirates fan and has come down with a genuine case of pennant fever. Halleluiah!
Baseball: there’s nothing like it.