Tag Archives: baseball

Baseball and the American Attention Span

The powers that be are tinkering with baseball again. In the minor leagues, new rules are being testing including:

  • Increasing the size of the infield bases.
  • Limiting the number of pick-off attempts a pitcher can make.
  • Requiring infielders to stay in the infield and always have two on each side.
  • Introducing robotic umpires for calling balls and strikes.

Each of these changes is being made with the explicit goal of speeding up the pace of the game.

Apparently, the game is too slow for the average fan and not fast enough to encourage new fans to take to the game. As my brother pointed out to me, this has impacts that go all the way down to the five year-old who wants to play a sport. They are selecting sports other than baseball because of the slow pace of play.

I don’t want to be in the position of grumpy old man, complaining about how terrible all of these changes are because they mess with what is otherwise what I consider to be a perfect game in terms of the mechanics of play. I understand that, like all things, baseball has to evolve. That has been part of its history, from the dead-ball era, into more lively play, there have been changes that have happened that fundamentally change the game in different ways. Raising or lowering of the pitching mound; how the ball is designed; artificial turf; night games; designated hitter rules.

Perhaps the worst change baseball has had to endure, until was, was the influence of money in the game, but the reserve clause made that inevitable.

Today, money is a big driver, but something else, more insidious is lurking in the background of all of these changes: the shortening of American’s attention spans. Why else would there be such pressure to change if not for the need to keep people watching the game? And why are people not watching as much? Because they find the game boring?

Baseball is anything but a boring game. It is like a ballet and a game of chess wrapped into one. The core set of rules allow room for the game play to evolve. Hitters learn to pull the ball, and fielders learn to counter that with a shift. Hitters get much better at waiting for their pitch, and more pitchers are used during a game to come at batters with more consistent accuracy and speed. Watching the game unfold is like watching a work of art come together. Tweaking the rules unbalance this and have the risk of making the game less elegant than it is today.

People didn’t always complain about the slow play of baseball. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that seems to parallel our decreasing attention spans. It seems to me that the Internet has some responsibility here. Our interactions online, the way information, and products are delivered almost instantly have altered our perceptions of what is slow-paced and what is fast-paces.

When looking at the stats of baseball, you see that game length has crept up by minutes. In 2020, the average length of a baseball game was 3 hours 7 minutes. In 2010, it was 2 hours 54 minutes. That means the length of a game went up by 13 minutes over a ten year period. Are people really complaining about an extra 13 average increase over the last 10 years?

In 1993, the year before the Internet really opened up to people, the average length of a baseball game was also 2:54. Ten years before that it was 2:40.

The length of a baseball game really hasn’t changed much, but how our attention has. This is why most movies and many TV shows today require lots of explosions. It is why they begin with a dramatic event and then flash the words “24 hours earlier…” on the screen. Like baseball, they are looking for ways to hold on to our ever diminishing attention.

It is a shame, really. Baseball is a game for lazy summer afternoon. The pace is ideal for radio. It is a game that is fun to watch, but often even better to imagine, listening to voices like Vin Scully or Mel Allen or Harry Caray paint a picture of the game in your mind. It is not supposed to be a fast-paced game, although it can be when the right conditions take place.

My fear is not so much that the rule changes will throw the game off balance. Baseball has always found ways of evolving its play to changing rules. No, my fear is that our attention spans are continuing to decrease and that next year, a pace of say, 2 hours 50 minutes will seem to slow. Then 2:30 minutes, then 2 hours. Where does it end? Maybe the right answer is not to broadcast baseball on television at all, but instead, to go back to radio, and listen to a new generation of voices paint pictures of the game in our minds.

Guest Post: Remembering Tommy Lasorda’s World Championship Mouth by Jason Ashlock

When I saw that Tommy Lasorda had died, I knew I had to write something about him. He was an icon of the game for 70+ years, and especially of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I lived in L.A. for nearly 20 years, but as a lifelong Yankees fan, I didn’t feel I had the chops to write about Lasorda. Fortunately, I know someone who does. Jason Ashlock has a great Tommy Lasorda story to tell, and he tells it below in a way that epitomizes Lasorda. In addition to being my brother-in-law, Jason is a creative director at big ad agency. You’ve probably seen his commercials before (this is one of my favorites), but unfortunately, commercials don’t run credits. I’m delighted that Jason agreed to my request to write something here about Tommy Lasorda. Enjoy! –Jamie


When the news hit that Tommy Lasorda had died, the very first thing that came to mind was, “Fucking Tommy Lasorda.” And I mean that in the most loving way possible, because as a kid I loved the Dodgers. I loved Tommy Lasorda. I loved everything about his no bullshit f-bomb-laced approach to the game. 

Tommy Lasorda was the living embodiment of profanity. His expletive laced exploits are well documented. But, I like to think that his greatest set of swear words were directed at me. That’s right. I got cursed out by Tommy Lasorda. I was twelve years old at the time. 

In the early 1990’s, every year for my birthday my Dad would reserve the first two rows behind Dodger dugout. My Dad worked for Unocal 76 and those were the corporate seats. Every Dodger fan knows the orange 76 logo above the scoreboard—a staple of Dodger stadium since its inaugural season in 1962. 

But the first two rows behind Dodger dugout! Those were amazing seats. So for my birthday I’d invite a group of friends and we’d go early for BP and get autographs. Hershiser. Scioscia. Piazza. Strawberry. Pedro Martinez. Brett Butler. So many great players. 

During the game we’d buy Cracker Jacks, malted ice cream and giant soft drinks. We’d place it all on top of the concrete Dodger dugout during the game. This was before cupholder technology became ubiquitous in baseball stadiums. 

One year, some random lady bumped into one of my friends and knocked over one of those giant soft drinks. Imagine, 50 ounces of sticky soda pouring down into the dugout. It didn’t take long. 

Out pops Tommy Lasorda. He’s full-on red in the face. His cheeks are vibrating. And he singles me out. “What the fuck are you doing, kid. My fucking players are covered with your fucking soda pop. Get that shit out here. Fuck you.” It’s still one of my most vivid and enjoyable memories. I loved every moment of it. 

Fuck you back, Tommy Lasorda. You will be missed.

The New Baseball Season

Major League Baseball should do everyone a favor and forgo the 2020 season. I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, a former player (as a kid), and a student of the history of the sport. There are three reasons why baseball should take a deep breath (wearing a mask, of course) and forfeit the season. There’s only one reason that they won’t.

Let’s start with why they should forgo the season:

  1. The baseball season is a marathon, which is part of the magic of the game. Whether its the current 162 games played in regular season, or the 154 games played in an earlier era, it is still a long road to the playoffs. Each game is itself a marathon, being played without a clock, and 162 of those clockless games are packed into 6 month regular season. The entire dynamic of the game is centered on this stable arrangement, like planets orbiting a star at the center of a solar system. Change those dynamics and chaos ensues. Planets fall inward to crash into the star, while other are flung out of the system entirely. We’ll see this in a 60 game season:
    • A 10 game win or loss streak can have a disproportional effect on the outcome of a season for a team.
    • Batting records will be skewed by the shortened season. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak went 56 games, which is 4 games shy of the entire new season.
    • Being hot and being in a slump take on new perspectives in a grossly shortened season. With “hot” hitters, we could conceivably see much higher batting averages from we are used to. It’s even conceivable that for a period of 60 games, a batter could hit .400. The opposite is true of batters in a slump.
    • If your teams wins the series in a 60 game season, is that something to celebrate? Or, like Houston’s dubious win a few years ago, it is something to be humiliated by?
  2. The entire 2020 record book will be one big asterisk. Meanwhile, I can’t imagine anyway really believes that the stats produced in a 60-game season will have any meaning or value in a record book where the average season length over 120 or so is between 154 and 162 games. If a player does finish the season at or about .400 in hitting, does that show up without a note in the almanacs? Is such a feat deserving of an batting title? Does it even make sense to award batting titles, Cy Young awards, Golden Gloves and the like in a 60 game season? With nearly every stat and achievement from a 60 game season questionable when compared with a season that has 2.7 times as many games, I can’t see the value of the record book for 2020. I imagine that sabermetricians will find ways of attempting to compare apples to apples, the way they do with “field effects” and different era comparisons, but still, really?
  3. The draw of the season will be about the novelty not the game itself. I suspect there will be a fair amount of interest in the games played in 2020, but not for the games themselves, but the novelty of the situation. Managers can’t bump umpires–you have to keep your 6 feet of separation; batters hit by a pitch can’t charge the mound. But will they? The novelty of the situation will keep us watching more than the games themselves, which is a shame. Baseball is an elegant performance to watch, but we’ll miss the performance in lieu of the theater in which it will be played.

The reason that baseball won’t cancel the 2020 season? Come on, you already know the answer: money.

The real question for me is: will I watch any of the games? I don’t know. Late in the winter, I get this eager feeling in my belly. Spring is just around the corner, and I can smell baseball in the air. The first games of the season, when the air is often still chilled, are fun to watch. The players are easing back into things. Any one game doesn’t matter that much at that point. Now, the spring is behind us, and the players will start playing in the heat of summer. Each game will matter more than in a regular season. Indeed, each game will matter 2.7 times more than normal, and that will put pressure on the players and change the way they perform.

I suppose the real winner in all of this is the Houston Astros. Remember what happened in the offseason after Houston was caught cheating in the World Series? I can imagine Houston players were looking forward to road games, especially road games in Los Angeles. What they needed was a major distraction–and that is exactly what they got. What pitcher is going to make his displeasure known by throwing inside on an Astros batter, when getting tossed from a game means sacrificing 1 of the 10 or 11 starts you’ll get this season–assuming your aren’t suspended for hitting the batter?

R.I.P. Jim Bouton

I read in the Washington Post this morning that Jim Bouton had died at age 80. He pitched for the Yankees in the 1960s, but was perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking book, Ball Four. It is a fantastic look inside baseball in the late 1960s. If you are a fan of the game and haven’t read the book, you should. I think it is #3 on Sport Illustrated list of best sports books of all time.

My kids knew of Jim Bouton as well. As I took them to camp this morning, I mentioned that he had died. The Little Miss said, “Who is Jim Bouton?” and the Little Man replied almost at once. “He’s the inventor of Big League Chew.”

In an eerie coincidence, last night, I was reading For the Love of the Game, Bud Selig’s new memoir about his life in baseball, and there was some mention of Bouton and his book. Then I saw his name and face in the paper this morning.

Goodbye, Yogi

There is a new player joining Shoeless Joe on the field of dreams tonight. I was saddened to learn of Yogi Berra’s passing when I woke up this morning. He is one of those few people that I feel like I’ve been aware of my whole life. I feel almost as if I was born knowing the name Yogi Berra. I can recall seeing him in commercials in the 1970s. He seemed ubiquitous in baseball, a Hall-of-Famer who clearly loved the game.

A lot has been written about Number 8 today. They write about his famous wit, his 20 year career, and 10 World Championships, but I think Derek Jeter captured the most important element of who Yogi Berra was:

He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness.

My grandparents watched Yogi Berra play baseball. My parents watched him. Generations of fans learned to love the game by watching Yogi and seeing how much he loved it.

Quickly break in a new baseball glove [video]

I have been lax in my efforts to break in the Little Man’s baseball glove, and that has made things more difficult on the field for him than they should be. So this weekend, I decided I would figure out the right way to do it quickly. A Google search led me to the Glove Guru, and a video where he shows the way the pros break in gloves. It uses nothing more than hot water, and a hammer.

I tried this on the Little Man’s glove yesterday morning using a regular hammer in place of the special tool that the Glove Guru used (the hammer was dull so it wouldn’t tear the leather) and after about 10 minutes, the Little Man could easily open and close the glove–something he was unable to do before I started.

Another win for YouTube videos!

The Thrill of the Cracker Jacks

Nats Stadium

On Saturday, I took the Little Man to an exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals. We took the Metro over to Nationals Park, and found our way to our seats, where my friend, and fellow writer Michael J. Sullivan was waiting for us. I think that Michael told me this was the third baseball game he’d ever attended. As it happens, it was the Little Man’s third game, too. He attended a Nationals game when he was a little baby. Then, when he’d just turned two years old, he attended a minor league game up in Troy, NY, between the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Vermont Lake Monsters. But the game on Saturday is likely to be the first that he remembers as he gets older, if for no other reason than he plays Little League baseball, and has more of a sense of the game than he did when he was two.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the game for the Little Man was the thought of getting Cracker Jacks. He knew about Cracker Jacks from the song, of course, and also because Caillou has them in an episode of that cartoon. But the Little Man had never had them before. So when we arrived at the stadium the very first thing that we did, even before going to our seats, was seek out Cracker Jacks. Eventually, we located a bag (they are no longer sold in boxes, at least not at Nationals Park) of Cracker Jacks. We added to this, two hot dogs, a small soda, and a beer. Then we sought out our seats. We were high up, but had a good view of the playing field, which is what I wanted so that I could explains things about the game to the Little Man. We both wore our Yankees hats, and while we sat among many Nationals fans, there were plenty of Yankees fans to be seen around the park.

The Little Man picked up the rhythm of the game quickly, and even learned to follow the scoreboard for balls, strikes, and outs. When the Nationals would make a good play on the Yankees, he’d say, “Aw, man!” When the Yankees made a good play, he became wildly excited. He saw his first home run that game, and that brought the score to 3-2 (the Yanks had been trailing.)

When A-Rod came to the plate, and the stadium booed, the Little Man wondered why. I explained that A-Rod had cheated, and had not been allowed to play baseball for a year, and that a lot of people (myself included) were upset that he cheated.

We stayed for five full innings before the Little Man got too restless and wanted to head home. We left with the Nationals leading 3-2, and that means that we missed the Yankees comeback home run in the 8th inning. But it was still fun. I mean a lot of fun. At one point, entirely on his own volition the Little Man turned to me and said, “Thanks for bringing me to the game, Daddy.” Really, it was perfect.

It made me wonder who really had more fun, him, for me, watching him. I thought about my Dad taking me to baseball games when I was very young, and had a sudden realization that it must have been fun for him in the same way that it was fun for me on Saturday. The Little Man got to see the game, and got to eat a bag of Cracker Jacks, and I got to sit there and watch him do it. I imagine we will be doing it again, before long.

Great Baseball Writing

I recently finished reading Sports Illustrated collection Great Baseball Writing, which gathers about 60 articles from over the last 60 years, all on baseball. It was a fantastic book, and I loved every minute of it. Of course, with nearly 60 articles, some stand out more than others. Here are a list of my favorites, along with the header description included with each article.

“Spring Has Sprung” by Frank Deford (April 10, 1978)

It’s Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up, and please, please tell me Who’s on First.

“The Ballad of Joe Moock” by Steve Rushin (June 29, 1998)

Sailors have the Bermuda Triangle; the Mets have third base. When the author composed this epic tribute, the New Yorkers had, in 36 years, employed 112 different men at the hot corner, none of them all that hot.

“The Transistor Kid” by Robert Creamer (May 4, 1964)

When Vin Scully came to Los Angeles with the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers, he was a stranger in alien corn. But he soon became as much a part of Southern California as the freeways.

“The Bird Fell to Earth” by Gary Smith (April 7, 1986)

For one fairy-tale year, Mark Fidrych was king of baseball, but the reign ended far too soon.

“The Left Arm of God” by Tom Verducci (July 12, 1999)

He was a consummate artist on the mound, the most dominant player of his time, yet he shunned fame and always put the team above self. On the field or off, Sandy Koufax was pitcher perfect.

“At the End of the Curse, a Blessing” by Tom Verducci (December 6, 2004)

The 2004 Boston Red Sox staged the most improbable comeback in baseball history and liberated their long-suffering nation of fans.

“Benching of a Legend” by Roger Kahn (September 12, 1960)

The prideful struggle of an aging Stan Musial to prolong his career–a painful experience for everyone involved–was poignantly recounted by one of the most astute observers of the game.

“Still a Grand Old Game” by Roger Kahn (August 16-30, 1976)

Touring the baseball world, the author of The Boys of Summer found that the national pastime retained all of its charms, whether played in suburbia, the Ozarks or at Chavez Ravine.

“It’s Gone! Goodbye!” by Tom Verducci (September 22, 2008)

Before a wrecking ball took its cuts at old Yankee Stadium, the walls of this American monument spoke and shared a few final secrets

I really enjoyed all of the long pieces, but these 9 were outstanding. So much so, that I am now a subscriber to Sports Illustrated. In a bit of serendipity, my niece was raising money for her girl scout troop selling magazine subscription. Sports Illustrated was one of them. So: two birds, one stone.

Stan Musial’s Recipe for Derek Jeter’s Success at the Plate

In a 1976 Roger Kahn piece on Stan Musial that I just finished reading, I was sort of floored by a comment that Musial made on the state of major league hitters at the time. Musial started out by praising Pete Rose, and then went to express embarrassment that many major-league hitters were hitting in the .200s. He said,

There’s no excuse for that. You know why it happens? They keep trying to pull everything they see, even low outside sliders. You can’t do that. Nobody can. If you’re a major league player, you ought to have pride. Learn to stroke outside pitches to the opposite field. That’s part of your job. A major league hitter is supposed to be a professional.

(Emphasis mine.) Jeter became famous for that inside-out swing of his that could put a ball into right field (or occasionally into the right field porch at Yankee stadium). It’s almost as if that set of instructions was written with Derek Jeter in mind, although how could it have been? Jeter was only two years old when Musial made the statement. Still, I think it captures perfectly what Jeter did at the plate for 20 years. It’s almost certainly a big part of why he ended up with 3,465 lifetime hits, and a lifetime batting average of .310.

My Picks for the MLB Post-Season

Kansas City won in an epic duel last night, and I was very happy to see that, because I wanted to see the Royals make it to the playoffs. I remember the 1985 series, George Brett, and the Kansas City glory that year, and it would be fun to see them go all the way this year1. Earlier int he week, I mentioned that I wanted to see Kansas City win on Twitter:

So here are my picks for the rest of the playoffs. Keep in mind these picks are based on the match-ups that I would most like to see. These are not based on sabermetrics, or even gut instincts.

Wildcard

  • Kansas City over Oakland
  • Pittsburgh over San Francisco

As I said, with the Yankees out of it, I’d love to see Kansas City go all the way this year. This isn’t a dig at the Orioles (for whom I held season tickets for five seasons) and I’m sure many people around here would like to see a Beltway Series. But I want to see KC make a run.

ALDS

  • Kansas City over Los Angeles (Angels)
  • Baltimore over Detroit

I haven’t been able to stand the Angeles (for no good reason, I admit) since 2002. And I really would like to see the O’s win their division battle. Sorry Magnum.

NLDS

  • Washington over Pittsburgh
  • Los Angeles over St. Louis

It’s nothing against St. Louis, but I’ve found that, in the dozen years since leaving Los Angeles, I’ve grown retroactively fond of the Dodgers. Besides, when I think of St. Louis, I always think of Dizzy and Daffy Dean.

Washington, of course, is my current home-town National League team, and I was at their first playoff game (against St. Louis) a few years back.

ALCS

  • Kansas City over Baltimore

In 7 grueling games.

NLCS

  • Washington over Los Angeles

Also in 7 grueling games. Because in the fall, true baseball fans want the game to linger as long as it possibly can. Frost on the grass and the last hints of summer still in the air. Although, truthfully, if the NLCS is a good series, I’d be happy with either outcome.

World Series 2014

  • Kansas City over Washington

The Royals, with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, paid a hair over $1 million per win in 2014. It’s the second lowest of the playoff teams still remaining. (Pirates paid $884,000 per win in payroll.) The Dodgers have the highest cost per win ($2.5 million). But the Nationals are just about averages at $1.39 million per win. It would be nice to see two teams with average or below payrolls win, sure. But I just really want to see Kansas City go all the way.

  1. All of this caveated, of course, on the fact that the Yankees are out of it.

Thank You, Derek Jeter, for Saving Baseball

I started at my present job in the fall of 1994, at the end of one of the more depressing baseball seasons of my life, thanks to the player’s strike that killed the postseason for that year. Baseball, it seemed, was at an all-time low.

In May of the following season, Derek Jeter made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. Since then, he has gone on to become not only one of the best all around players of his generation, but in all of baseball history. And what is more remarkable: he did it while keeping his ego in check, and being a role model that kids of all ages (including the “kid” of 23 years old that I was back in 1995) could look up to, and rely on to be a good example. For twenty years, Jeter has maintained that high standard.

Yesterday, Gatorade released a new commercial featuring Derek Jeter that has gone viral. I’ve probably watched this commercial a dozen times now.

At first, it was the artistic elements that drew me to the commercial: a choice of music, a good choice of how it was shot (black and white). But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. People have said that watching the video gives them goosebumps. It certainly had that effect on me. But why?

The reason, I think, dawned on me earlier this evening. As I said, I started my present job not long before Jeter started his with the Yankees. That twenty years has gone by in the blink of an eye. I wonder what it must be like for someone like Derek Jeter, who worked hard as a kid to make it to the big leagues, and then lived a dream, becoming one of the best players of all time–and now, he’s retiring and that part of his life is coming to a close. This final season of his has been like the credits at the end of a movie, one that you want to end, but that you wish would go on and on forever. If the last twenty years felt like blink of the eyes to me, what must it feel like to Jeter?

The new video captures some of that, and it comes across. When he nods to the camera at the end, just before he walks out onto the field, it is like an acknowledgement that all good things must come to an end. He’s cool with that, even though it makes us shed a reminiscent tear for halcyon days.

I’ve thought it a little strange that Jeter is getting the kind of send off that he’s been getting all season, but I no longer think so. Everyone, fans, players, owners, wants to say thank you to Jeter. They are thanking him for something that he probably had no idea he was doing when he made his first major league appearance in May 1995, when baseball was reeling from the strike, and was soon to be plagued by a decade of disappointing role models, thanks to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Through all of that, there was one player that fans, kids, old-timers, sports writers, managers, owners, and other players could count on not only for excellence on the field, but for excellence in character.  The send-off Jeter has gotten this season is a thank you from everyone.

They are thanking him for saving baseball.

Which is exactly what he has done for the last two decades.

 

“Who’s the Yankees Shortstop?” Or, Knowledge Versus Fandom

Last night, after a wonderful happy hour at Finn McCool’s in Santa Monica, catching up with old friends and coworkers, I walked back to my hotel. Movie crews were working on both sides of Pico between 4th and Main filming something all day long, but by the time I walked through there at 9 pm or so, it looked like things were winding down.

I was wearing my Yankees shirt, and a guy saw it and said, “Who’s the Yankees shortstop?”

“Jeter,” I said, automatically, thinking, cool, another Yankees fan.

The guy seemed momentarily taken aback, paused, regrouped, and then said, “Well, you wouldn’t believe how many people wear that that shirt and don’t know shit.”

I walked on.

As I got into the elevator, I was still thinking about it. Knowledge of a team in no way defines your enjoyment of that team, unless you are in fourth grade, when knowing the names of the band members in the current popular band, or the starting lineup of the team is a silly badge of schoolyard pride. If I hadn’t come up with the name of the Yankees shortstop, it wouldn’t make me any less a fan. (Perhaps just less fanatic.)

It occurred to me then, that what I might said, when he asked me about the Yankees shortstop was this:

“Jeter. But if you think knowledge of the players makes someone more or less a fan of team, then you tell me, who was the Yankees shortstop before Jeter?” I wonder if he would have come up with the answer. Of course, even if it couldn’t it wouldn’t make him any less a fan.