Bums, No More- At the All Star Break, The State of The Dodgers is (Still) Great…But How About Baseball Itself?

bellingerThese days, I live more than 50 times closer to where Ebbetts Field used to be, than to the current home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Fortunately, thanks to all this newfangled technology, I can keep track of how things have been going for the Boys in Blue.  And honestly, it doesn’t even take that much attention to realize that things have been going quite well for them, an almost unheard of 3-game losing streak going into the All-Star Break notwithstanding.  Corey Seager, thought of to be the next face of the franchise not long ago, has been injured most of the past two seasons, yet barely been missed.  Clayton Kershaw, the greatest regular season pitcher in at least a generation, is not quite what he used to be, which is actually fine.  Still a very good pitcher, Kershaw is somehow probably the Dodgers’ current number THREE starter.  ALL the starters have actually been very good, at least when healthy.  In a year with a ridiculous amount of offense, thanks to a tightly wound ball that has turned baseball into a de-facto homerun derby (more on that in a bit), all five starting pitchers in the Dodgers rotation have an era under 4.00.  And speaking of de-facto homerun derby, how about that Cody Bellinger?  And Max Muncy?  And Joc Pederson?  The “worst” hitter with at least 200 at-bats, Kike Hernandez, still has a slugging percentage over .400.  Even going into the All-Star game in a bit of a slump, the Dodgers have the best record in baseball, and EASILY the best record in the National League.  The Boston Red Sox might be the reigning champions, but the Dodgers are currently the team to beat.

I guess what I’m saying is that this team is quite good, and even the surliest members of the fanbase- you know who you are- have been in a good mood.  Oh, and Vin Scully’s successor, Joe Davis, has been receiving nearly universal praise, when you just KNOW people were looking for an excuse to pounce on whomever replaced the man they renamed Dodger Stadium’s address after!  So for now, all is well in Dodgerland.

Now, About MLB In General…

For years, perhaps decades, there have been a contingency of doomsayers to tell us that “baseball is dying”.  Throughout my lifetime, there’s just something about the sport that has brought out the grumpy old man in many of us, thinking back to “our” era, and lamenting that it just ain’t what it used to be- too much offense, or increasingly overpaid underperformers, or not enough offense, or soulless ballparks (in the Astroturf era), and on and on it went.  But overall, baseball was still considered “America’s Pastime”.  Then, in 1994, something truly shifted, and not for the better.  Bud Selig managed to do what World War II could not, cancelling the remainder of the season, including the World Series.  Fans became very cynical, but contrary to popular opinion, were at least coming back gradually.  Then, we had the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sosa, heralded as some sort of cultural turn of the tide for the ol’ ballgame.  Once THAT turned out to be “fake”, fans became even more cynical, capped off by Barry Bonds shattering of what many consider the TRUE home run record overall.  And quite honestly, baseball’s reputation hasn’t recovered since.

If someone were to pay me (anyone?  ANYONE??), I could literally write a book about all of this, and how much of it- both the good AND bad- was largely based on myth.  But there comes a point where the myth is so strong it eventually becomes reality.  So here we are in 2019, dealing with most of the same problems that have plagued this game for a generation, and in some ways have multiplied.

As this post is being typed at the end of July 4th weekend in 2019, the stories that dominated the sports news were the US Women’s soccer team, the NBA summer league, and a 15 year old tennis phenom named Coco Gauff.  To the extent that baseball has been mentioned on sports television, outside of the officially designated baseball shows, it’s usually to talk, ironically, about how little talk there is about baseball.  One talking head show on ESPN- I kid you not- debated whether baseball games should end as a tie at a certain point in extra innings, because it was just too boring to watch for that long.  The word “debate” is used loosely here, as everyone on the panel agreed.  Imagine one of these paid yappers on ESPN saying that about the NBA, the NFL, or even soccer- they’d be suspended, if not fired!  (Oh, wait.  Soccer does end in ties.  My mistake, but I digress.)  And I’ve lost track of the number of times that 50-something year old radio hosts mention how young people don’t like baseball anymore, adding without a hint of self-awareness, that THEY stopped watching baseball.  It sounds less like they’re lamenting it, and more like they’re kicking dirt on it, like Earl Weaver used to do at umpires.

So what gives, and what can change this trend?  For one thing, a problem can only be solved if those who have it acknowledge its existence.  Bud Selig had his head…in the sand, yeah, let’s go with that…and his successor, Rob Manfred, doesn’t seem to be much better.  Okay, fine, so baseball doesn’t get the headlines it once did.  It sure doesn’t help that teams actually had the day off on JULY FREAKING FOURTH- a holiday that nearly everyone’s looking to have a beer and a hot dog.

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Seriously- what the hell is up with THIS?!

And how about those Expos…err, I mean Washington Nationals, wearing the old uniform of the beloved franchise taken out of Montreal, by Selig’s old pal Jeffrey Loria?  They even invited Vlad Guerrero to the festivities.  This would be like the NBA having “Supersonics” night in Oklahoma City, and inviting Shawn Kemp!  I’m not exactly sure what it was supposed to accomplish, other than to possibly taunt Canadians on the United States’ Independence Day.

Anyway, all these are examples of just how poor the marketing is in baseball.  Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that soccer, a game first played when the Neanderthals faced off against the Velociraptors (literal Velociraptors!), is gaining popularity because these cool young kids enjoy fast action…unlike us Gen-Xers, who apparently reveled in watching paint dry when we were kids.  I remember the 1980’s, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Soccer just got its act together, marketed its sport to the American masses, and is probably creating young superstars as this is being typed, while more and more little league fields get paved over.

It’s not all about image, though.  There IS truth that the sport currently has less action now, thanks to the advocacy of “true outcome” baseball- which is to say emphasis on homers, strikeouts, and walks.  Making contact and running the bases aggressively have gone out of style, and with the “perfection” of pitching, it really is harder for batters to make contact than it was in the days where 95 mph fastballs were considered impressive.  Little of this can be blamed on Manfred and Selig, as the evolution of the game took on a life of its own.  And to his credit, Manfred will be adding a rule to limit relief pitching changes starting next year, which should be a relief to fans, as well as participants looking to speed up the game a bit.  But there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.  And while there’s far less illegal use of steroids and PEDs, it’s been hard to tell this year, with the happy fun ball currently being used in regulation this season, making situational hitting more of a novelty than a 400+ foot home run.

Look, I enjoy home runs as much as anyone, but seeing games that look more like batting practice just cheapens them.  Surely this is to make up for the fact that hitters are striking out more than they are getting hits, but more homers don’t solve that problem.  There are exceptions, though, such as DJ LeMahieu and Jeff McNeil, who are bucking the all-or-nothing trend, and putting up MVP type seasons while doing it.  (Justin Turner, as always, is also having a very nice season with this approach.)  This isn’t to say that what they are doing is EASY- far from it.  It just demonstrates that there’s still a place for these type of hitters- if anything, now more than ever.

Last but not least, is the marketing of stars, or lack thereof.  For years, those who have ignored baseball’s decreasing relevancy in our popular culture have cited players’ ever increasing (as well as increasingly obscene) salaries, to demonstrate the “health” of baseball.  Technically, this is true- looking at Fortune’s 100 highest paid athletes, and baseball is well represented with 15 active players- 3rd most behind the NBA and NFL.  But in terms of endorsements, the amount of money baseball players receive, relative to the other major sports, is laughable.  Of all the sports with at least five athletes on the list, here’s the percentage received from endorsements, relative to total income-

Tennis – 81.4%

Golf – 75%

Basketball – 24.8%

Soccer – 24.7%

Football – 9%

Boxing – 7.4%

Baseball – 3.9%

In terms of market appeal, this low number has to be alarming for MLB.  On top of that, half of the money from endorsements comes from just two of the fifteen players- Bryce Harper, and to a lesser extent (believe it or not), Mike Trout.  Harper, who had the biggest chance at being “the face of baseball” with his larger-than-life personality, didn’t even perform well enough with the fans to be on the FINAL BALLOT for All Star voting, let alone IN the All-Star game itself!

Oh, and one other thing about the All Star game- why does baseball have so many players represented in the game to begin with?  It’s supposed to be about marketing stars, not making sure everyone who had a good first half gets an affirmation.  It’s hard to highlight the greatness of a few, when the roster looks more suited for a college football game.

On The Bright Side…

With this massive laundry list of issues- my apologies for the length, it’s been years in the making- baseball is still a great game to watch, to go to, and to appreciate.  And the sport does have some young stars to look forward to.  Mike Trout is certainly the greatest player now, but Cody Bellinger absolutely has a chance to give him a run for his money- and, as we’ve noted, he’s got a lot of it- with a better arm, on a better team, in a bigger market.  We have some time before that happens, but with a possible Dodgers vs. Yankees October matchup, Major League Baseball might soon have more going for it than I’m currently giving it credit for.

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When “Going For The Jugular” Goes Wrong

Alex Cora Throws Everything But The Kitchen Sink At The Dodgers- Max Muncy Throws It Right Back At Him.

More than any other sport, baseball involves a lot of luck.  Someone can hit a weak ground ball that gets past the infield, and he will be praised for “not trying to do too much.”  On the flip side, someone can hit a scorching line drive right to the second baseman, with a runner on second that immediately gets doubled off the base.  Fans will then complain about a lack of “hitting in the clutch”.

That kind of mentality is even more extreme when it comes to managers.  Alex Cora is a perfect example of this.  A first year manager who’s “pushed all the right buttons,” he gets the kind of leeway rarely seen in baseball, let alone with rookies.  And to be fair, the record is on his side- a 108 win season and a trip to the World Series will do that for a guy.

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Still, contrary to what you’d believe from the media, both old and new, he’s far from infallible, and he proved that in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.  While not the main reason the Red Sox lost, he didn’t help matters, and unnecessarily put them in an even worse position going forward.  He managed as if he were down two games, instead of up two.  In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought yesterday was an elimination game!  He practically emptied his bench barely after extra innings began, had THREE starting pitchers in the game- poor “losing” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the previously assumed Game 4 starter, threw more innings in Game 3 than the ACTUAL starting pitcher, Rick Porcello- and reduced rising star left fielder Andrew Benintendi to a meaningless pinch hit at bat.  He also decided to pitch to Yasiel Puig instead of dependable but light hitting Austin Barners.  (In fairness, Puig got considerable help from Ian Kinsler, 2018’s version of Bill Buckner.)   Alex Cora will be AL Manager of The Year, but he didn’t look like it last night.

But enough about the Red Sox manager already.  The Dodgers, playing comeback kids all year- really almost all decade- toyed with their fans’ collective hearts once again, coming to life at the precise moment when everyone gave up on them- particularly Max Muncy.  Barely on the Dodgers’ radar at the beginning of the year- STILL barely on their radar in terms of payroll- Muncy would end the game with the most famous Dodger home run since Kirk Gibson.  But even more incredibly, Muncy showed highly alert baserunning- something sorely lacking in the Dodgers’ era of analytics- by ending up in scoring position, getting to second base on a foul popup catch by Eduardo Núñez, who subsequently ended up in the stands.  (On a sidenote, Núñez is taking WAY too much heat, IMO. Had Muncy not alertly tagged up, fans would say what a great catch it was. CLEARLY he was playing on a bad ankle, and seemed to be going with his momentum, rather than make a halting stop.)  With postseason-saving baserunning and game-ending hitting, Max Muncy was Dave Roberts and Kirk Gibson rolled into one!

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Finally, it would be criminal to recap Game 3 without mentioning Cody Bellinger’s amazing throw at the plate, gunning down- you guessed it- Ian Kinsler.  And then there was the starting pitcher Walker Buehler, the Dodger rookie who has pitched as well as he did in the regular season, and at times even better.  Going 7 innings in an era when managers give starters the hook before the game is even halfway done- well actually, in this case it ALSO wasn’t halfway done, but you know what I mean- the Dodgers would be dead in the water without his efforts.  When Clayton Kershaw has yet another attempt at redemption in Game 5, the fans don’t need to see all kinds of excuses, disguised in the form of stats,  showing how great he truly is- they need him to perform like Clayton Kershaw.  If a young rookie making the league minimum can do it on a consistent basis, then so can one of the greatest (not to mention one of the highest paid) regular season pitchers in the history of baseball.

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Before getting to Game 5, though, the Dodgers have a golden opportunity to even the series tonight, against a depleted Boston team.  Although still a game behind, after almost literally playing two games last night, the series FEELS tied.  With the momentum on the Dodgers side, it just might be soon enough.