The sepia-toned photos of old tell us that baseball used to be pure and simple. Hard-nosed, honest guys went out and played for the love of the game at lovely ballparks, and fans were satisfied with the game itself and nothing more. Birds twittered in the distance by a gurgling stream, and somewhere, a fawn took its first steps.
But somehow, everything changed until we can hardly recognize the game. Players and owners conspire to rob us of our pastime — OUR pastime — unless their boundless greed is satisfied. There’s no respect for the game anymore, and when a family can scrape together the megabucks to attend a game, between the commercialism and the drunken louts in the stands, it likely won’t be back for a while.
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything, that’s what.
The game has changed very little since the days of old. The pitcher still throws the same size ball to a batter holding a wooden bat, and the bases are still 90 feet apart. Even the DH only swaps a better-hitting player for the pitcher; despite the folks crying because we can’t see those wonderful double-switches in the AL, the way the pitcher and batter play isn’t affected. The only real change that is drastic when taken as a whole is the way rules are interpreted by the umpires, who seem to be using an alternate-reality rulebook sometimes, but the rules are still pretty much the same.
The owners and players of old were driven by the exact same things that drive the players of today. Players have always wanted money. Old-timers have held out for money; the only difference now is that they have a union, and you can be damned sure that if they could have organized earlier, they would have. Sure, there wasn’t as much money in the game back then, but it was still several levels above what a carpenter or a plumber made, plus they got better-fitting pants.
Owners have always been capitalist icons. They have always tried to take as much for themselves as they could. And I’ll tell you a secret: it will always be that way.
As for the "purism" of the players, who are you to say that any of the old-timers’ motives were any less pure than Alex Rodriguez’ or Mark McGwire’s? Players today give more to charity than a lot of guys made in salary back then, and they do it almost as a matter of course. Players want to excel at their career every bit as much as Mel Ott, Ted Williams or Ty Cobb did. The life of almost every man on every major-league roster today is consumed with baseball.
And what players there are. Records are falling right and left, and most to players who deserve to hold them. Rodriguez, McGwire, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Frank Thomas, and more, most of them Hall-of-Famers-to-be, play in this era. Dovetailing with their emergence is the twilight of greats like Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley. We’ve had stellar shooting-star performances by the likes of Hideo Nomo and (so far) Larry Walker, and lunch-bucket greats like Edgar Martinez, Kevin Brown, Tony Gwynn, and Tom Glavine. You could fill an All-Star roster any year with the players I haven’t listed here.
As for the ballpark experience, if anything it’s too fan-friendly. The crowds of old were much smaller, more predominantly male and adult than those of today. Hecklers were common, and every so often an inebriated fan would break loose from the bonds of the seating area to personally question an umpire about a dubious call. Ballparks were small and intimate because with crowds about a third of the size of today’s, they could afford to be.
Now, there are special family non-drinking sections, mascots, endless dot races and "pick the song" fan-participation games. If anything, these are the biggest negative impacts to the baseball experience in the game’s history. Bigger than the DH, bigger than divisional play or the wild card. If anything ruins baseball, it will be the sideshows meant to attract the family (and where did these ideas come from? The supposedly "more pure" minor-leagues). Thank God for the bleachers in Boston and the North Side of Chicago, where drinking and swearing take their traditional place.
New ballparks may not be nearly as intimate as those of the ’20s, but they sure look a damn sight better than Veterans Stadium or the KingDome, and their "traditional" hype sometimes even means cutting back on the aforementioned sideshow. And since we’ve already learned that the cost is still amazingly low, there’s no need to go there again, right?
Give me a ticket, a cold beer and a sunny day, and I’ll pick this era of Major League Baseball over any other. I’ll even agree to not make fun of you as you root for the red dot if you don’t make funny faces when I heckle Kevin Mitchell.
about the author
Michael Cox still can’t stand the Wave, mainly because the people who start it don’t realize that when it’s done at the top of the inning, they’re rooting for the visitors. Shirtless guys without lives can ask him what he means by dropping him a line using our Contact Us page.