If, like me, you consider baseball to be the best sport and have, like me, spent over 60 years studying it as well, the annual All-Star Game has special appeal. And so, when my son, who lives in the nation’s capital, suggested that he and I attend the game this month, I planned a visit to coincide with the game and bought two admittedly pricey tickets for us so we could attend it.
I wasn’t all that surprised at the amount of attention the city devoted to the game. The Convention Center hosted a mammoth Baseball Expo that ran for the four or five days leading up to the game. My wife and I spent an afternoon walking around the cavernous center. She took photos of me in front of displays of the Dodgers (my team). Dodger legend Maury Wills was giving autographs that afternoon and I would have loved to shake his hand, but the line was just too long. Instead, we considered some of the memorabilia. I was tempted by a large photo of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth (from 1942) that was autographed by Williams. The dealer had it listed for $495, and I probably could have gotten it for $350, but I passed.
That night the Home Run Derby took center stage at the Nationals’ ballpark (where the game itself would be played the following night). Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ star player, won the contest with an impressive display of power and determination, hitting nine straight homers (off of his father’s pitches) as the time remaining in his at bat ran down. He then hit the winning homer in the bonus time he earned for a few extra-long homers he had hit earlier. The capacity crowd loved it, of course, and even Harper seemed jazzed about his accomplishment.
His win was somewhat bittersweet, however. Harper is having a “down” year as he prepares for free agency after the season. He is hitting around .220 and striking out a lot when he isn’t hitting homers. And, as noted, he’ll be a free agent this winter and is expected to become an ex-National when he signs a huge contract with a team like the Dodgers or the Yankees.
On the same day the game was played a rumor circulated that had the Dodgers trading a bunch of prospects for the Baltimore Orioles’ star shortstop, Manny Machado. Machado is widely regarded as one of the top offensive players of his generation. He will also be a free agent at the end of the season. By trading him now, the Orioles (in the midst of a horrendous season) would get four or five prospects who might form a nucleus from which they can rebuild their team.
In getting Machado as a “rental,” the Dodgers fill a hole in their lineup that has existed since their star shortstop, Cory Seager, had season-ending surgery on his throwing elbow. They will probably just keep Machado for the rest of the season and then let him go to another team with the ability to pay him the hundreds of millions of dollars his new contract will require. Such is the state of the game today. The days of players spending a whole career with the same team are long gone. Stars like Harper and Machado stay with their original team only until they are eligible for free agency (after six years in the majors). And while the ability of players to move from one team to another is great for the players, it can be terribly unsettling for a team’s fans, as fans of the Orioles are now experiencing (the Machado trade did happen) and as Nationals’ fans will presumably experience this winter when Harper leaves.
Baseball has also changed on the field, and this year’s All-Star Game was a prime example of how it has changed. The game, which the American League won, 8-6 in ten innings, included 10 home runs, a total that far exceeded the old record (six) for an All-Star Game. The home runs accounted for all but one of the runs scored. That fact may sound fine to a casual fan, but baseball was never intended to be the equivalent of the Home Run Derby that Bryce Harper had won the night before.
The current mode of baseball that is being played, and that is being rewarded by the big contracts that guys like Harper and Machado will command, consists, primarily, of home runs, strikeouts and walks. Most runs are scored via home runs, and, when hitters don’t connect for those long flies, they either strike out or walk. What is being lost is the small-ball version of the game, where a team can string together a bunch of singles, and maybe a double, which, when coupled with good defense, produces a 5-4 nail-biter with the winning run maybe even scoring on a ground ball that the defense can’t quite turn into an inning-ending double play.
There were no two-out rallies in this year’s All-Star Game; there were no great defensive plays; there were very few balls hit to the infielders. There were, in fact, very few balls hit at all that weren’t home runs. The game, as exciting as the final score otherwise indicated, was boring. Even the home runs got a little boring. Home runs in a baseball game should be like goals in a soccer game: thrilling in part because they are rare. Instead, they are like touchdowns in a football game: commonplace and therefore relatively indistinguishable. The last of the home runs in this year’s All-Star Game, hit by the National League’s Joey Votto in the bottom of the 10th inning, wasn’t even greeted with fireworks (as the other nine had been). I guess the guys in charge figured no one was all that excited by that point.
So, how did the game get this way? The big contracts awarded to the big home run hitters may be part of the explanation. If you are going to get rewarded for hitting homers but not for hitting singles and doubles, why would you want to do anything but swing for the long ball? And if a strikeout doesn’t hurt your contract negotiations as long as you have a bunch of home runs at the end of the season, why worry about those strikeouts?
And then there is the change in management’s perspective on the value of players. Batting averages are no longer indicative of value for the modern baseball exec. Instead, analytics, based on esoteric measurements produced by Statcast (a technological method for scoring almost every physical act in a game) and quantified by Sabrmetrics (with stats like WAR—wins above replacement—that no one but the execs really understand), have taken over how the game is played.
The infield shift, used against Ted Williams by Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau to try to reduce the number of hits Williams got by smashing line drives between the first and second basemen, is now employed against a majority of hitters. The hitters could beat the shifts by just hitting the ball the other way, but they don’t because they are going for home runs. Hence, fewer singles and doubles, fewer great defensive plays, fewer rallies, fewer nail-biting finishes.
There is a beauty to the game that is harder to see in the way the game is being played today. It’s still a great game, and I was still thrilled to see this year’s best players playing against each other. But it needs an infusion of energy, the kind of energy you can’t get with just home runs, strikeouts and walks.