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Sunday, April 11, 2004

The State of the Game

Interesting column by George Will on the state of baseball as the season begins. He also interviewed Bud Selig on This Week on Sunday morning which I also caught. In particular both in the column and in the interview Will discusses the following:

  • Steroids. Will makes the point that although the percentage of players who tested positive is 5 to 7% (BTW, where did that number come from and why don't we have the actual number?) it is unlikely that many of those who tested positive were pitchers, simply because pitchers have less to gain from bulking up. That means that over 1 in 10 position players tested positive. If Donald Fehr and the player's union doesn't think that's a problem then they're simply burying their head in the sand. Aside from the health issue, which I'm not as concerned about since these are adults after all, there is a massive violation of what as Will says "what baseball is selling - fair competition." In addition, one of the best things about baseball is the continuity that allows comparisons across generations. And although there have been discontinuities in the past - the transition to the lively ball era in the 1920s and the introduction of black and latin players in the 1950s and 60s, those changes were not the result of chemical enhancement. If baseball (and I mean primarily the players union that continues to hide behind the argument of innocent until proven guilty when the test results have already shown a level of guilt that cries out for action) doesn't address this issue through random testing with real penalties for violators, then all of the homerun records since the mid 1990s will be suspect.

    In related news last week the IRS seized the samples of Barry Bonds among others from MLB. For baseball the I hope the BALCO trial will at least be clearcut in showing that these players did or did not take steroids.

  • The Health of the Game. MLB is projecting attendance of over 73 million this year which would be a new record. Will also makes the pint that 98% of NFL fans have never been to a baseball game. I find that hard to believe but if true illustrates two truths about baseball. First, baseball is a game to be enjoyed at the ballpark and not simply or even primarily on TV. The majesty of a homerun and the speed of a line drive or a good fastball can't be adequately translated to the screen. Football to the contrary is best viewed on TV and so fans can be created purely through the spectacle of the game on TV. Secondly baseball, being a game primarily of skill and not of pure athleticism is best appreciated by those who have played it and understand how difficult it is to perform at the professional level (this is also true of golf). As more activities vie for kids time, fewer and fewer kids play baseball and therefore fewer and fewer fans are born. I'm always amazed when I talk to young boys in the neighborhood for example that have never played catch and who don't even have a glove, a situation that would have been rare to say the least a generation ago. And as mentioned previously, baseball is a game defined by its history and so a general lack of interest in history works against the game as well. For these reasons baseball is engaged in programs and giveaways to get kids to the ballpark and encourage to play the game. In my opinion, one thing they could do to prove their concern in this regard would be to pledge to start the All-Star game and World Series games either in the afternoon or at a reasonable hour so that kids would be able to actually see them.

  • Bud Selig. Will makes the contention that Selig has been baseball's greatest commissioner ("this is not a close call"). To support his argument Will notes that under Selig's leadership baseball has 1) increased the speed of games by 12 minutes, b) introduced interleague play, c) brought back the unbalanced schedule, d) realigned the divisions, e) introduced wild card teams, f) increased revenue sharing, and g) introduced the competitive balance (luxury) tax. Of course Will was appointed to a commission by Selig and so his view might be a bit biased. Most baseball analysts have a decidely negative view of Selig. I agree with all of the arguments listed by Will (although revenue sharing and the luxury tax don't go far enough), Selig's handling of the 2002 All-Star game, and the Expos and Twins situations have been shameful. In addition, the very idea of Selig, an owner to the core, being commissioner in the first place has served to remove the impartiality that should be integral to the office.

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