Being a baseball fan sure isn’t what it used to be. Or is it?
When I was learning the game, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. What we knew were the absolute basics: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in for batters; wins/losses, ERA, and maybe strikeouts for pitchers. Even slugging percentage was a bit arcane. I knew Mickey Mantle’s 1956 Triple Crown stats, of course: .353, 52, 130. But nobody talked much about slugging percentage. (By the way, it was .705, a career high.) His OBP, another thing unheard of, was .464. This, of course, means his OPS — what??? — was also a career high at 1.169.
Incidentally, the Mick’s OBP did not lead the league. Some guy in Boston named Williams checked in at .479. Further research reveals that this Williams guy led the league in on-base percentage 12 times. I’m planning on reading up a bit on this man. He must have been pretty good.
We really didn’t see a whole lot of major league baseball, even if you lived in one of the markets (none west of St. Louis or south of Washington, D.C.) that had major league baseball in the ’50s. I was phenomenally lucky on two fronts. The first is that my father had connections in both Philadelphia and New York (Giants), which got me to many games. The second is I was fortunate to live in Trenton, N.J., which unbeknownst to me, was pretty much the television capital of America. We were 60 miles southwest of New York and 40 miles northeast of Philly, which means that, whereas people in most American locales were restricted to the three network affiliate stations on their Motorolas and Sylvanias, we got everything on the dial except Channel 8. We had access to the Phillies on Channel 6, the Dodgers on Channel 9, and the Yankees and Giants, both on Channel 11. Most Americans got their televised major league baseball courtesy of the “Game of the Week,” and that was it.
And, of course, no one was televising anything close to the entire 154-game schedule. I’d say 50 would be a lot.
You stayed abreast of baseball through the daily newspaper and radio play-by-play. If you really cared, you read your monthly Sport magazine. And if you really cared, you devoured The Sporting News.
I read a lot. For my ninth birthday I was given a copy of “Modern Baseball Strategy,” written by Orioles manager Paul Richards. Sample chapter titles: “Handling Pitchers,” “Intentional Pass,” “Base-Running Strategy,” “Bunting and the Squeeze Play,” “Pickoff Plays,” and “Batting Order.”
I remember being very affected by the chapter on batting order. Richards said the best hitter should bat third, and from then on I regarded every major league player who batted third as being on loan from a celestial league. To bat third in the majors, I decided, was pretty much the pinnacle of human achievement.
History was always important to me, so I read everything I could get my hands on to learn what had gone on before. Of primary importance were a pair of Sport magazine histories, one for the National League and one for the American League, published by Grosset & Dunlap and costing, as I recall, something like $1.49. Another vital text for me was a paperback written by Tom Meany titled “Baseball”s Greatest Players,” which had essays on everyone from Cy Young to the then-contemporary Roy Campanella. On the back it read, “Here is a book for casual fans and experts alike, jammed with exciting, authentic biographies and anecdotes, and containing the complete records of every player included.”
I probably read it 50 times.
Whether you actually saw it or not, the Baseball All-Star Game was electric in theory. Imagine, all the great stars on the same field at the same time! Wow! What could be better than that?
Now we are well into the 21st century. Baseball is no longer the dominant American sporting pursuit. Football is. Any fan even remotely sophisticated in his or her baseball interest knows that pure batting average has been downgraded and that pitchers’ wins and losses have lost their cachet. Every pitch in every game is charted from both the standpoint of the batter and the pitcher. People know how many times a batter has swung at certain pitches and where the ball has gone if contact has been made.
There is a stat called BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Every pitcher now has an FIP, which is an acronym for “fielding independent pitching”; namely, the accounting of walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and homers accumulated by pitchers and then put into one number on an ERA scale. Is your head swimming yet?
Oh, and how about FRAA, which is “how many plays a fielder made, as well as expected plays for the average play for a player at that position based on a pitcher’s estimated ground ball tendencies and the handedness of the batter.” This explanation, courtesy of the 595-page “Baseball Prospectus,” which sits at my left elbow adjacent to my favorite chair during every game I watch on my LG.
There is so much to know if you want to know it.
Or you can just sit back and watch the game.
The conduct and operation of the game is different nowadays. Forget complete games for pitchers. In many cases, forget sacrifice bunts (I’m sure Paul Richards is looking down with disgust and amazement from that Sports Bar in the Sky). The shift Lou Boudreau concocted to mess with That Williams Guy on July 14, 1946, and which never quite developed universal imitation, is now an idea whose time has come. Defensive shifting among infielders is all the rage. Strikeouts are no longer an embarrassment but a byproduct of doing your batting business. Everyone has a launch angle and every ball has an exit velocity. God forbid a starter not named Scherzer or Kershaw be allowed to face a lineup for a third time.
So many changes. But what has not changed is the timeless situational circumstances and moments that make this the best game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man. It can be a beautiful, orderly game or it can be a maddening, frustrating game. Last Sunday, Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez threw 92 pitches in 3⅔ innings of work. That sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But before leaving with a 3-1 deficit he had struck out seven. Against those 92 pitches, the Tampa Bay Rays had taken exactly two good swings. C.J. Cron hit one into the center-field bleachers in the second. Adeiny Hechavarria had a solid single to center in the fourth. Aside from that, the Rays had a walk, an infield hit, and a check-swing double just behind first base for their troubles.
But that’s baseball, a game in which you can have a 15-foot dribbler for a hit and a 400-foot out. Yes, BABIP is telling. What it tells you is how much randomness there is in this game, how much sheer luck mixed in with the artistry.
You know what’s better than ever in baseball? Defense, that’s what. We are living in a Golden Age of shortstops and center fielders, defensively speaking. They keep giving a Gold Glove to Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier and none to Jackie Bradley Jr., the best defensive center fielder I’ve seen in 54 years of steady Red Sox watching. I guess I’ll have to accept this other guy is pretty good if he’s better than Jackie.
They can quantify the game as much as they want, and analytics can have their say, but the things that have always made baseball great remain constant. No other game has as much fodder for conversation, evaluation, and comparison, nor as many intriguing never-seen-before moments. Baseball remains wonderful, and we are truly blessed to have such a great forum in which to stage it.