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Bob Ryan

I remember the good old days of baseball, but I’m worried about its future

Modern games stretch out as when catcher Pedro Severino of the Orioles tags out the Angels’  David Fletcher at home plate as he attempted to score the go-ahead run on a two-run double by Mike Trout in the 15th inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Wednesday.
Modern games stretch out as when catcher Pedro Severino of the Orioles tags out the Angels’ David Fletcher at home plate as he attempted to score the go-ahead run on a two-run double by Mike Trout in the 15th inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Wednesday.(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

How much baseball is in my blood?

Well, there was this picture of the 2-year-old me wearing a Dodgers uniform, with the caption “The Littlest Dodger,” in the morning hometown newspaper. I never could figure that one out since our local minor league team was a New York Giants affiliate.

There was the family folklore that says that since my father was working with that team, the Class B Interstate League Trenton Giants, we were present at pretty much every home game. This means the 4-year old-me was at Dunn Field on the night in 1950 when a phenom by the name of Willie Mays made his organized baseball debut. He would play 81 games for the Trenton Giants and hit .353.

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Most baseball fans speak rhapsodically about the great moment when their dad, granddad, or Uncle Henry took him or her to that first baseball game. The grass, the sounds, the smells . . . I had no such diamond epiphany. I cannot possibly tell you when I went to my first major league game. I cannot recall a time in my young life when we were not at a game, going to a game, or getting ready to go to a game. Many the Sunday morning I was awakened to be informed we were heading to Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) in Philadelphia or the Polo Grounds in New York for a game, or even better, two. My father had connections with both the Giants and the Phillies. Attending big league games was a way of life for us.

Oops, almost forgot. My father spent the summer of 1951 working for the Columbus (Ga.) Cardinals of the Sally League. My mother and I joined him once school was out. Add Golden Park in Columbus, Ga., to the list. Forty-five years later I would cover the gold-medal-winning USA softball team in that same ballpark. You can’t make this stuff up.

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Baseball was my foundation sport. I received my first subscription to The Sporting News when I was 9. That same year I was given a book for Christmas entitled “Modern Baseball Strategy” by then-Orioles manager Paul Richards. I like to think I was the only kid on my block who could recite the infield fly rule.

My team was the New York Giants and my guy was Willie Mays. I maintained my allegiance after they moved to San Francisco for the 1958 season, and two years later I can recall sitting on my porch listening to a Phillies broadcast from San Francisco, where a rookie pitcher named Juan Marichal was taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The Dominican Dandy remains my favorite pitcher.

San Francisco Giants center fielder Willie Mays reaches out with his bare hand to snag Mets Ron Swoboda's blooping single at Candlestick Park Arpil 25,1965.
San Francisco Giants center fielder Willie Mays reaches out with his bare hand to snag Mets Ron Swoboda's blooping single at Candlestick Park Arpil 25,1965. (Associated Press file)

As you might suspect, I was shattered when Willie McCovey’s line drive went into Bobby Richardson’s glove, rather than into right field, as the last at-bat of the 1962 World Series.

It was a world in which the three great American sports of choice were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. But make no mistake, baseball was far and away No. 1 among the team sports. The country came to a standstill during the World Series, in which all of the games began at 1 p.m. Eastern. The All-Star Game was one of the top five sporting events in the USA. It didn’t matter that outside the World Series and All-Star Game there wasn’t really very much in the way of national TV, and no team televised all its games. People followed the game by radio and the morning paper.

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Fate brought me to Boston for school. I arrived in the post-Ted era, when the Red Sox were usually a long way from contention and a diminishing number of diehards were going to the ballpark. The 1965 Red Sox drew 652,201. The idea of drawing 2 million, and forget about 3 million, was a fantasy. I must admit that I did not go ga-ga about the Sox myself, going only to a handful of games during my first two years at Boston College.

Then came 1967.

The 1967 season was the dividing line in Red Sox history. What Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Tony Conigliaro, Reggie Smith, and the rest of that bunch did for the franchise could never be adequately repaid, not solely because they provided us with an epic pennant race but also because they reminded us just how special a game baseball is and can be. It is, I truly believe, the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man.

Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg is lifted by his teammates following their 5 to 3 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park Oct 2, 1967, giving the American League pennant to the Red Sox.
Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg is lifted by his teammates following their 5 to 3 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park Oct 2, 1967, giving the American League pennant to the Red Sox.(Boston Globe file)

Among its gifts is my belief that it provides its adherents with more juicy conversational fodder than the other three major American team sports combined, and if you want to throw in soccer, that’s fine. But with its rich history and endless variation — on July 14 I saw a play I’d never seen before when Hector Velazquez was charged with obstruction/interference of a base runner on the first base line — it gives us more to chew on and savor and marvel at than any other sport can possibly do.

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But I am worried.

In the minds of many of my fellow Americans, baseball is a horse-and-buggy sport in a rocket-fueled world. Its demographics do not bode well for its future. A younger generation has been raised in a bang-bang, video-game world. It does not have time for a four-hour, nine-inning game. Neither, I suspect, do you. Baseball Inc. has not been able to get a handle on the problem of lengthy games. It is hard to believe that the final two games of the 1966 Orioles-Dodgers World Series were played in 1:55 and 1:45, respectively (yes, they were each 1-0, but still . . . ) or that the 1975 Reds-Red Sox World Series had games played in 2:27, 2:38, and 2:23.

There is empty rhetoric at the top of baseball about finding ways to attract younger fans, but if that were truly the case teams would stop games on Saturday night, let alone Sunday. It used to be the best time to welcome families were weekend afternoons. But baseball has sold its soul to national TV and instead of 1:05 Saturday it’s 4:05 and, worse, 7:05. So much for that family time.

Sunday night baseball is an abomination.

Attendance is down in a majority of locales and the 2019 All-Star Game was the lowest-rated All-Star Game ever. The game still needs far more African-American participants and it’s frightening to think where the game would be without Spanish-speaking players. They are now the game’s talent lifeblood.

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Much has been made of the homer/strikeout/walk phenomenon that has infested baseball. It’s a valid concept. Home runs, strikeouts, and walks mean fewer balls in play, which is not good. This is even more troubling because one undeniable fact is that there are proportionately more great athletes playing the game today than ever before and the thing many of them do best is play spectacular defense.

Even with all the walks, strikeouts, and home runs, each night provides us with a score of wonderful defensive plays. But we should have double the number.

The defensive shifts are another issue, but I have to say I am getting used to them. I have always wondered why more people didn’t follow the Indians’ lead when Lou Boudreau came up with the Williams shift on July 14, 1946. It made sense then and shifts make sense now. I know it’s easier said than done, but batters need to adjust.

The endless pitching changes? Don’t get me started. I identified the creeping La Russa-ization of baseball 20 years ago, and things just keep getting worse and worse. Teams routinely carry 13 pitchers. My ideal remains the 1974 world champion Oakland A’s, a team on which nine pitchers accounted for 1,429⅓ of their 1,439⅔ innings.

I still love the game despite my complaints. It remains inherently fascinating. I have scored every professional game I have attended since the beginning of the 1977 season (If only I had remembered to bring my book when I went to that Cape League game a couple of years ago), and I even scored a cherished 1984 Arizona State-North Carolina game featuring eight future major leaguers (Barry Bonds batting third for the Sun Devils and, yes, drawing an eighth-inning intentional walk) and future big league managers Walt Weiss and Don Wakamatsu.

They would have to inflict far more damage to this wonderful game in order to lose me. But there are many more people out there baseball needs to work on.