I grew up in an era where baseball was still the best of all sports. It was the great American pastime, and it was wildly popular. Baseball has been inextricably connected to American history, and family life. For generations, parents have taught their children the intricacies of the game. While baseball is still a magical sport for me, sadly it has diminished in the eyes of many sports fans. It has fallen far behind football in popularity. The question is why?
I believe that the problem is that people tried to fix a game that wasn’t broken. I remember hearing that they were going to use livelier balls to increase the offensive production of the game. New pitches like the slider, the spit-fingered fastball, and the cutter were developed, which gave pitchers more of an advantage over hitters. People felt that they needed to do something to give advantage back to the hitter. In my opinion, that thinking is largely what led to the steroid era. Hitters were trying to get and advantage in an age where pitching dominated. Pitchers were also using steroids, but I believe it was more in response to the hitters increased bat speed and power. Baseball didn’t ever condone steroid use, but they tolerated it because it resulted in bigger power numbers. While the steroid era gave us more run production with hitters like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGuire breaking homerun records, this increased offense made games longer, and ultimately less interesting.
The thing is baseball has always been a defense-oriented game. While it is true that people are interested in the offensive achievement of individual players, the best games to watch are the ones that have great pitching and defense. In a close game, every offensive and defensive play matters right up to the end. I watched the August 3, 2011 game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox (an 18 to 7 blowout), the game was essential over by the second or third inning. The rest of the game was boring, and the additional scoring did little to make it more interesting. Watching AJ Burnett’s inability to even get through the 5th inning, when given a 13 to 1 lead was frustrating from the perspective of a Yankee fan. My favorite team won, but the game was less than satisfying. Conversely, in the August 4, 2011 game, which the Yankees won 7-2, the two starting pitchers performed well, and the audience hung onto every pitch much farther into the game. You never felt like Chicago was out of the game, even though Yankee pitcher Ivan Nova was pitching spectacularly. It was a far more exciting game than the one a day earlier.
Let’s make an analogy to football. In football the quarterback is the most significant player on the field, and the NFL has made rules changes to protect the quarterback ensuring better games. Baseball’s closest equivalent to the quarterback is the battery of pitcher and catcher. The catcher calls every play of the game. He knows every batter, and how they perform in different situations, and he signals for a pitch that will hopefully give the team its best change for getting the batter out. The pitcher executes the plan. Yet, baseball has changed over the years to enhance the offense, not protect the “quarterback.” An intelligent baseball audience is thrilled at a pitching duel, not a slugfest. Therefore, baseball needs to reconsider its brand identity, and recognize that true fans appreciate low scoring, pitching-oriented games.
In my opinion, great defense in baseball is more thrilling than great offense in any other sport. I have been a Yankee fan for most of my life, and I appreciate Derek Jeter’s offensive accomplishment in reaching 3000 hits. Yet, when I think over his career the things that I get most excited about are his defensive gems—crossing over to the first-base side to relay a throw home, or diving into the stands to catch a foul ball. Over the years some of my strongest baseball memories are New York Mets right fielder Ron Swoboda’s catch in the 1969 World Series, and some of the defensive plays made by third basemen Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, and Greg Nettles of the New York Yankees in the 1970’s.
The best of great defensive play is the well-pitched game. Perhaps the most famous World Series game ever played is Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. What game has been more thrilling in recent memory than Roy Halladay’s no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in the playoffs last-year? Remember, the ideas that good pitching beats good hitting every time, and that you can get to the playoffs on offense, but to win the World Series requires excellent pitching are standard beliefs among baseball’s gurus.
One of the complaints from casual sports fans is that baseball games have become too long. In addition to being more exciting with every pitch counting, a pitcher’s duel tends to be shorter than games with a lot of scoring. The length of the modern baseball game has been extended by the increased offensive production. Getting back to good pitching, and less offense will be good for the game.
Remember, a business’ brand identity isn’t necessarily what you want it to be. It is how others perceive your business. Baseball may have wanted more scoring, but it didn’t bring in more fans. When baseball realizes that its core fans are more enamored with defense and pitching than they are with high scoring games, then changes to the game will protect the pitcher more than the batter. The end of the steroid era has already given some power back to the pitchers. That is good for the game. Once the stain caused by the cheating aspect of steroids fades, and the pitchers can dominate the sport, the fans will return. Parents will once again bring their children to the game creating future generations of fans. Those parent and children who go to the ballpark are all hoping to catch a foul ball. Most foul balls are a result of a well-executed pitch.