Baseball Should Be Fun. Let's Hope It Stays That Way
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: what we want baseball to be in 2019; a truly galaxy brain playoffs idea; choosing the best AL wild-card game matchup; and much more.
What do you want baseball to be? That may seem like a silly question—after all, it’s been functionally the same sport for the last century—but it’s one I’ve thought about a lot in 2019, a year that I’m convinced will go down as a turning point for the game (or at least as one of its more important years).
This particular era of MLB has blessed its fans with the greatest and deepest collection of talent in history. Every day, you can turn on your TV or laptop or phone and watch guys like Mike Trout or Ronald Acuña Jr. or Justin Verlander do absurd things that would’ve been unimaginable 50 years ago. “In My Day, Ballplayers Were For S---,” reads the headline of one of my favorite Onion pieces, and that (very accurate) sentiment from 20 years ago still holds true. This is, to borrow a line of thinking from Dr. Pangloss, the best of all possible baseball worlds.
Yet at the same time, baseball is mutating and shifting into something hard to recognize. More home runs, more strikeouts, more velocity, more power—everything on the field has seemingly been pushed to its extreme. Away from the field, though, the volume has been turned down: shrinking payrolls, frozen offseasons, a sizable chunk of the league simply not trying to compete, postseasons that become predictable and division races that are over in August. As the sport reaches new heights, it also feels like it’s going backwards in terms of its ultimate goal: a fun, watchable product where everyone is trying to win.
I’ve hammered on that point quite a bit in Nine Innings this season, in part because I do think it’s one of the dominant stories of the year, but also because I think it’s vitally important to understand how the future of baseball is being affected by this reluctant present. Teams—or, to be more accurate, the billionaires who own them—have decided that it’s more important to turn a profit (or at least not spend too much) than to win a championship. Some squads have taken that concept to its logical endpoint, wherein they intentionally put together awful, non-competitive rosters for the immediate purpose of saving money and building a team that can win only within a narrow band of payroll. “Sustainable” is the buzzword, but it’s just another way of saying “cheap.”
That the sport still provides daily thrills and hosts the best athletes it’s ever seen amid this financial retrenchment is a testament to how staggeringly good the game has gotten in terms of development. But it also creates a version of baseball that’s at odds with itself. On one side are the players—the labor upon which it’s all built, without whom none of this would exist. On the other side is ownership, seeking to vacuum up more and more of the profits and to turn MLB from professional sports league into a hedge fund, where the point is making money instead of holding parades.
Plenty of fans will nod along with those owners when talk turns to budgets, luxury taxes and austerity, or happily accept half a decade of losing with the promise of an Astros-style rebirth, even though that’s a staggeringly difficult thing to achieve. I can’t fault those fans if that’s what they want, but I find it strange how easily that message has been welcomed. Isn’t the point of these seasons to win, or at least to compete? Who cares how much money a billionaire spends? If it’s your hard-earned money that said billionaire is, in part, using to build this team, shouldn’t you demand the best possible product? What do you want out of your team, out of this season, out of this sport?
Baseball is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be tanking, or multiple 100-loss teams, or playoff odds that start at zero on Opening Day, or a refusal to sign impact free agents, or stagnant trade deadlines, or a handful of super-clubs who rule over the rest of the league, or the fetishization and celebration of corporate culture. It’s a game full of wondrous stars who do impossible, brilliant things, and who also do delightfully stupid things. It’s supposed to be about the game on the field, and all the joy it brings, in ways both big and small.
When I started Nine Innings, my goal was to try to capture every week a little bit of what baseball is supposed to be about: fun. I hope that, over the season, I was able to do that without getting too strident about the things that I think are threatening to mask the goofy nonsense that makes baseball so enjoyable.
This will be the last Nine Innings column of the season; next stop is October and the playoffs, the best time of the whole year. Thanks to anyone and everyone who’s checked out this column, whether just once or regularly. Let’s go have some fun.
This Week In … Fixing (?) The Playoffs!
The final week of the regular season is here, but aside from the claustrophobia of the AL wild-card race and the goofy bumper cars-on-speed jockeying for the NL wild cards, there isn’t much drama left in the pennant chases. All but one division has been clinched, and for a number of teams, there was nothing to play for in April, much less September.
For as exciting as the postseason can be, the leadup to it should ideally be enthralling on its own, and that hasn’t been the case. The gap between the super-clubs and the next tier—and the gap between that second group of clubs and the rebuilders—is sizable, creating a league in which only a select few harbor dreams of contention and titles. To put it mildly, that’s a bummer.
Is there a way to fix that? Well, teams could commit to spending more to build winners, but let me suggest something more realistic: A TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS.
Instead of a static playoffs featuring 10 teams, MLB has all 30 teams vie for the World Series in a tournament format, starting with single-elimination games for the lowest seeds and working its way up to a seven-game championship. Instead of two wild-card games, you have five or six, pitting the Marlins against the Tigers or the Orioles against the Royals, with the winner advancing to a best-of-three against the next highest seeds, followed by a best-of-five (or seven) against the next best.
There are a lot of logistics in there that I don’t care to work out at the moment, but think of how gloriously chaotic and stupid it would be—and how all of the sudden, every fanbase has something to root for. Imagine the dizzying high of watching Baltimore get hot and end up in the ALCS, or the drama if the Dodgers suddenly drop two or three straight to a resurgent Reds squad. And it gives everyone an incentive to try to build a functional team instead of taking a year off.
Will this ever happen? No. Will it work? Probably no. Is it fun to think about? Absolutely. Make me commissioner, and I’ll give it a whirl. Beats a September full of somnolent baseball.
This Week In … Elderly Departures!
On Monday, MLB learned it would be saying goodbye to one of its resident seniors, as Royals manager and Verizon enthusiast Ned Yost announced he was retiring upon the end of the season. The 64-year-old Yost is a baseball lifer who’s been around the game in some form about as long as the United States has had a space program (a subject he’s strangely knowledgeable about), and it’ll be quite weird to see a different face in Kansas City’s dugout after his long tenure there.
In walking away, Yost joins 2014 World Series opponent Bruce Bochy as venerable skippers calling it quits, and in doing so further shrinks one of the game’s more threatened species: the grizzled old-school manager. In ways both tactical and in terms of authority, both Yost and Bochy represented a school of bosses who managed every aspect of their team’s in-game performance, and whose writ extended from the clubhouse to the field and over all 25 players under their command. These men were products of the game as former players who had slowly climbed the ladder, putting in time as minor league managers or position coaches before earning the head job. They were by and large no-nonsense types with a boundless appetite for small ball and tradition, and they have for the most part fallen out of favor in a game inclined toward analytics and where general managers now dictate how things go.
Today’s modern manager (a position that seemingly gets younger and younger every offseason) is a tool to implement strategy, with a role tilted more toward interpersonal management of players—a change of pace from the gruff older guys who, in the parlance of reality TV, weren’t there to make friends.
That’s not to say Yost and Bochy were grumpy dictators who ruled through fear and benchings. By all accounts, they were personable, kind men and beloved by their players. Regardless, their passing leaves only a select few of that mold—though the Royals have apparently already decided to reboot the Yost years with a younger, worse option in Mike Matheny in a conservation effort of sorts. Either way, happy trails to Ned. May you enjoy many peaceful nights of stargazing and reliable cellphone service.
This Week In … The AL Wild-Card Game!
As noted in my wackadoodle TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS idea, the AL wild-card race is the liveliest one left, pitting the Indians, Rays and A’s against each other. Only two will come out of that scrap alive, which led me to wonder: Who do the people want to see in the win-or-go-home game? So I took that question to Twitter to see how the public felt.
Most folks opted for the A’s-Rays option, and I think that’d be my choice too. There’s a real “2015 AL wild-card game” chaos energy to that matchup. Tampa loves to run; Oakland loves to hit homers; Rays pitchers throw super hard; the A’s might actually use Homer Bailey in an elimination game. Plus, imagine Rob Manfred’s face when he realizes that a playoff game will take place either in Tampa’s abandoned fallout shelter of a stadium or Oakland’s vast, crumbling environs.
Then again, when it comes to elimination games, I’m a fan of big-time pitcher duels, and Indians-Rays would deliver that in spades. Cleveland could trot out Mike Clevinger or Shane Bieber; Tampa could respond with Charlie Morton or possibly Blake Snell (or be rude and throw Tyler Glasnow for two innings before unleashing Bullpen Hell). Plus, it should be baseball law that Yasiel Puig be involved in any and all elimination games.
What about Indians-A’s, though? The draw for that one is mostly spiritual: two long-suffering franchises far removed from championships, battling with each other to see who’ll get the chance to end their stay in purgatory. And it also meets the Rule of Puig, so consider that a vote in its favor.
This Week In ... Feelgood Moments!
The 2019 Orioles season has been a sad exercise in rooting for a burned-down house. With five games to go, the Orioles have 106 losses, have allowed almost 1,000 runs, and have played the majority of their home games in front of more empty seats than paying fans. It’s to the point where The Athletic’s Dan Connolly, during the team’s last homestand of the year, went around asking fans point-blank, “Why the hell are you here?” (The answers are honestly heartwarming, except for the weirdo who says he’s there because he got excited by Astroball and may be a plant by our own Ben Reiter.)
All of that is to say that there haven’t been a lot of fun moments for the folks in Baltimore, particularly when it comes to Chris Davis, who’s amid a second straight season that could be charitably be described as a walking nightmare. So it’s nice that, in the final home game of the year, both the fans and Davis got a happy moment to close out Camden Yards for 2019.
This Week In … Terrifying Accuracy!
Behold the video that should be the entirety of the Marlins’ 2019 highlight reel.
I was so primed for Miami outfielder Austin Dean to whip the ball right at the center of that pyramid of cans and send them all scattering. But for him to knock off only the top one—oh so casually at that—is almost more rewarding. The visceral joy of mass destruction is replaced by the awe and wonder of a hyper-athletic act, as well as the always-welcome reminder that these dudes are absolute genetic freaks.
This Week In … Alternate Broadcast Excitement!
Going into Sunday’s game against the Rockies, Dodgers lefty Hyun-jin Ryu had taken 208 at-bats without hitting a single homer. That’s not all that surprising, given that Ryu is a pitcher and that, when he swings, this is the end result:
But facing Colorado’s Antonio Senzatela, Ryu finally ended the drought, going opposite field, no less, for career dinger No. 1.
And while I love Joe Davis’ maniacal enthusiasm on that call, the Korean broadcast took it to an even nuttier level.
I honestly think they would’ve been less excited if Ryu had pitched a perfect game in the World Series.
This Week In … Divine Comedy!
It hasn’t been much of a fun year for Adeiny Hechavarria, the journeyman infielder who started the year with the Mets, was dumped in mid-August and landed on the Braves, hitting a meager .228/.285/.406 all the while. Still, he got a nice moment on Saturday, when he picked up two hits and two RBI against the Giants, earning him postgame interview honors, where he chose to express his happiness at being in Atlanta—or more specifically, at not having to be in New York.
Talking about how glad you are that God took you off the Mets is funny enough, but what really sells this is the reaction of team translator Franco Garcia when Hechavarria expresses his joy at divine fate.
It’s comforting to know that even God’s plan doesn’t include the Mets.
This Week In … Why Would You Run On Mookie Betts?
Seriously, why would you run on Mookie Betts? Why would you test him? How screwed up is the decision tree in your brain that you think challenging *that* is a good idea?
Please don’t run on Mookie Betts. Or do, actually, so he can keep doing ridiculous things like that.