First installment in our State of Baseball series.
Question: How interested are you in the history of baseball?
Extremely interested: 34.4% Very interested: 36.1% Somewhat interested: 25.5% Not very interested: 3.7% Not interested at all: 0.4% (Fox Sports/JoeBlogs survey)
We begin our baseball exploration with a riddle: How do you even try to improve a game that many believe is already perfect?
This is baseball's conundrum ... and perhaps baseball's alone. As you look across the landscape of American sports, you constantly sees ways that baseball is just a little bit different.
Here's one: A couple of weeks ago, Julius Peppers retired, or as he was referred to by many, "Future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers." It's hard to argue with Peppers' Hall of Fame credentials -- all those Pro Bowls, first-team All-2000s, fourth on the all-time sacks list, second on the forced fumbles list, second on the tackles-for-loss list, four interception returns for touchdowns, which is insane for a defensive end, etc.
But Julius Peppers also has a tricky history of PEDs. He was suspended for four games as a rookie after using a banned dietary supplement, and Al Jazeera named him in a report as one of the players using performance-enhancing drugs. He claimed a rookie mistake for the first, and the NFL cleared him of the second after finding "no credible evidence." I don't know anything close to enough to tell you what's true here.
But it's clear that NFL fans, for the most part, don't care to make anything of it. It's a big, fat, "who cares?"
Same goes for Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman, who served a four-game suspension this year after testing positive for banned substances. Best I can tell, this was brought up pretty much zero times during the Edelman love-fest following the Super Bowl.
Again, I'm not making judgments. I'm just saying that would be IMPOSSIBLE in baseball.
So why is that so? Why does baseball come down so much harder on the PED-users, why are Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa and others permanent pariahs? There are undoubtedly several reasons ... but I would argue that it begins with history.
See, nobody connects the history of football the way they do baseball. Nothing Julian Edelman does has any impact at all on the legacies of Steve Largent or Paul Warfield. Nobody thinks that Julius Peppers, if he used PEDs, somehow besmirched the name of Alan Page or Bruce Smith.
Barry Bonds, by using PEDs and hitting 762 home runs, did something unforgivable as far as baseball fans are concerned: He wrecked baseball history.
Mark McGwire, by using PEDs and hitting 70 homers, did something unforgivable: He wrecked baseball history.
Roger Clemens, by allegedly using PEDs and winning four Cy Youngs after many thought he was through, and putting up a career that, by the numbers, might be the best ever, did something unforgivable: He wrecked baseball history.
[caption id="attachment_24224" align="aligncenter" width="490"] How many old-time players are more famous than Trout?[/caption]
The question that begins this post was part of a cool survey that I did with the help of Michael Mulvihill and Fox Sports. Well, I'll be honest, Fox Sports did the survey, with a little help from me. I put together a list of 30 questions across a whole bunch of topics, and the Fox research people posed those questions to 762 baseball fans (everyone in the poll indicated some interest in the game).
I also did my own Google Forms poll of 2,000-plus people kind enough to participate, and I'll refer to those results too (though my own polling was obviously not as well done).
One (or more) of these polling questions will lead off every story in this series. Pace of play. Advanced stats. Defensive shifts. The proliferation of relief pitchers. Tanking. Should players wear the pants short, with their socks pulled high near the knee, or not? What's your favorite way to enjoy baseball? Is baseball too expensive compared to other sports? We'll get into all of that.
But this question at the top -- well, this is where everyone begins. We asked baseball fans how interested they are in the history of the game. As you can see, the numbers are striking. Ninety-six percent say that they're at least somewhat interested, and the vast majority of those (70.5%) are either extremely or very interested.
That more or less matched up with my unofficial Google Forms survey -- on a 1-7 scale, 93.1% of people ranked their interest in baseball history at 5 or higher.
That extraordinary interest in baseball history is a double-edged sword for baseball. On the good side, baseball does and should bask in its history. I would argue that no other sport, no other part of American entertainment, so cherishes its history. For fun, I just put up the weirdest Twitter poll, in which, without any explanation, I offered two choices: Babe Ruth or Tom Brady.
It was fun to watch people try to guess what I meant (fun because I didn't mean ANYTHING, it's Twitter), but let's just say that Tom Brady is widely regarded (and loathed) as the greatest quarterback ever, and Babe Ruth started his career more than 100 years ago ...
Three-quarters of the voters chose Babe Ruth.
That's crazy, right? Could you imagine if I did a poll where I compared the most famous actress of 1927 (say, Mary Pickford) with the most famous actress now (say, Jennifer Lawrence?). OK, I'll do that too. And, no surprise, 75% choose J-Law and most of the other 25% are, undoubtedly, just trying to be argumentative.
That's what baseball history means to people. This is why the Baseball Hall of Fame matters in ways that none of the other Hall of Fames matter. This is why historical flourishes -- like retiring Jackie Robinson's number across baseball or having past greats throw out first pitches or telling baseball stories during broadcasts -- resonate so much with people. Baseball, more than any of our sports, reverberates today because of all the summers that led up to today.
That's the plus. The minus -- or at least the challenge -- is this: Purposely changing ANYTHING in baseball is a nearly impossible chore.
I mean that completely. I remember Bill James, trying to prove the opposite, came up with a benign rule change that nobody would even notice (it was something like moving the batters' box up a couple of inches) and then put up a poll about it. About half the people voted against it. Of course they did.
Look, they added the designated hitter almost 50 years ago and people STILL argue about it.
Throughout this series, we'll talk about ways to make the game more vibrant, more current, more competitive, more exciting, but it's important to remember that these ideas, no matter how interesting or minor, will be instantly rejected by a huge percentage of us because we choose to believe that baseball is timeless.
And any change -- or, more to the point, any PURPOSEFUL change -- just takes us a little bit further away from Babe Ruth.
I use that phrase "purposeful change," because, whether we like it or not, the game IS evolving rapidly. We can't make the game stay in place by simply avoiding rules changes. Baseball has evolved as much as any sport, it has just evolved DIFFERENTLY from, say, football. In the NFL, the league annually decides what kind of game it wants -- say, it wants more offense, or it wants to make the game safer (or at least offer the appearance of safety), or it wants the game called more precisely -- and it will change all kinds of rules to make that happen.
In baseball, the rules stay more or less intact, so the game is changed by the teams, by the players, by their strategies and habits and choices. For more than a century, the seven fielders behind the pitcher stayed more or less in the same places, their predetermined area of responsibility (though there has always been some shifting and some specialty defenses for unique situations). Now, teams deploy fielders in countless arrays depending on who's hitting.
For more than a century, teams built their defensive plans around a starting pitcher. Then they began using specialty relievers to close out games. Then they began using closers and set-up relievers, and then there was a specialty eighth-inning guy, and middle-inning relievers, and now there's the whole idea of using an opener instead of a starter. Then rosters changed so that teams could carry more pitchers, which meant fewer bench players to use as defensive replacements or pinch-hitters.
For more than a century, the pace was deliberate (deliberately deliberate) -- baseball prided itself on being one of the few team sports without a clock. Then players began taking liberties with time, stepping out of the box, kicking dirt on the mound, staring each other down for as long as deemed necessary.
For more than a century, hitters tried to put the ball in play in part (in large part, I think) because everyone believed that batting average was the defining statistic for players. Then everyone realized that batting average didn't directly lead to runs, and strikeouts are only nominally more damaging than regular outs (sometimes they're less damaging) and hitters swung for the fences and strikeouts skyrocketed.
And so on. It's easy to miss these kinds of slow-moving, strategy-driven evolutions across baseball, because they weren't caused by bold rule changes. For the most part, there have been very few bold rule changes since the DH. And this is because baseball fans reject most attempts to change -- baseball fans don't even want to believe that the game is changing. Just adjusting the rule so that pitchers didn't have to throw the four pitches for an intentional walk was a hassle. A leaguewide rule change comparable to adding a three-point line or bringing the kickoff to the 25-yard line or simply moving around the field of play the way they did in hockey (shortening the neutral zone from 54 to 50 feet) would send many baseball fans into convulsions of rage.
This is baseball's great challenge -- improving the game without changing it, adjusting to the times without actually adjusting to the times, reaching new fans without alienating old ones.
Does baseball need to change? Well, it's an interesting question. One thing we won't ever fall into here is the nonsensical "baseball is dying" trope: The game is still hugely popular. More people watch baseball now -- on television, on apps, and in ballparks -- than ever before.
But you can't miss other signs. Baseball attendance is down 10 million since 2007, and attendance is flat since 1998, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homer year. Signature events like the World Series and the All-Star Game don't capture America's attention like they did even a few years ago, and realistically they might never again (we'll get into that in a later installment). Surveys show baseball popularity flailing among younger people (though baseball participation is up over the last handful of years, so that's a good sign).
And, while the NBA and NFL (but particularly the NBA) have done a magnificent job of showcasing their stars, MLB stars mostly don't register with non-baseball fans.
Ask yourself the question: Who's the most famous player in baseball today? Mike Trout? Maybe. Clayton Kershaw? Bryce Harper? Aaron Judge? Albert Pujols?
Now ask: How many baseball players from the past can you name who are MORE famous than any of them? I have to think there are at least 25. There might be 50.*
*Don't believe me? As quickly as I can type this (and in no order): Griffey, Reggie, Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Yaz, Mariano, Bench, DiMaggio, Yogi, Mantle, Mays, Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, Aaron, Cobb, Feller, Koufax, Bonds, Jeter, A-Rod, Rose, Clemente, Papi, Clemens, Griffey, Ripken, Rickey, Ichiro, Brett, Ryan, Pedro, Gibson, Bench, Shoeless Joe. How many is that? Thirty-five? I could keep going: McGwire, Sosa, Chipper, wait, I haven't even said Musial yet, or gone years back to Walter Johnson or Honus Wagner or Cy Young ...
This is baseball's blessing and baseball's curse. The game has a marvelous history. But you want people to be saying the same thing 50 years from now.