The older I get the more I like baseball, so it is with pleasure that I greet this week’s beginning of the game’s spring-training exercises. My pleasure is increased by the fact that some of those exercises take place in Salt River Field, the lovely little ballpark complex where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies train. It’s about a 15-minute drive from my Scottsdale, AZ, home, and in the first few years after its 2011 opening I’d sometimes show up on a chilly February morning to stroll among the practice fields and soak up the sights and sounds of the diamond sport. I don’t stroll so well these days, but it still makes me happy to know what’s going on there.
But alas (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), it seems that I have more than the usual number of complaints about baseball as the new season opens. The game has suffered some self-inflicted wounds, and while none will be fatal they add up at least to a painful charley horse. One only can hope that time and motion will prove healing.
The gripe that probably isn’t going away is the ultra-commercialization of spring training. I’ve sounded off on this before but it gets worse annually and the trend shows no signs of abating. Time was when ST was a pleasant interlude when fans as well as players could ease into the season in a relaxing way. Now it’s about all the money-based ills that affect our big-time sports generally.
In Arizona the biggest price-gouger is my team, the Chicago Cubs. In the first years after wife Susie and I moved here in 1997 the team would open spring-training ticket sales on a day in mid-January. I’d get up early and go to their HoHoKam Stadium home in Mesa, stand in line for about an hour and buy tickets—good seats—to a half-dozen games. The price for each was in the $20 to $25 range, not unreasonable. Later I hooked up with a spring-season ticket holder who sold a friend and I some of her tickets for their face values of $30 or so. Her seats where even better than the ones I bought at the box office.
But in 2014 the Cubs moved to their new (and publicly financed) Sloan Park spring base, and the next year got good. Ticket prices skyrocketed and my season-ticket “in” stopped returning phone calls. Today the team sells just about all its ST tix on a season basis, leaving other buyers to the resale market fueled by seatholders’ profit-taking. At one such site the other day a single box seat for a Feb. 29 game against the Milwaukee Brewers topped at $131 and patches of grass on an outfield “berm” bottomed at $43. I’ll pass, thank you. My only consolation is that things are worse in Chicago, where good seats for regular-season Cubs’ games run to about $700.
Problem No. 2 is the after-shock of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. I addressed it soon after it first came to light (see my blog of December 1) and made light of it, noting that the practice had been around forever and everybody did it, or tried to. Those points still hold but revelations about the scale and success of the Astros’ sins have cast doubt on at least two championship races (2017 and ’18) and shaken public confidence in the sport. While stripping away a team’s victories or titles can seem like a useless exercise (you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube), doing this to the 2017-champion Astros now seems appropriate; as has been suggested, that team should be called the Houston Asterisks. I wish I’d thought of that name.
What gets me about the episode is why the team thought it could get away with it. Teams often remove players and it was inevitable that some ex-Astro, having become the cheated instead of the cheater, would blow a whistle. The wonder is that it took pitcher Mike Fiers more than two seasons away from Houston to become the first to do so. Apparently, the code of “omerta” is stronger in baseball than in organized crime.
Gripe No. 3 is fixable, or should be. It’s the power surge that has trampled all other aspects of the game. Last season 6,776 home runs were struck in regular-season play, a 17.6% increase over the year before and an 11% boost over the 6,105 of the previous record year of 2017. Not surprisingly, strikeouts (42,823) also set a record by a big margin, and so did stolen bases (2,280) on the downside. Hey, when the next guy up aims only to hit a home run, what does it matter if a baserunner is or first or second?
Home runs have been the rage since the “chicks dig the long ball” days of the steroids era (roughly, 1990 to 2005), but recent changes in the game have underlined them. Players are athletes 24/7 now and are bigger and stronger than they used to be. Batters swing harder and on a more up-angled plane. Pitchers throw harder, with 90+mph fastballs becoming a norm. High-school physics will tell you that under those conditions batted balls will fly farther.
Official MLB maintains that its baseballs weren’t “juiced” last season, whatever that means, but it allows that new production methods might have flattened their laces, thus making them less wind-resistant. While slower-swinging batters or slower-throwing pitchers aren’t in the cards, the game certainly could dial back its sewing devices a few notches. Lowering the pitcher’s mound a few inches wouldn’t hurt, either, and when more drives are caught on warning tracks some batters may reason that slapping a single is better than making a long out. At least, that makes sense to me.