Baseball’s Great Crescendo and New Beginning

I have become a baseball modernist.

This is no small evolution. Though I’ve been a fan longer than I can remember, I really started to embrace the history of the game, and the off the field aspect around the age of 12. In those years (1994-95, for those keeping score at home), I learned about the history of the game through books such as the Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 and October 1964, and Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer. I learned more about the business side of the game – and how we got to a place where the 1994 season was just cancelled – reading Lords of the Realm.

This growing interest occurred at a time when the game was going through significant structural changes. In 1994, the 25 year old two division format was replaced by a three division structure, with an additional wild card team (non-division winner with best record) qualifying for the playoffs. Revenue disparities between big and small market clubs were starting to become more apparent, especially when the uncrowned champions of 1994 – the Montreal Expos – traded most of their best players upon the end of the strike in what can only be described as a fire sale.

These factors grew as the ’90s went on. Baseball traditionalists like Bob Costas decried the changes to the playoff format, and the introduction of interleague play a few years later. Criticism of those changes, and previous innovations such as the Designated Hitter, resonated with me.

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Fenway Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Many would argue that much of baseball’s appeal is tied to its history and tradition – and romantic notions thereof. This is probably best exemplified through the great ‘People Will Come’ speech from Field of Dreams:

As I get older, I realize that, like with most forms of nostalgia, baseball romanticism harkens back to a past that probably never truly existed. The game has a great past in many ways, and the tradition and history adds value and a dimension that’s lacking in sports that don’t celebrate it to the same extent, but baseball must be enjoyed for its present and future as well. I’m still a traditionalist in some respects – for example, I believe that the Dodgers’ rightful home is Brooklyn. But I have come to appreciate that, like anything else, baseball must continue to try to evolve, and the game (both on and off the field) will change.

The 2012 seasons marks the start of a transition period in baseball, as it comes out of one era and will soon begin another, spurred by changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In 2013, an extra wild card team will be added, and the Houston Astros will move to the American League; which means that interleague play will now become a normal, regular feature of everyday baseball. The introduction of a bonus pool for the amateur draft and international signings will impact a competitive advantage many teams have built up by spending in these areas. It’s worth noting that it’s not just the big clubs who spend big these days on amateur signings – perennial low-payroll bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have built strong farm systems (that are just starting to pay off for the big club) by investing heavy in draft signings. These changes, and the end of the high-slugging steroid era make me believe that the game will shift again, and we’re entering a new era.

Zimmerman at Bat
Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who have built a team poised to content contend in the next few years.

Given that, it gives the great finish to the 2011 season additional meaning to me. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting finishes to a season, a wonderful crescendo of an era soon to pass. The last night of the regular season produced unparalleled drama. 4 of 7 playoff series went to the deciding game (in total, 38 of 41 possible playoff games were played). The St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the title produced a handful of legitimately great moments, from Chris Carpenter’s complete game shutout in Philly to win the NLDS, to the amazing finish in Game 6 of the World Series, where the Cardinals were down 2, and on their last strike – twice – tying the game both times before winning on a walk off home run in the 11th. David Freese’s triple to tie that game in the 9th is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, given that the game looked over at the start of the inning.

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It would have been different if the new playoff rules were in place. The four teams vying for two wild card spots – the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Braves – all would have clinched their spots by the last night in a two Wild Card per league system, taking away all the drama of that evening. Those teams would have faced off in one-game play-ins, which – while exciting in their own right – would have had a cascading effect for the winners going forward. Had the Cardinals moved on, the added workload on their pitching staff might have shown up in the Phillies’ series, and tipped the scales away from them. In this way, there’s a neat parallel to the 1993 season, last before the wild card era, where the Braves beat the Giants in an epic NL West pennant race that would never have happened under the new system.

I have reservations about some of the changes coming. I think the more teams you add to the playoffs, the more it dilutes the value of the regular season. I’ve grown to be agnostic on interleague play itself, but I do like the way it happens at specific times – treating it as a special event, rather than being an everyday occurrence. I’ve enjoyed following how teams use the draft and signings to build, and as a competitive advantage, and I’d hate to see that diminished.

Yet, I’m optimistic. There will still be exciting races for the wild card (even if it’s for the second spot). Given the randomness of a one-game playoff, I hope it will add emphasis on the value of a team winning its division. I know that interleague becoming a normalized part of the schedule won’t take away from the more intraleague matchups, and rivalries that have come out of that. It will also add a quirk to the schedule every day, highlighting an uncommon matchup. I also know that well-managed teams will find other ways of gaining an edge through the draft and international signings. Speaking of, I’m excited to see if the promising new hires in the Houston Astros front office can in time make them the Rays of the West, competing with and beating the big payroll Angels and Rangers.

This season will almost certainly not live up to last in terms of excitement down the stretch. Yet, I will enjoy the games, and root for the Red Sox, and without a doubt there will be memorable moments and performances along the way. I’m also trying to prepare for the new era of the game, and approach it with optimism – the belief that not only will it be different from the past, it will also be better.

But, if nothing else, there is this to provide comfort and excitement:

Today, Sunday, February 19, pitchers and catchers report.

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