September 28, 2000

Major League Remedy

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It’s that time of year again — pennant time. Huzzah.

In the old days, this would have meant something. I’ve heard stories that in World War II, Americans could identify Axis spies by whether or not they knew who won the World Series. This may or may not be true, but it shows just how pervasive the spirit of baseball was in this country.

Nowadays, most people don’t care, and I don’t blame them.

Pro ball is dying, and it’s unfortunate. It signals a huge change in American society — both sociologists and sportscasters will tell you the same. America’s Game is not America’s game anymore.

It doesn’t deserve to be. It’s business-like. The players are distant and peevish. Talent is concentrated on the coasts, leaving chunks of the country baseball-dry. The regular season’s irrelevant, and the apathy carries over into the once-glorious postseason.

Somewhere along the line, the pure essence of the game was perverted.

But it’s not too late to save baseball. It’s going to take drastic surgery, but the late 20th century game, which has about as much class as John Rocker and Pokey Reese, can be restored to the gold standard of Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams.

The first order of business is to start eliminating teams. I realize that demographics have changed in America since 1950, but there are only so many teams which can be competitive, create a reasonable league schedule, and at the same time each have a solid talent base. Old teams (i.e., the Cubs, Red Sox, and such) deserve to be in the league, and the largest metropolitan areas merit clubs.

But cuts need to be somewhere. Goodbye Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rockies, and Devil Rays. And, just as Atlanta and Anaheim have no business with pro hockey, Montreal and Toronto wouldn’t have MLB teams in a perfect world.

Shorten the season. Thirty games could be cut from the schedule, and the best team would still emerge, with more action and drama than in 162 games. It sounds like sacrilege, but it’s true. The rabidity of fans is inverse to the number of games played, football being the best example.

Also, get rid of interleague play. I would love to see the Braves play the Indians at Jacobs Field in May, but there’s a cost. The World Series loses its magic.

By mid-July, most teams are out of the hunt for the pennant, and can coast to the off-season. While this phenomenon is as old as baseball, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Institute a penalty for the league doormat.

Like English soccer, the last few teams in the league should be relegated to a lower division (i.e., Triple A). It gives the Pirates of the world something to play for come September, and the citizens of Pittsburgh something to root for (they need something — they live in Pittsburgh, for God’s sake).

And for the sake of the league, not to mention the game, it’s time to start mandatory drug testing. When shortstops start looking like shot putters, you can smell the rat of steroids a mile away.

Home runs are fun, but so is depending on your favorite player starting every day, not on the bench with a muscle strain. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. The exponential rise in injuries can be directly traced to these drugs engineered for football players.

Of course, we all know none of this will happen. Therefore, baseball will keep degenerating into a shadow of its former self, and the focus of the American sporting mind will be further spread through the prism. It’s inevitable.

And it’s too bad. One more link to our past will be broken.

My most enduring memory of pro sports is the light and sound and smells of peanuts and stale beer baptizing me as I walked into Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Generations of fans, going back over a hundred years, know this sensation.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, our kids will get an ertsatz version from the WCW or X Games.

Archived article by Tom McNulty