An Unchanging Sport? Baseball Changes All the Time

(published April 25, 2011)


Bud Selig told the Associated Press Sports Editors last week that he expects baseball to expand its playoffs to ten teams in 2012, adding a second wild-card team to each league.

I’ve been advocating this change for a long time.   It’s not that I love the wild card (I hate it), want to expand the playoffs (I don’t), or hope to create excitement in more cities by putting more teams into the playoff hunt (I don’t care).

But I do love the pennant race, the season-long test of a complete team over 162 games.  As currently under consideration, the wild-card playoff round would be a single elimination game or a two-of-three series.  This would make it much more important to win your division, so you can avoid that first-round shootout.  Anything that adds more drama to September divisional games is fine with me.

The thing about baseball, they say, is that the game remains the same.  Fans from a hundred years ago could walk into a stadium today and would have no trouble making sense of the action (once they got used to being called “fans” instead of “bugs”).

That may be true, but it seems to me that I remember a lot of things that were once part of the game, but mean nothing to the fans of today.  You know you’re getting old if you remember:

Doubleheaders. Two games for the price of one.  The Mets had to play two of these in three days this month due to rainouts, but they were once a regular feature of the schedule, particularly on Sundays and holidays.  When your average crowd is less than half your capacity, and you might draw a sellout with a doubleheader, offering a twofer makes sense.  When you draw 80-90% of capacity, it’s lunacy.

Swinging two or three bats. Hitters in the on-deck circle used to take a couple of bats with them, hold them together, and swing them to loosen up.  Sometimes they’d carry them all to the plate before discarding the extras and stepping in.  Weighted donuts, lead pipes, sledgehammers, and other heavy objects have taken their place.

Knuckleball mitts.  Catchers’ mitts were round and firm, padded around the rim, with a central pocket for when they had to grab the ball and throw.  Those who had to catch a dancing knuckleball used a wider glove – still round, but the size of a dinner plate, maybe a serving platter.  Johnny Bench turned this all around by using something more like a first baseman’s mitt, hinged rather than round and rigid.

Balloon chest protectors. American League umpires behind home plate used inflated bladders that they stood behind; National League umpires wore an inside protector under their jackets.  The NL umps crouched to call strikes over the catcher’s shoulder, which gave them a better view of the bottom of the zone.  The AL umps couldn’t get as low, and made their calls from above the catcher’s head.  Now they all wear inside protectors and there are no more AL or NL umps.

Artificial turf. For a while there was plastic grass in the majority of National League parks and several in the American as well.  The surface changed how teams were built; teams on turf thought they needed speed more than power.  Turf effects were studied as closely as park effects and platoon data.  Today there are just two remaining artificial turf fields in baseball: at Rogers Centre and Tropicana Field.

World Series records. First there was no World Series.  Then there was.  Then there was a single layer of playoffs.  Now there are two, and may soon be three.  Babe Ruth had the most World Series home runs, until Mickey Mantle passed him.  When did you last hear about a “World Series record”?  They’re postseason records, and they all belong to recent players.

Babe Ruth’s home run records. If you think of Babe Ruth as a home-run record holder, you’re old.  Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s single-season record, which topped Roger Maris’s.  Bonds also passed Henry Aaron’s career mark; Aaron held it for thirty-three years.

Bullpen carts. Relief pitchers were ushered into the game in golf carts, sometimes decorated to resemble a baseball, with a team cap on top.  The Yankees used a real car, sponsored by an auto company.   This ended when everybody realized it was stupid.

The interleague trading period. The National League was the Senior Circuit, the AL was the Junior, and never the twain shalt meet except in the World Series and All-Star games.  Interleague trades without waivers were only permitted at certain times of year – three weeks in November/December at first, then from October into December, eventually a period was added in spring training.  The restriction was eliminated in 1986.

World Series day games. I remember every play of Games 3, 4, and 5 of the 1969 World Series — not merely what happened but what class I was in at the time and whether my teachers let us use our transistor radios or if we had to keep them hidden.  The memories are more precious because the moments were stolen.  Damn – I am old.

Stadiums named for teams/owners/landmarks/civic institutions. You knew where a game was being played when you heard that it was in the Astrodome, or Wrigley Field, or Candlestick Park, or Jack Murphy Stadium.  It’s not as clear with AT&T Park, Target Field, Chase Field, or The Great American Ball Park.

Curtain calls? Never. Well, hardly ever. Roger Maris took a curtain call when he hit his 61st home run to pass Babe Ruth.  He did not take one for any of the first 60.  Ted Williams did not when he homered on his last at-bat.  “Gods do not answer letters,” wrote John Updike.

No DH, no interleague play, no divisions, two divisions, umpires making calls without huddles or replays… I guess more changes in baseball than we realize.  And if you remember when players left their gloves out on the field when they went to the dugout at the end of an inning, you’re really old.


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