The damage Barry Bonds did to baseball pales in comparison to the damage baseball inflicted on itself back then and since. So say what you will about the steroid era, at least the games were still worth watching.
You can’t say that about baseball these days, assuming it’s even available on a TV set where you live. The sport’s popularity is collapsing faster than the knees of a batter fooled by Clayton Kershaw’s curveball. The national audience for last season’s World Series — about 12 million viewers — was less than half what it was just two decades ago. A friend tried to give that disappearing act the best face by saying that baseball has become a “regional” game; that’s just another way of saying it’s on its way to becoming a niche sport.
If you were to make a list of things that would make baseball better tomorrow, it would be good luck to consider the past. Still, it may help explain how we got here.
Bonds and a few of his elated fellow travelers — most notably Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, whose eligibility for Hall of Fame writers’ vote also expired this year — put on a fireworks display that took the game out of a dug rut as owners spent the rest of the season. 1994 canceled after players went on strike. People on both sides of the divide between labor and management got rich, so no one bothered to ask where all the fireworks came from.
In case you haven’t heard, we’ve been working on another lockout for eight weeks now and there’s little sign that it will be settled before the scheduled start of spring training on February 16. Even if the camps open by then, there isn’t nearly enough time – let alone will – to make improvements to the product in the field. And the game desperately needs an overhaul.
Most pitchers manage to throw only two more pitches, fast and faster. Hitters have become a parade of strikeouts, punctuated by the occasional solo home run. Nobody bothers to run the bases anymore. If it seems like players are just hanging out, it’s because most of them are.
“This is a game designed to be played by nine men, not two,” said Theo Epstein, the prodigious former general manager who ended the drought of the World Series championships in both Boston and Chicago. summer.
Epstein is currently leading Major League Baseball’s latest effort to explore how and where the game can be tweaked to bring back old fans and attract a new generation. The plan is to avoid the kind of short-term fix that steroids provided last time.
“Nobody here wants to reinvent the wheel,” Epstein said in the same interview. “This is the best game in the world and we want to keep the essence. A lot of this is restoring the game to the way it was historically played.”
Tradition was baseball’s strongest point for about a century — until suddenly it wasn’t anymore. Fans who were estranged from the truncated 1994 season and lost the World Series that year stubbornly steered clear of baseball fields in baseball’s return. At least in the beginning. But then, in short order, Bonds and Sosa and Mark McGwire started routinely launching baseballs where they had never been before and people flocked back to watch. Baseball didn’t just get its mojo back – remember the Nike ad, “Chicks dig the long ball”? – suddenly it was hip too.
Now, of course, we know what fueled that rocket ship. There’s still no reliable number for how many players were taking performance-enhancing drugs, but Bonds and the rest of the inflatable sluggers dominated the screen so much that no one thought to look at the players in the background. For every slugger like Rafael Palmeiro who got caught cashing in on the big bucks, there were far more Ryan Franklins than a 32-year-old journeyman just trying to earn another paycheck.
It didn’t matter, the owners paid them all and looked the other way for turning the turnstiles. Drug testing with penalties for positive tests began in 2004 and although Bonds always beat them, three years later no team offered the 43-year-old slugger a contract, even though he was still one of the best hitters in the game.
Around the same time, Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” described the growing analysis movement that eventually made defensive shifts commonplace, and more strikeouts meant more pitches and longer games with even less action in between.
Restoring the game, if at all possible, would be a lengthy effort and there’s no guarantee it will catch on with younger fans.
“There’s a lot more consensus about the direction the game should go in,” Epstein said of the results of a fan poll. “A lot more balls in play, a lot more athleticism, a lot more action.”
If MLB is serious, that effort will require a lot of investment and abandon the kind of short-termism that got baseball into this mess in the first place. The game’s power brokers should know by now that guys like Bonds, who turned the ship around, don’t come around very often.
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