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WSJ op-ed and baseball radio

Wednesday 7/17/19

Walked three miles yesterday, climbed the Monument five times. I am going to attempt to finish "Fitty" now. This will require asking a lot of my emotions. One gives so much of one's self to create a work like this. I have never given more of myself to anything than I have to this story. A few loose ends first. The other day I was listening to Five Live Yardbirds. When I was first driving at sixteen, that was an album I listened to a lot in the car, along with The Velvet Underground and Nico, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, plus various other Yardbirds LPs. I've always carried in my head a line from Keith Relf from the Anderson Theatre tapes, where he says something like, "for those interested in how sounds are got," in reference to how Jimmy Page managed to execute a given guitar solo. For those interested in how pieces are got, sometimes, here is an op-ed of mine that ran in The Wall Street Journal today on MLB's home run problem and what to do about it. And here, below, is the piece as I wrote and filed it. Also, this is a radio segment I did yesterday discussing myriad baseball things.

MLB’s home run problem

By Colin Fleming

Every kid who has ever played backyard baseball has had a single goal when stepping to the plate: to jack the ball soaring into the neighbor’s property, an undisputed home run.

A lot of kids went on to be bigger football and basketball fans, and a lot fewer kids these days are invested in the pursuit of dingers by the family grille and swing set. I am one of the increasingly rare people who, while still young, likes baseball more and more as I get deeper into life. I appreciate its nuances, like the battle over the balls and strikes count between pitcher and batter. But baseball’s most brawnish component, which used to be its most thrilling—the heaven-scraping nature of a mighty home run blast—is now the worst thing for the game, in its draining, downright boring, plentitude.

The new generation of baseball Sabermetricians talk about the game’s three pure outcomes: the strikeout, the walk, the home run. There is no doubt with these results; they are absolutes. Conversely, a hit might be adjudged a ball that a defender should have fielded. A problem, though, is that these absolutes—a term which suggests purity, which we think of as a positive—are replete with drabness. They don’t look athletic. A man trots to first. A man slumps back to the dugout. A man takes a jog around the basepaths.

In May, Major Leaguers set the record for home runs in a month with 1,135. Not only is MLB on an all-time pace for total home runs, that pace projects to exceed the single season total by more than 400 fence-clearers.

There are no .259 slap hitters who push the ball to the off-field and leg out vim-infused singles. Everyone swings hard enough to rip a regular man’s back in two, and every team plays for the three-run bomb. This means less strategy. Gone is the hit-and-run, one of baseball’s more aesthetically pleasing plays. A bunt is positively antediluvian, and witnessing an attempt feels like descrying the mythic jackalope. The game’s focus on the home run means that teams focus on getting walked. If you’re a parent and your kid plays Little League, what is the archenemy of your spring? It is, doubtless, the walk. “Just throw strikes, Kyle!” you bellow from the bleachers, all but begging the Fates not to watch four more high hard ones sail past the catcher.

Not a lot in the sports world, at any age level, is more boring than watching someone take their base on balls. The MLB offensive plan right now is walk a lot, have someone crush one, score in clumps, which means less station-to-station ball. Decry this strategy, and you get branded a fossil. The analytics folk can be clannish this way. They’re judging the game based upon how it looks on an iOS screen rather than on a jade-shaded field. The combo of the three absolutes means more pitches and longer games with less action. Big problem.

In 1968, Bob Gibson logged a surrealistically miniscule 1.12 ERA. Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a meager .301 average. Pitching had become too easy. The mound was lowered. With this gentle nudge, baseball was able to course correct. It needs to do the same thing right now. Change these baseballs. They are too aerodynamic. Make them more ground by gravity. Take some of the spring out of them.

I don’t think of the sport anymore as sleek guys darting in all directions, legging out the extra base, testing the right fielder’s arm. I think of something monodic, like a musical work with no variations, no counterpoint.

Games used to possess more zip, like an English football match. Done in 2:20. I get that sport strategy becomes better engineered, more scientific. You do score more runs this way. But have you ever noticed that as we become “smarter”—look what we do with technology, for instance—we become less imaginative? Baseball is the ultimate sport of the imagination. It’s a shame it has stopped playing to its strengths at its highest level, readily fixable thought this is. The fix might even be easier than hitting home runs.

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