Recently I wrote about the passing of the great Tony Gwynn, and while reflecting on his career and time in Major League Baseball I realized how rare it is to find a player like him nowadays. The art of small ball is dying, in large part due to the steroid era of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark Mcquire, and with it baseball slowly dies off as well. No more are the high average, low power guys dominating the league, now the game is dictated by the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Jose Abreu, all power hitters in their own right. These guys are regaining the popularity of the game, but are also tarnishing the history of baseball for kids born after 2000.
In modern baseball the hero’s are the guys who hit the walk-off homerun, not the guy that started a rally in the sixth inning with a one out single. This is the single biggest change baseball has experienced since the steroid era, the fact that the game is becoming less of a finesse sport and more of a ‘flex your muscles’ contest, not unlike the Home Run Derby. This mindset of ‘homerun or bust’ has even trickled down to the lowest levels of little league and tee ball, creating a sort of epidemic for baseball to deal with. Strikeouts are up, home runs are up, fan bases are up, but batting average and historical value are gone, forgotten like most base hits these days.
So what happened to small ball and what will become of the game without it? Just look to the little league fields everywhere, to a family’s backyard, or to the highlight plays from the previous day’s games. Power is what matters, kids want to be like the best in the game, and those guys are the ones that hit the ball the hardest and the farthest distance.
The style of player that was a patient hitter and hit for a high average is becoming rare in major league baseball. These guys now populate lower leagues of baseball because of how good pitching has become. The adjustment from college to even minor leagues is so great that few players adjust quick enough to move up the ladder at a steady pace, leaving them to choose from low salaries that barely pay bills or a steady job with reliable income year round. The choice becomes even harder when you factor the families that many of these players have to support, and how often they are gone on road trips during the season.
More and more of these players are becoming power hitters now, or impact players on defense, giving them the fast track to the majors. Whether it is crushing massive homeruns, or robbing those same players of a base hit, the path to the majors gets much shorter if a player can specialize. This specialization is hurting the sport too because it leads to players looking away from a high average, as that doesn’t have the flash teams are looking for. With this specialization comes the dying art of players like Gwynn, Willie Mays or Johnny Bench, a guy that not only hit for a high average but also did his part on defense and in the clubhouse.
These guys were the old school baseball players, they got on base early and often, scored whenever they had the chance, saved a run or two on defense and when it was all over they made sure the clubhouse had the right chemistry to win a World Series. Current players are more consumed with putting up big numbers, getting a crazy contract and then getting sponsors to advertise with them. No more do players care about team first; it is all about them, with the team just a byproduct of their success.
A lack of small ball has already taken its toll on baseball, with averages way down and pitchers numbers looking like we are back in the pre-steroid era. Yes pitchers may be finding new ways to attack batters, they are throwing harder and racking up more strikeouts, but they are also breaking down quicker and needing to retire sooner. So as far as baseball goes, this new style of baseball is creating a self fulfilling cycle that is eating away at the game we all know. Pitchers can’t keep this up, hitters will not stay in these ‘extended slumps’, and fans will quickly lose entertainment value. This kind of problem can only end two ways, either the mindset of baseball shifts away from small ball, or baseball as a system will have to reestablish what they look for in players.
It wasn’t too long ago that players would get drafted and be expected to spend 2-3 full years in the minors before being called up to the big leagues, but current baseball dictates that players get drafted, play a year or so and then get called up and perform at a high level. This is an unrealistic expectation for most kids, because they are exactly that, a 19 or 20 year old guy still trying to figure things out. Once they get that signing bonus, that fast track to the majors, it all rushes to their head and the big picture is lost on them. Being the best player they can be no longer matters, what matters is being in the spotlight.
Look at the players that sign huge contracts only to crash next season and produce all-time lows for their career. The same thing is happening to them, they are consumed by the spotlight and lose focus on getting better and honing their craft, the art of hitting a baseball. If this is happening with established players then how can major league teams expect anything different from their young players; professional teams need to give these young athletes a break and not force them into the spotlight so quickly. There is a reason the NBA makes all players go to college for at least one year, they are hoping to give them at least some real world experience before the spotlight shines on them.
Face the facts here, players are getting bigger egos, acting selfish and have little care about the team. Baseball is facing the modern culture crisis and must fight the trend of players making it a “me” sport instead of a “we” sport. Basketball was faced with this problem a long time ago and never fought back; leading to players like Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony feeling entitled and in control of all they and their team do. Major League Baseball needs to pull on the reins at this point if they want to avoid going down that path, because whatever action they take, either stopping the trend or leaving it as is, will be virtually irreversible 10 years down the road. Now is the time the league can strike and send a clear example of what they expect from their players.
The culture of baseball must change back to the old ways if they want to survive and keep their 100 year old fan base. Teams need to expect less, veteran players need to set a better example for the young guys, and the fan base needs to demand more. High average players are the foundation of the game, but they are getting lost in the modern culture of sports and being the star, this needs to change for the sake of the players and for the historical value of the game. Baseball is built upon years and years of tradition which is what generates such a passion from die-hard, lifelong fans, but if that foundation is lost then so are the fans and the sport they hold so dear.