Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Small Game of Baseball

Big Papi hits another one at Fenway Park.
Most people in ball parks love the home run. I mean, that’s a no-brainer. Home runs are startling game changers and completely dramatic, not to mention majestic as everyone watches a ball arc into the stands. Home run stats become the stuff of legends, and I’ll bet most ball fans remember more moments involving “big flies” than anything else in the game.

Major League Baseball understands what a strong marketing tool this is for the game. Why else would they stage a Home Run Derby every year during All Star Festivities? They don’t stage a strike throwing contest, or a base stealing contest, do they? (Actually, these might be interesting endeavors.)

We also know (or at least strongly suspect) that when attendance is flagging, balls are “juiced” by wrapping the yarn tighter giving the ball more resiliency when struck hard. Tighter wrapping = more home runs = higher attendance. Baseball purists, not to mention pitchers, may not like this, but it’s a fact of life.

But the real interest to baseball purists usually revolves around baseball’s “small game”: base stealing, sac bunts and flies, hit & run, or run and hit plays. The AL lost a good part of this when they instituted the Designated Hitter in 1973 at the insistence of Charlie Finley, a great baseball marketer who realized home runs were a lot better for moving those turnstyles than watching pitchers bunt runners over. “Two bloops and a blast” (to quote Earl Weaver) quickly became the norm in the junior circuit and attendance bore out the wisdom of this move – at least in marketing terms. In the meantime, the NL has steadfastly refused to budge on the DH, and I think that’s wise.

First of all, as a game gets down to the crunch, pitchers are used differently in each league. In the AL, the only reason to pull a pitcher is if you don’t think he can do the job (whether he’s tired or for other strategic reasons). In the NL, you constantly have to be aware of the scoring possibilities, and quite often a pitcher is pulled because of needing a better hitter to move runners or provide a better chance for that game-winning hit. Having no DH just keeps open so many more strategic considerations.

My feeling is that it requires more managing skill to win games in the senior circuit. There are many more decisions to be made as each game progresses. The sticking point is that if you’re not a student of the game (and how many attendees of the average baseball game are?), this “small game” is just not as exciting as seeing a club’s big bopper come to bat where you might have a light-hitting pitcher when the game is on the line. (I know that they usually are placed in different parts of the lineup, but you know what I’m getting at.)

Since baseball is now at its heart big-money entertainment and not just a sporting event, home runs will continue to gain in importance. They generate buzz, they give sports broadcasts great clips, and they excite the fans. They’re great for marketing the game.

But ultimately, I feel the DH cheapens the total baseball experience – if you know and really love the game.

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