Friday, February 7, 2014

Five problems baseball CAN solve

Yesterday, I listed five problems baseball could never solve.  Let's take the opposite tack today and talk about problems that most definitely can be solved:

1.  The strike zone.

The strike zone may change from at-bat to at-bat based upon each batter and that batter's stance, but it is not subjective and we don't need to struggle with each umpire having his own particular zone.  Video cameras have been installed at ballpark after ballpark across the country, triangulating each pitch, allowing us to see precisely where it crossed home plate.  (The cameras have been installed in certain parks to grade umpires.  In other parks, their use is for the teams themselves to help evaluate pitchers/batters.)

This isn't difficult: set up a device that registers a green light when the ball passes through the strike zone and a red light when the ball does not.  Have someone keep an eye on the monitors just in case there's a glitch.  (There's always a glitch, isn't there?)  For check swings, use the super slow-motion replay of tennis's Hawkeye to determine whether a batter went too far or not.

2.  Hall of Fame voting.

An easy fix here:  The Baseball Hall of Fame is in charge of deciding which players are on the candidacy list, and what the qualifications are for Hall of Fame induction.

They should thus 1) either eliminate every single PED-user from the ballot, or 2) specifically say to each and every voter, "Judge each candidate SOLELY by his on-field performance.  If you judge a player for ANYTHING ELSE, you forfeit your right to that ballot."

I mean, my gosh, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum with a Board of Trustees.  This is their Hall of Fame, not the writers' Hall of Fame.  The right of the BBWAA to vote in players is a granted privilege, nothing more.  If the Hall of Fame trustees take a look in the mirror and decide that they would rather not have Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds in Cooperstown, then for pete's sake, take them off the ballot and remove the option of voting for them.

3.  Lack of diversity.

A report on the percentage of African-Americans in baseball comes out every single April, right around the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier.  Likelier than not, the report will talk about how much that percentage is "dropping."  For this, I refer you to a 2013 column by Rob Neyer, especially if you hear the lie about how it used to be 27% in 1975.

At one time, baseball was hugely popular in African-American culture... largely, I'd argue, because it was also hugely popular in American culture.  From 1860-1960, what else were the famous sports of the day?  Horse racing, boxing, a little bit of football here and there, and baseball baseball baseball.  (Even then, baseball had some enormous drops in interest every other decade or so.)  Still, if you were a youngster who dreamed of growing up to be an athlete, baseball likely topped your list.

Well, then football came rising up in the 1960s, followed shortly thereafter by basketball, then hockey, then soccer, and now lacrosse and auto-racing and MMA and snowboarding and skiing and roller derby and who knows what else will catch fire next?  Heck, I happen to think Rugby 7s is pretty darn cool.  Beyond this, baseball continues to develop African-American superstars:  Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Justin Upton, and Matt Kemp, with Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton right around the corner, and not-quite-superstars like Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter contributing admirably to their team's success.  I can look around the minors right now and see more young African-American talents rising in organization after organization.  (I hope to see D.J. Davis in Lansing sometime next year.)

But we shouldn't be satisfied.  To that end, if we want to expand love of baseball, we need to extend baseball help to low-income neighborhoods -- I'm talking low-income African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and any other culture on the low end of the economic spectrum -- to make sure they have the ability, equipment, and coaching in order to play.  Baseball requires resources, and those resources need to take many different forms.  We also need more pro scouts to go into the inner-city and mine for talent in the same way that college basketball and football coaches do.  Marshawn Lynch, perhaps one of the top five running backs in the NFL, came from roughest Oakland... just like Frank Robinson before him.  (Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis both came out of the Oakland/Alameda area, too, and Jermaine Dye wasn't too far away.)  Resources + cultivation + scouting + development = solutions.  It's easier said than done, but it's significantly worth it.

4.  Attracting fans.

Some teams have already figured this one out.  Look at the Dayton Dragons in my Midwest League, with sellouts every single game since Day 1.  The Dragons have made attending a game part of the regular rhythm of life for so many Daytonians, plus they have a robust ballpark experience that redeems the night no matter how the team performs.

It's that central part of the sport:  Each game, someone wins and someone loses.  Each season, some teams are terrific and some teams are miserable.  This cannot be controlled on a nightly basis... but other matters can be:  The food at a ballpark can be exceptional and diverse, motivating fans to look forward to their chosen dinner, and perhaps dessert too.  The in-game entertainment can be fun and engrossing.  I remember as a youngster looking forward to every half-inning break at an Orioles game:  one break would have the hilarious "Baseball Bloopers," while another one provided exciting highlights from the previous night.  As a rising baseball fanatic, I couldn't wait to see what was up next.  Today's top in-game entertainment, with skits and contests and sensationally edited videos, puts those old Orioles reels to shame.

This is what is demanded of a team:  walking that fine line between placing the game as a necessary event in the fandom's life and differentiating each evening with special attractions and benefits.  There isn't a catch-all answer, either.  In every part of the country, there's someone else who has discovered a new solution for packing the park.  Baseball interest might seem like it's flagging nationally, but it reminds huge on a purely local level.

5.  Head health for pitchers.

Put every option on the table:  Armored caps, helmets, masks, a barrier of sorts in front of the mound.  Try them all, toss them out, try something else.  Experiment in every region, at every level.  Pitchers are on the firing line, and their immediate health is at risk with every swing.  This goes back to before J.A. Happ and before Herb Score.  Not everyone can be as lucky -- or react as quickly -- as Daniel Norris.



We don't have an answer yet.

It would be great if it could be this cap.


Brandon McCarthy says it's not ready yet, and I trust him.

Still, chalk up the health hazard of a line drive coming back through the pitcher's box and endangering a pitcher as a problem that will be solved, and sooner rather than later.  That's a good thing for all concerned and for baseball in general.

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