Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Baseball. No longer the national pasttime, but still great

OK, I'm back. It wasn't an intentional hiatus, but I got lazy about handling it when Google released the new blogger and then things got busy.

Viewership for the World Series has been sinking like a stone for decades, and this year's matchup between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays continues the trend.

It's a crying shame because baseball is a terrific game, and this year's matchup is one of the most appealing in years. I'll expand on both of those points.

Baseball is a terrific game. Anyone who's been raised to play it or at least has seen "Field of Dreams" has some idea of why that is. It is extremely different from most sports in that most others have a few things in common:
  • Rectangular field with scoring at the ends
  • Game clock
  • Same equipment (or lack of) on offense and defense
Baseball has none of that. As such, there's a real barrier to entry for fans, especially if they haven't grown up playing the game. And as that requires special equipment and fields, the effort to do so becomes more and more to overcome.

Despite the ratings decline, the game itself has been doing very well for a few decades as you can most evidently see by attendance numbers and team sale prices. This can be attributed to a few things:
  • New fan-friendly ballparks with attention to the quality of the experience beyond the game itself (food, views, attractions, location, luxury levels)
  • The home run boom of the 90's, regardless of its various reasons. As the commercial says, "Chicks dig the long ball."
  • Wild card teams in the playoffs and intraleague play. This is something Bud Selig got right.
But still, the game is hard to understand at its fundamental level, which is the batter-pitcher matchup. The best book I've ever read on the subject is Keith Hernandez's _Pure Baseball_, which is out of print, but you can still get a copy on Amazon.

This year's matchup is pretty good. Aside from rooting for my home teams (Giants and A's), I generally like teams who make the World Series that don't meet any of these criteria:
  • A team with a top payroll, especially when that money was used on free agents. Money still has too much influence in baseball, and I don't like teams that have spent their way there.
  • A team from a major media market, especially New York, because those teams get disproportionate attention anyway.
  • Natural enemies of my favorite teams. That's pretty much just the Dodgers.
  • Teams that have won more than one title any time recently.
Both the Phillies and Rays pass my test. They have acquired some players shrewdly (trade or medium-cost free agents), but for the most part they are homegrown players whose team is finally making it. The Rays in particular are a great story.
  • The last expansion team to make the World Series. They've got a big history of not-so-loveable losing.
  • Last place in baseball last year; chance to make first this year
  • Great trading: Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir was a steal from the get-go, though Met fans who don't follow the minors (like my father in law) didn't realize it. Also, Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett was gutsy, as Young was the #1 prospect by consensus a few years ago.
  • Low payroll. All these guys came up with them. If they spend a little, they can keep that team together for years.
Right now the Phillies have the upper hand, and they have great players to root for too. Ryan Howard was asked his opinion of the Rays' five-man infield late in game 3 and he said, "Wow, I thought they were going to blitz." Off the cuff, and it's the funniest thing I've heard from an active ballplayer since hearing Mark Grace's explanation of slump-busters on Jim Rome's show. Chase Utley is not only a terrific hitter, but he made a fantastic tag and throw double play last night.

So I could be happy for either team. I hope it goes seven.

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