Mehno: Baseball has some big-time problems

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe woke up from a baseball-induced nap the other day and came to a conclusion:

Baseball is in trouble.

It’s become, he wrote, “a sanctuary of senior citizens.”

As someone who looks forward to claiming every old guy discount available, it’s hard to argue with his point.

If you’re still a big baseball fan, you’ve probably been one for a while. There’s a good chance Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell aren’t just names in a history book for you.

If you tell stories about peering around one of the poles at Forbes Field, you’re in even deeper.

Baseball has been changing and, as slow as the game is sometimes, the changes have been fairly rapid.

Shaughnessy cites one that’s been discussed here before — the ever-rising number of strikeouts. There are more batters than ever lugging a bat back to the dugout after strike three.

It’s notable when a player like the Pirates’ Corey Dickerson chokes up with two strikes and focuses just on making contact. A lot of players used to do that. Maybe even a majority did.

Tim Foli, the shortstop on the Pirates’ 1979 World Series team, went to the plate with his hands about three inches up on the bat handle. He was all about bat control. That season, Foli struck out 14 times in 594 plate appearances with the Pirates.

You can argue that Foli wasn’t a power hitter, and you would be correct. He hit 25 home runs in 6,573 career plate appearances.

But even sluggers were more responsible in the past. Ralph Kiner hit 54 home runs for the 1949 Pirates while striking out only 61 times. (Yeah, it’s another ancient history reference).

The point is power hitting wasn’t always the all-or-nothing proposition it’s become these days.

Remember the reference to Foli’s 14 strikeouts over five months in 1979? Yankees’ power hitter Aaron Judge had 14 strikeouts in the first 10 games this season. (Judge hit two home runs in that stretch).

It’s more than just the deflating and constant swing and miss. The games drag. It went to a ridiculous extreme last Friday night when the Phillies and Pirates set a major league record for the longest nine-inning game in major league history.

As the 17-5 final score suggests, it wasn’t compelling theater over the four and a half hours it took to complete.

But there’s more, and Shaughnessy touches on that, too. Whatever happened to funny guys and characters? Andy Van Slyke used to take pride in dreaming up quotes that would land in Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News (yes, another obsolete reference for those of you scoring at home. And how long has it been since anyone at home kept a scorecard?)

A lot of players today are polite and thoughtful and deadly dull. This is not to suggest that previous generations of tobacco spitters and serial cursers were always a delight, but at least it wasn’t like talking to an accountant.

Have analytics had a negative impact? Shaughnessy thinks so, although it’s hard to make a case that more knowledge about an opponent’s tendencies is a bad thing.

Analytics are here to stay. The Dodgers’ analytics department is so massive that the personnel has been moved to what used to be the visiting team’s clubhouse. They left the lockers in place, perhaps as a subtle reminder that this is still baseball.

The way things are now, the game doesn’t always look the same to the senior citizens who still use it as a sanctuary.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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