The temperature in New York is 48 degrees as I begin to write this, three hours before the start of the sixth game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, and the second game of scheduled November evening baseball -- not accidental November baseball, as we experienced after the September 11th attacks delayed the 2001 season.
I am looking forward to this crucial game between two excellent ballclubs, the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, whose well-contested series has, in New York, followed a dramatic playoff between the Yanks and an also distinguished squad of Los Angeles Angels. Baseball is still a great game despite what the men who manage and play it have done over the past few decades to diminish it.
I have written here about the corrupting effects of steroid-use and exorbitant salaries and ticket-prices on the elegant sport that is our national game -- and the spectacle of frigid, and possibly damp, November action, following intraleague series that were stretched out to comply with TV scheduling, can be added to the ways that filthy lucre compromises baseball. In my last blog I saluted the old Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek, who walked away from a broadcasting career when he could no longer tolerate the way that money was dominating the sport. Today I raise my glass to Angel Manager Mike Scioscia, who, without fear of whom he might be disturbing, described a scheduled three-day break between the first and second round of league playoffs as "ridiculous."
"Can I say it any clearer than that?", he asked with admirable frankness. "We should have never had a day off last Wednesday. We should never have three days off after the season. You shouldn't even have two days off after the season. It just takes an advantage away for a deep team, which everybody feels very strongly is an asset. It takes that advantage away and I think that's something that Major League Baseball hopefully will consider looking at."
Good luck on that, Mike, for fairness is no longer an abiding principle in baseball. If the game were fair, smaller-market teams from Seattle to Pittsburgh would not be, in effect, serving as feeder squads for the rich organizations. The initial starting pitchers in this year's World Series, Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, would still be toiling for the Cleveland Indians, as they were just over a year ago. And the Pirates of Pittsburgh, a storied franchise in one of this country's most attractive cities, would not just have set a professional-sports record by toting up their 17th consecutive losing season. Moreover, if the people who run the game were sincerely concerned about insuring pennant-races that were fairly contested in each division, they would not have opted for the cheap thrill of interleague play that requires those teams to play uneven schedules, matching them during parts of a season against teams of differing quality in the other league. So the LA Dodgers, for example, might face three games against a tough Angel outfit while the San Francisco Giants take on a weak group of Oakland A's.
This is a particularly sore point for fans of the New York Mets, of which I'm one, because the glossy media and financial attraction of intracity play in baseball-mad New York dictates that they must play six games each year against the Yankees, who are always very good and sometimes great. Meanwhile the Mets' division rivals, such as the Phillies, might have three games scheduled against the Kansas City Royals and three against the Indians. Insignificant? Please note that in both 2007 and 2008 the Mets lost the division championship to Philadelphia on the last day of the season. (Yes, in 2009, it was insignificant.) And it is very likely that interleague-scheduling inequities have influenced the out come of other pennant-races.
One more thing about interleague play: I concede the appeal of games between two teams in the same city and (sometimes) in the same state. But where is the added value of the Florida Marlins playing the Minnesota Twins, or the Arizona Diamondbacks versus the Toronto Blue Jays? In my view, the inclusion of such games on a team's schedule is more likely to have the negative effect of eroding rivalries within a league, as well as fans' familiarity with the players in that league. Again I speak from my own rooting-perch. The arrival of the Dodgers and Giants in New York to engage the Mets has always, because of the New York history of those teams, been a significant event. The fans also look forward to seeing the Chicago Cubs. But each of those teams now plays three games a year here, and in the last two seasons the Cubbies made their only visit in late September. I don't think I'm the only Met fan who admits that he is not nearly as well-acquainted as he once was with the rosters of these teams.
Baseball's original surrender to the lure of the cheap thrill was the American League's adoption the designated-hitter rule in the 1970s. I happened to be living in Boston when the designated hitter arrived in that traditional baseball city, and I remember a Globe columnist - I believe Ray Fitzgerald -- gloomily remarking that the change had rendered the arriving baseball season as the least welcome of his life. I have since prayed, and have been almost astonished to have my prayers answered, that the National League has never fallen to the same temptation. And I say so even though it is now the day after Yankee DH Hideki Matsui has brought the national championship back to New York by driving in six runs against the Phillies. Bully for him; he seems an admirable fellow. Yet, though I understand quite well the claims in favor of the designated-hitter rule, they do not balance its violation of the organic unity that is essential to genuine baseball. The most interesting late innings of any post-season game that I saw this year occurred in Game 3 of the Yankees-Angels series, when New York Manager Joe Girardi gambled to bring in his nonpareil relief-pitcher Mariano Rivera in an uncustomary non-closing situation, then switched his DH, Jerry Hairston, Jr., to left field to replace Johnny Damon. This meant that Girardi had forfeited his designated hitter option, and that Rivera took a place in the batting order - forcing Girardi decide, as all National League managers must, whether to let Rivera bat for himself in order to stay in the game. He put up a pinch-hitter, and the Yanks lost. But the fans of both teams were treated to a rare glimpse of traditional strategic baseball.
I applauded not only the development of a pitcher's coming to bat, but also the manager's willingness to employ that pitcher in a way not dictated by current managerial policy. The general rigidity and predictability of that policy is another dimension of the modern game to which I object. But I see that once again I have not left room enough to work through my full list of complaints. Once again, then - to be continued.
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