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Bill Maxwell

Small-ball is good for baseball

At last, a few things are changing for the better in Major League Baseball, America's national pastime.

What hasn't changed, however, is that many fans already are betting that the once-jinxed Boston Red Sox and the mythic, mega-salaried New York Yankees will vie for the American League pennant and a berth in the World Series.

As USA Today observed in its 2010 World Series issue, the Yankees "were assembled to win the World Series, paid to win the World Series, expected to win the World Series." For me and many other fans, the annual Yankees-Red Sox script dampens the excitement of professional baseball.

On the up side, one change will bring back some of the excitement of the old days when "baseball was an art," to use an expression coined by legendary baseball writer Roger Kahn. I'm talking about the media's exposes of, among others, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Ken Caminiti, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Jason Grimsley, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds who were accused of using steroids or other drugs to enhance their play. Although sluggers Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez still wear uniforms, all eyes will be on them.

In addition to bringing shame to their profession and breaking the hearts of boys who idolized them, these juiced performers did a lot to change the complexity, emotion and aesthetics of the summer game.

Roger Angell, former baseball columnist for the New Yorker, wrote, "Baseball thrives on personality, but the cult of the team is even more essential to its well-being than the cult of the star."

Angell wasn't writing about the influence of steroids back in 1966, but he was prescient. When steroids and other enhancement drugs became popular during the 1980s as the way to increase strength and power quickly, the cult of the star grew larger on many teams. To me, this development was a vulgarization of the sport.

The result was that fans, along with many players, began to expect their team's incredible bulks to slam homers, turning what looked like certain defeats into victories. Such a player was the equivalent of the deus ex machina in Greek tragedy, the god who appears at the last moment to provide the solution to the tangled human mess down below.

How many nights have Rays fans sat in the stands at Tropicana Field fearing the appearance of David Ortiz at the plate? With the swing of his bat, this behemoth would send a ball sailing up to one of the dome's catwalks or flying over the centerfield wall. Even though Boston has a roster of skilled players, the cult of Big Papi still can be seen on the field and felt in the bleachers.

As the number of Paul Bunyan-sized batters declines, the teams will be forced to return to "small-ball" play. They will have to refocus on diverse offenses: natural power batters who have confidence; patient hitters who get walks; hitters who consistently rap the ball and advance runners; and speed merchants who steal bases.

The end of the steroid era and the return of small-ball play have important intangibles. The strategies will bring back much of the game's mystique, when professionals were seen as being fallible, when uncertainty and heartbreak were natural parts of the baseball theater.

Small-ball play will bring back trust, assuring fans that an Evan Longoria with a string of towering hits isn't pumped up on steroids. It will give fans and writers a more reliable way to compare the statistics of current players with those of the greats of the past.

As a die-hard purist, I welcome a return to baseball that used to inspire boys to keep their bodies healthy. I welcome a return to the days when kids honed their natural skills naturally. Today's professionals on the diamond are the role models for future players.

Now, think of how much baseball would improve if a salary cap were imposed. But that's another story for another day.

Small-ball is good for baseball 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 6:45pm]
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