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Baseball's problems

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One of the big losers in the changeover of bats from ash to maple has been Louisville Slugger, which for years had a virtual stranglehold on the all-ash major league bat market.


You might have missed it, but Major League Baseball has decided to change the specifications that go into the making of baseballs -- again. Just before the start of spring training, MLB distributed a memo to all 30 teams, informing them that the second of three windings of woolen strings that go into the balls' manufacture will be loosened somewhat. The effect is expected to deaden the balls a bit, thus addressing, let us hope, the explosion of home runs that reached a crescendo in 2019, baseball's last full season of play. In that year, homers reached the gargantuan total of 6,776, smashing the previous record of 6,105, set in 2017. There was a bit of a drop-off in 2018 when a mere 5,885 four-baggers were hit; that happens to be the third most in history, trailing only '19 and '17.

That's pretty dry stuff to begin a column with, but the fact is that home runs themselves have become pretty dry stuff compared to the excitement they used to engender. There are just too dang many of them. At least MLB recognizes the problem.

After an investigation into the cause of all those homers, conducted, by the way, at Umass Lowell, it was determined that the lowering of seams in the stitching of the balls reduced the drag on them, allowing them to sail for longer distances. That means more home runs, lots more. This was all that was done, according to MLB, without its knowledge or consent.

Why not, then, take drastic action against the manufacturer, Rawlings? Here's where things get a little complicated. One of the major owners of Rawlings turns out to be MLB itself. What's it going to do, fine itself? Take the contract away from itself? The answer seems to be to tweak the baseballs a bit and hope the problem goes away.

Those of us who watch the games on TV or from the stands like to think that for all the game has changed over the years, at least the ball is the same, but that's not the case. Even its covering has been changed. "The old horsehide," as the old-time sportswriters used to call it, has, in fact, been cowhide since the mid-70s. For some reason, horsehide, which had been used on baseballs for a century, became hard to come by so the switch to cowhide was made.

The bats have changed, too. For years, ash was the standard wood used in their manufacture, but in the late 90s, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants began using a bat made of maple. He wasn't the first to do so, but when he slugged 73 dingers in 2001, his maple bat got plenty of attention -- and plenty of converts. It opened up a whole new industry of maple bat makers, and now that wood is used in 95 percent of major league bats.

Bonds had a little help in hitting all those four-baggers other than his maple bat. He admitted taking -- unbeknownst to himself, of course -- performance-enhancing drugs. They caused an uptick in homers, too, but not close to the one caused by those lowered seams.

One of the big losers in the changeover of bats from ash to maple has been Louisville Slugger, which for years had a virtual stranglehold on the all-ash major league bat market. Now, having made the switch to maple itself, it is only the major's third most popular manufacturer.

With the huge increase in home runs in the last few years, you'd think that there would be a corresponding increase in the number of runs that teams score, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be wrong. That's because, in addition to the explosion of homers, there has been an explosion in strikeouts. In 2019, there were 42,823 strikeouts, an all-time record. It was -- are you sitting down? -- the 12th year in a row that an all-time record had been set for strikeouts! There are now more strikeouts in a season than there are base hits. If you tune into a ballgame this year, you're going to see more players either strolling back to the dugout after whiffing, trotting down to first after drawing a base on balls, or trotting around the bases after a homer, than trying to leg out a ball he's put in play.

The game has changed and not all those changes are for the better. The latest trend of relieving a starting pitcher after he's gone through the opposition's lineup two times might have merit with the bean counters but it doesn't sit well with those who have to pay their way into the games. Take, for example, the sixth game of last year's World Series. The Tampa Bay Rays, trailing three games to two, went into the sixth inning with a 1-0 lead. With one out, starting pitcher Blake Snell gave up a single to the Dodgers' Austin Barnes, only the second hit of the night off him. Ray's manager Kevin Cash, going by the two-times-through-the-lineup book immediately pulled Snell out of the game and brought in reliever Nick Anderson, who gave up a double to Mookie Betts, a wild pitch, a fielder's choice ground ball, the lead, the ballgame, and the series. Going by the bean counters' book, the manager had made the right move, but he'd failed the eyeball test. Snell had been sailing along for the entire game, and giving him a quick hook didn't make much sense, at least not baseball-wise.

MLB has some real problems on its hands, and they go well beyond how the baseballs are made and how the game is played. There is the threat of a work stoppage after this season. The relationship between the players' union and management is at a low ebb, and the Basic Agreement expires in December. The ball clubs all took a financial bath last season, and this one looks like it won't be much better. There is trouble ahead.

Those of us who love the game have plenty of reason to be worried.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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