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Baseball, its problems, and why I watch

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One of the reasons that pitchers are upset now is that MLB has decided to enforce its own rules in the middle of the season. What was tolerated in April is regarded as intolerable now. MLB has decided to put its foot down and to do it now.

Dick
Flavin

Until a bit more than a month ago, all the talk around baseball was about the rash of no-hitters and the pandemic of strikeouts plaguing the game. Then, all that talk of no-nos disappeared from the radar screen, only to suddenly reappear a few weeks ago when Zach Davies and his Chicago Cubs bullpen crew ganged up on the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record tying seventh no-hitter of the season. On that very same night, Nick Pivetta of the Red Sox was even more impressive than Davies, as he lasted until two outs in the seventh inning pitching no-hit ball. He still hasn't given up any hits -- he was removed from the game by manager Alex Cora. Unfortunately for the Sox, though, their bullpen couldn't close the deal, and they lost both the game and their first place standing to the Tampa Bay Rays.

But most of the talk for the past two months has been about sticky stuff on the balls and how to police it. Pitchers resent being accused of using it and resent even more that they're no longer allowed to use it. This is what baseball gets for not enforcing its own rules. Using foreign substances on the ball has been against the rules for a hundred years; it just hasn't been enforced. That's on baseball itself, not on the players who got away with it for a century. They got away with it because MLB let them get away with it.

In 2001, the Wall Street Journal exposed that, half a century before, the 1951 New York Giants had been illegally stealing signs for half a season when they won the National League pennant on Bobby Thomson's "Miracle on Coogan's Bluff" home run. If MLB had vacated the Giants' league championship upon discovering their chicanery, it certainly wouldn't have had the problems it faced when the Houston Astros' sign stealing scandal came to light. But they let the Giants get away with it. If the Astros had known they were risking their championship, they'd have never stolen signs in the first place.

The vacating of titles is by no means unprecedented. The NCAA has used that punishment to enforce its rules on several occasions, most notably in 2013, when it stripped the University of Louisville of its men's national basketball championship.

The NFL suspended Tom Brady for four games and stripped the Patriots of two draft picks, plus fined the team $1 million, for using under-inflated footballs in 2015, even though it gave them no particular advantage -- they kept winning in subsequent years, even with fully inflated balls. But they broke the rules and were severely punished for it.

MLB, on the other hand, upon discovering then Giants manager Leo Durocher's skullduggery of a half century before, just shrugged it off. It was as if to say, "Oh that Leo, what a rascal he was." He broke the rules and got away with it, even after he was found out half a century later.

One of the reasons that pitchers are upset now is that MLB has decided to enforce its own rules in the middle of the season. What was tolerated in April is regarded as intolerable now. MLB has decided to put its foot down and to do it now. Some pitchers feel their mode of operating is under attack, and they may be right. But the baseball commissioner and his allies think that the long-term survival of the game is at stake, and the time to act is right away.

The issue of strikeouts has ballooned into a real crisis. In 2018, for the first time in organized baseball's long history, the number of strikeouts exceeded that of base hits, a dangerous sign for those who believe the game's attraction is in the number of balls put into play. In 2021, just three years later, there are expected to be 5,000 more strikeouts than base hits. That's not a trend; it's a runaway nosedive. To be sure, strikeouts have always been a part of the game, but should they be such a major part of it? Not, the commissioner believes, if teams want to fill stadiums.

To illustrate the problem, Babe Ruth, the original swing-from-the-heels guy, who was famously unafraid to strike out, NEVER whiffed as many as one hundred times per season. By contrast, EVERY member of the Red Sox who appeared in at least one hundred games in 2019, the last year in which a full season was played, struck out MORE than one hundred times. Those numbers will be even worse this year.

For all the problems confronting the game, though, there were several plays in that game in which Pivetta pitched that made me remember why I tune in every night the Sox are on TV and why I'm so addicted to it. One came in the bottom of the fifth, when Pivetta gave up the hardest hit ball of the night; with a man on first due to a walk, a screaming line drive by hit by designated hitter Ji-Man Choi seemed headed over the head of right fielder Hunter Renfroe, but Renfroe made a leaping grab to preserve what was then a scoreless tie. Then in the top of the seventh Renfroe opened with a double and, with one out, Christian Vazquez followed with a soft liner to left center that fell in for a hit. Kevin Kiermaier raced over to cut it off and, on the run, made a perfect throw on the fly to barely cut down Renfroe at the plate. Should Renfroe have gotten a better jump from second base? Maybe. Did he hesitate for an instant while rounding third? Perhaps. Still, it was a wonderful play by Kiermaier that showed in dramatic fashion why he is worthy of the three Gold Gloves (2015, '16 and '19) he has won.

And it's why I'll be tuned in again tonight. I might see another wonderful play -- only this time I hope it helps, rather than hurts, the Red Sox's cause.

- 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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