Major League Baseball is boring me stupid…

Is it me, or has professional baseball gone dull?

Try as I might, I cannot seem to care about any of the games I’ve watched so far this season.  It could be that my team, the Oakland Athletics, are about as much fun to watch this season as toenail fungus, that I hate the other Bay Area team, the San Francisco Giants like the recently unemployed hate bill collectors and that my favorite NL team, The Los Angeles Dodgers, are doing their best to win the “expensive AND feeble” prize for 2010.

These are, however, logical explanations, and I’ll have none of those.

I blame Bud Selig, again.

Look, if you love baseball you simply have to hate Bud Light.  The man is a scourge upon the game.  He’s good at coming up with novel tricks to get people temporarily fascinated with the game, but he clearly has no sense of the game’s history or its place in American culture.  He pats himself on the back constantly for creating the most competitive balance in the league that it has ever had.  Blow me, Bud.  Competitive balance?  Really?  Tell that to fans of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburg Pirates, Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians.  Perennially sucky teams are still sucky. My favorite team, the Oakland A’s, still play in a lousy stadium, with a cheap-ass owner, and basically no solid fanbase, (It could be argued, by the way, that the Giants don’t have a fanbase either.  They merely have a gorgeous ballpark that’s one of the few nice places in San Francisco in which one could spend a summer evening, and with a moderate willingness to field a talented team they manage to semi-contend every year in the least competitive division in baseball, but I digress.).  Bah and feh to your competitive balancing act, Bud.

As I started to say, Selig is good at coming up with gimmicky notions that will put butts in seats temporarily, until the novelty wears off.  Case in point: the Wild Card.  The Wild Card round of the playoffs has given more teams a chance to make it to the World Series.  That might seem like a good thing, except for two big problems I have with it:

  1. It rewards mediocrity.
  2. It means playing the World Series in weather unsuitable to baseball and to watching baseball.

To the first point – baseball used to reward the best performing teams throughout the season with a trip to the championship.  You won a pennant by having the best record over the course of a long season in your league.  I’d argue that the framers of the baseball constitution, as it were, were pretty brilliant.  Who needs a playoff series to determine the best of each league.  The baseball season is LOOOOOOOONG.  It’s not only an endurance contest, it’s a contest of strategy and planning.  If you’ve filled out your roster with strong talent, built a strong coaching staff and the players gel so they can play collaboratively for six months, you can win it all.  Things got muddled when divisional playoffs entered the picture, but those were really necessitated by the expansion of baseball beyond the model of 8 teams in each league.  Even then there was some natural symmetry to things.  You had a West and East division in each league.  The best teams from each division played each other for the right to go to the championship.

Selig mucked it all up when he realigned the leagues into 3 divisions each.  No more symmetry.  So then adding a Wild Card seems like it would make sense.  It doesn’t.  Why 3 divisions?  No one has ever been able to explain that to me in a way that convinces me of the necessity for it.  Don’t even get me started on there being 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL, or the ridiculous mess that is the NL Central.

So, what do we get?  We get two teams in the playoffs every year who really don’t belong there.  They aren’t the best of the lot.  No, they’re the best of the teams that aren’t very good, and it has warped the season.  Instead of playing to win your division, build the best team you can, etc., now there are teams who just try to hang in there, not get hurt and squeak into the playoffs and pray for randomness.  And it works.  Just look at the 2004 World Series as an example.  The 2004 Cardinals were the best team in baseball that year.  The Red Sox were the luckiest team in baseball.  Ugh.  It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it.

My second point doesn’t really need too much elaboration.  Baseball is a miserable game to play and even more miserable to watch in frigid weather.  I stopped going to Opening “Day” games several years ago because I got sick of freezing my nuts off by the 5th inning.  Baseball is a joy and thrill to behold in warm weather or on a clear night.  Rain, cold, freezing wind and (seriously) snow make baseball intolerable.

To be fair, I don’t solely blame Bud Selig for the post-season going into early winter at both ends of the season.  I’m pretty sure the bigwigs in New York, when they came up with the Wild Card, realized the best way to make it work would have been to shorten the regular season by 15 or 20 games.  The obstacle there was the player’s union, who would have had to agree to players being paid less for working fewer days.  Not a chance of that happening with those short-sited halfwits (yes, I love baseball, but the current configuration of your typical pro baseball player is sort of disgusting in it’s greed and lack of perspective – sort of just like Mr. Selig).

I could go on, and on, and on, detailing the faults of Bud Selig, but I’ll spare you, gentle readers.  I do have one last thought though…

I recently finished reading a fine book by Bruce Weber called As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels In The Land Of Umpires.  Weber spends several years amongst the umps, training with them at umpire school in Florida, working minor league (and even a couple of big league spring training games) and getting them to open up about their profession.  I’ve always done what most fans do, and hated the umpires, and I still sorta do even after learning a lot more about the kind of crap they deal with on a daily basis.  Now, however, I realize that the umps are often probably the only people on the field in a pro baseball game who are actually enjoying themselves.  They love the game, and you would have to in order to endure the hatred, the contempt and the abuse they endure for a job that no one admires and that pays pretty poorly considering its importance to the sport.  Throughout Weber’s book though umpire after umpire says the same thing – for everyone else in baseball, be they coaches, players, owners or league officials, it’s a business.

Maybe that’s why I’m losing interest.  I think I’m beginning to see the businesslike nature of the game come through on the field more and more.  Sure, players still make dramatic diving catches, but there’s a sense that these are mostly because the individual player involved is just trying to get himself on SportsCenter that night (actually, I’ve been told by a couple of seasoned baseball folks that it’s rare that an outfielder will dive for a ball unless he could catch it by simply running under it – diving plays are showboating done to get oneself on TV, which feeds an individual player’s popularity, which leads to All-Star Game ballot placement, which enhances one’s next contract negotiation position).  And yes, we still see monster hits and clutch plays, but it is beginning to look just a bit too mechanical.

As a kid I used to love watching professional basketball.  I pretty much can’t stand it anymore.  The players are too skilled and out-sized for the court.  Again, it’s too mechanical and automatic.  I hope that doesn’t happen to baseball.  Much as I detest the Giants, I love that their star player is a fat guy.  Now that’s the baseball I grew up with.

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