by Ken Napzok
It’s that time of the year again! Sing it with me, friendos. “Should old… errrr… auld acquaintance be… forgot? (Is it forgot?) For days of bald land signs… hum hummm hum huuuum.” Or something. I’ve only ever heard that song while drunk and watching for a clock to count down. Point is here we are again at the big turning of the page. A new year. A new decade (for those that count on the zeroes) And that means it is time for some good ole’ fashion resolutions.
Put hold off on the gym membership…
While I have a long list of resolutions and goals for my personal life and most of them based around the idea of saying no to more bread at chain restaurants, I wanted to make a list of resolutions hyper focused on my — and hopefully your — continuing journey as a baseball fan.
Baseball has been in my life and blood since I was a youngster, but truth be told, I started to pull away from the game around 2014. There was definitely no one reason or moment… I still watched or kept the MLB network playing in the background. I still spent good quality time following the players that my fantasy team co-owner Corey and I excitedly draft each season. And I still loved baseball. It’s just that — I don’t know how to describe it — the game faded away from the front page of my mind.
Maybe it was the fact that around 2014 and 2015 the game started to change. The game always changes — and should — but this was really noticeable. It was palpable. A collection of math formulas was dumped onto our screens and suddenly we were being told those gold standards of measurements like wins and batting average weren’t as important as things like weighted OPS or spin rate. The fine art of sacrifices, hitting and running, and swiping a base were fading away. Productive outs were being sold as no better than a strike out. And with almost every pitch you could look out onto the field and find a third baseman standing behind second base or a second baseman standing right in front of the right fielder. Hey, I grew up reading about the legendary Ted Williams shift. I’m not opposed to it, but suddenly everything felt different and often different feels less fun. It no longer seems like the thing you fell in love with.
To my surprise, I suddenly felt like one of those Old School Baseball fans. The kind of grump that would sit on their tattered reclining chair in the den with their arms folded saying things like “In my day we didn’t designate no hitters and if you wore a batting helmet you were considered a wimp.”
That’s…. That’s not the type of baseball fan you want to be.
So, with that in mind, this is list is mine, but maybe it can be yours as well. Here are…
New Year’s Resolutions for an Old School Baseball fan
Follow The Kids
I believe the children are the future, teach them Launch Angle and let them lead the way.
Every few seasons — sometimes close to ten full seasons — there is a clear generation shift in talent. While every season brings its collection of hot-shot rookies there are those two or three seasons that bring something more. These shifts bring a new breed of player that shows up with a shiny new energy, style, and approach. You can go back to 1951 when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays arrived or look closer at different eras like my precious very late 1980s and early 90s when players like Ken Griffey Jr, Tom Glavine, John Smotlz, Roberto Alomar, Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio, Gary Sheffield, Greg Vaughn, David Justice, Jeff Bagwell, and Robin Ventura among others arrived to lead baseball forward. Sometimes you don’t quite realize that you’re in the middle of that shift, but we all should realize it now.
The 2019 season alone changed the game. Ronald Acuna Jr, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto were already on the scene when the first pitch of this past season was thrown, but now look at who joined the party. Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis Jr, Yordan Alvarez, Mike Soroka, Bryan Reynolds, Eloy Jimenez, and Aristedes Aquino are just SOME of the names that broke out in 2019. Hell, the Toronto Blue Jays alone gave us 1990s baseball fans both a big smile and frown at our advancing age with Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette arriving with famous names but unique talents.
The shift is here and it is perhaps a generational shift of a lifetime…
… and I’m resolving to not just enjoy it but be on board for it. To celebrate it. To understand it. I resolve to not fold my arms and say, “Yeah, well, Craig Biggio did it better” but to let his son and this amazing collection of young talents pave the way forward.
Learn the New Age Stats
For a very short period of my youth, my goal in life was to become a baseball statistician. This was the brief period between realizing playing the game probably wasn’t in my professional future and becoming a baseball announcer seemed like it would take me too far away from my professional comedy dreams. So, like, for two weeks in the 9th grade I wanted to be a baseball statistician. At the time, I was doing OK in math classes and loved studying all of my favorite baseball stats. So, a job where I got to watch baseball games and collect these stats seemed like a dream. Then I took my first trigonometry class and that dream ended fast.
My idea of being a baseball statistician was basically tracking the ole’ classic stats that one could figure out with a blank sheet of paper and your fingers. On-base percentage and slugging percentage seemed a little out there, but with a good calculator watch you could figure those out. But look where we are now. To be a baseball statistician now seems to require that you be a downright professor of stats.
And that was admittedly off putting when Sabrmetrics and Statcast moved to the front of the line. (Not for nothing old school fans, but Bill James and those Sabrmetrics aren’t exactly new things.) Suddenly, the very stats you once thought had value, didn’t really mean that much. Those “baseball card” stats were being put on the shelf along with that complete set of 1987 Topps cards you thought you could retire on.
But I’ve decided on two things going into 2020.
One — I’m not going to be ashamed or feel less of a fan for still liking stats like wins, saves, batting average, and RBI. And you shouldn’t either. They still track them. If you’re like me and often find yourself going to baseball-reference.com to just go down the wormhole of baseball players and their stats, (WOW — Dave Valle lead all of baseball with 17 Hit By Pitches in 1993!) you don’t have to give that up. All of those stats still have meaning and value. They still very much count. A home run is a home run no matter how hard a player hit it and no matter if you know how hard he hit it. So, keep loving them. I’m going to.
Second – I am, though, going to roll up my sleeves and embrace these new fancy numbers, mysterious formulas, and intimidating categories. (Why is there a little ‘x’ next to this stat?) First off, they don’t necessarily mean much to us fans in terms of basic measurements of performance. A former major leaguer once explained it to me this way. “We need to study exit velocity, but it has no real meaning to a fan.” So, you can STILL enjoy the game without knowing the shortstops’ max-effort arm strength rating.
However, when you really dive into these stats you start to understand how the micro-level breakdown of what you see on the field absolutely transforms the game. Look, I still love the idea of “see the ball, hit the ball” and two bloops and a blast, but knowing that Pete Alonso had 66 barrels or Cavan Biggio’s excellent 13.5 percent chase rate helps you understand that we are seeing a breed of player that is more prepared for success than any other time in baseball. And that’s exciting to me.
And to be clear, I’ve fought against these stats in the past. Even the simpler stats that carry more weight. Last season my Fantasy League commissioner Jay quietly suggested to the league of crusty, mostly middle-aged owners that we drop batting average as an offensive stat and instead replace it with OPS. (Not even OPS+ just good ole fashioned OPS) He was nearly drug into the back alley and beaten with our Rotowire magazines. Now, after just one season of paying attention to those stats, I think Jay would have my vote should he suggest it again.
I’m done fighting it because — quite frankly — these stats and precise numbers have always been part of the game. They are built into the game’s very DNA. For generations, we fans have proudly proclaimed that hitting a baseball is the “hardest thing” to do in sports, but we know that because at one point someone timed the fraction of a second batters have to make their decisions. Yes, Honus Wagner didn’t need to know that, he felt it, but he also wore a knitted sweater during pre-game warm-ups.
We’ve taken for granted the exactness of a pitching mound being sixty feet and six inches away from home plate or first base being ninety feet away and treated them as if sent from heaven to bless this magical game. Hey, maybe God did send a sign down to those that crafted a “new kind of ball” in the 1800s, but there is no denying that those very specific numbers are the numbers on which all stats are built. We can poke fun at the young math whizzes getting general manager jobs, but we do so while also lauding Ted Williams for making hitting a scientific art or telling tales of hearing about Tony Gwynn studying video of each and every swing he took. Something tells me Ted Williams would have loved to know his chase rate. Probably would have used it as more proof that he was the best hitter to walk this Earth.
So, these new age stats aren’t as new age as we think. They’re just more proof that this game is as precise as we’ve always believed it was.
Go to the batting cages, play catch, or take grounders
In the first draft of this column, I actually had put down the resolution to go to a game again. That still holds. Along with my dampened passion for the game over the last few seasons, there was a distinct lack of going to games. I live in Los Angeles, so the Dodgers are just a short trip away and the Angels are a good slog down the 5 freeway. (Again, Anaheim and Los Angeles, two different worlds.) Yet I haven’t pulled myself off my couch to attend a game in ages. So, the resolution still stands. I’m getting to a game. But before I pressed ‘send’ on the email that would race this column over to the fine folks at Flagged Sports, I realized that I needed to make a more important resolution.
It’s not just about going to a game, I need to play the game.
No, I’m not trying out as a relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays or going to one of those fantasy camps where a retired player teaches me how to bunt. No, I’m talking about just getting a bat in your hands, smelling the leather of a glove as you slip it on, or hearing the sound of the ball as it slaps into your mitt. I’m resolving to reconnect with the love of the game, not just the watching of the game.
I’ll be heading out to a local batting cage where for just a few bucks I can get back into a batter’s box and take a hack at a pitch. Oh, sure, it won’t be in front of thousands of fans at Yankee Stadium like I always dreamed about and the swing won’t be pretty, but at some point, in most baseball fan’s lives we got out there. We played. And it is in this simple playing of the game that you connected with the sports’ soul. This is magic. This is what no stat can truly measure.
Time and age might mean that I can’t go out back and pretend to pitch a few innings with my best childhood friend catching. It might mean playing catch with a friend will hurt more the next day, but I do believe that if you’re a baseball fan that has found yourself watching the game you once cherished from a little bit more of a distance than you wanted then you should head back to the start of it all.
Feel that bat disappear in your hands when you absolutely connect with a pitch. Feel the seams of a ball in your hand as you get ready to fling that fastball at the outside corner. Feel the crunch of the dirt beneath your feet as you look back at home plate and no longer see a friendly game of softball in an empty field on a neighborhood park, but instead see only the full stadium and roaring crowd of your childhood daydreams.
This is a new age for baseball, but it doesn’t have to be a different age for you.
This move happened before the holidays, but the Offseason of Pitchers continued with the Toronto Blue Jays signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year deal worth $80 million. It’s the second highest free agent contract in the team’s history behind Russell Martin’s deal a few seasons ago. It’s a big swing for the 95-loss team, but an important one.
Toronto has already done a lot of work this offseason to overall their pitching staff with the acquisitions of Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark, and Japanese veteran Shun Yamaguchi. These moves and the desire to run out a staff worthy of the electric young lineup they’re building shouldn’t be overlooked.
If those headlining youngsters Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette continue their growth while other bats being swung by Tellez, Grichuk, and Gurriel Jr (and veteran Justin Smoak) keep pounding the baseball around the stadium, then a veteran Cy Young contender joining the club is key.
Ryu is already 32 and has injuries in his past, but he’s a proven winner that lost out on headlines behind names like Kershaw and Buehler. Toronto made him their headline and for good reason. He’s considered a great clubhouse guy and of all the nice stats on his resume, like a league leading 2.32 ERA last season, his home run allowed rate is key. He only gave up 0.84 home runs per 9 innings last season and the Blue Jays home turf Rogers Centre is known for being a home run friendly park. A team leader that can keep the ball in the yard in this big blast era should fight in just nicely.
Keep watching Toronto closely.
Now as for the Dodgers and their offseason… we’ll see if they can make it BETTSer.
This week in baseball history…
… Mary Shane became the first female to be in the broadcast booth on a regular basis for a major league team when the Chicago White Sox signed her up for the job on January 3rd, 1977. There had been some women in the booth before her, most notably Betty Caywood, hired as a publicity stunt by Charlie Finley, and there are some that have followed, but Mary Shane was the true first.
The story of Mary Shane is one not often told around the hallowed halls of Major League Baseball. On one hand, unfortunately, her tale is a bit of a blip on the radar screen. While covering sports for WRIT radio in Milwaukee she was in the press area for a 1976 Brewers-White Sox game. Harry Caray, then stumbling through White Sox games in his most legendarily charming way, was curiously amused by the presence of * gasp * a female covering baseball and he invited her to call some action on the radio. He invited her back the next day and then did so again when the Sox returned to Milwaukee later in the season. Mary Shane did well enough that the always adventurous White Sox owner Bill Veeck somewhat gave the OK for her to get a contract offer from WMAQ on the aforementioned date in 1977. Shane accepted, though she would not last the season.
So, yes, short blip indeed, but, on the other more important hand, a historic blip. Mary Shane was not a publicity stunt. Growing up dreaming of playing second base in the majors, she was well-prepared and serious about the job. Though not fully trained and prepared for the art of announcing overall, she very quickly earned the respect of those in the booth with her, particularly that of former major leaguer Jimmy Piersall, himself a rookie broadcaster that season. The former Red Sox outfielder said of Mary, “she had what it takes to make it.” Unfortunately, Piersall also knew the reason why she wasn’t given that chance to make it, saying, “She never had a chance. Even a bad baseball player gets at least one full season to see if he’ll come around. But because of all the in-bred prejudice against a woman covering a baseball team, Mary didn’t even get that.”
Mary Shane’s baseball announcing career was over, but not her career as a sports reporter. She covered the Boston Celtics in the 1980s (and won awards for that coverage) before passing away quite young due to heart failure in 1987. She was a barrier breaker, even if that barrier still needs to be pushed away time and time again. Gayle Gardner pushed it again in 1993 along with Suzyn Waldman, who joined the Yankee booth full-time in 2005. Jenny Cavnar and Jessica Mendoza are the two most notable women continuing to push the barrier presently. More will follow and as they do, let’s not forget to look back at Mary Shane and her place in the history of this grand game.
For more on her story head here!
Walk Off Quote
“I’ve only been doing this fifty-four years. With a little experience, I might get better.” – Harry Caray, broadcast legend and Hideki Irabu’s biggest fan.
Ken Napzok counts baseball swings as exercise, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed.