The city of Peoria, Ariz., and the Peoria Sports Complex played host to Air Force Week during a 2007 spring training baseball game between the San Diego Padres and the Milwaukee Brewers March 21. Airmen were invited to attend and the Luke Air Force Base Honor Guard posted the colors. The Wings of Blue parachute demonstration team jumped in the game ball. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Making Baseball Great Again

Baseball, our national pastime. For a while there, it seemed like baseball, the sport built on tradition, was not going to stand the test of time. With spring training coming to a close, it seems like baseball fans everywhere should optimistically look forward to a great season.

So why has baseball struggled?

For the early part of the new millennium, baseball has had an issue of branding. After the steroid era, the sport was in a real funk. Having to rebuild a brand, and rethink a sport which had celebrated offensive power for at least a decade. Baseball also needed to regain trust. Trust of the many players who were seemingly thrown under the bus during the steroid witch hunts, and trust of the fans who felt they had been cheated and deceived by the league. Almost a decade removed from the congressional hearings and Department of Justice investigations, the sport seems to be leaving the past in the past and a new baseball is emerging.

Sometimes, the overly conservative nature of baseball seems to get the best of it. As a baseball purist, I myself understand a reluctance to embrace change in the game. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Especially since some of it seems like such a radical deviation from decades of tradition. Changes to the sport such as the introduction of inter-league play, the adoption of instant replay, adding purpose to the All-Star game by making it determine home field advantage, and the expansion of the playoffs with the inclusion of a single wild-card game have in fact, (even I must admit) made the sport better. And if they have not made the sport better, they have made the sport more popular—which is essential for the survival of our pastime.

We will enter this new season with a few rule changes, not significant to the casual fan, but significant to the traditionalists. These are primarily designed to add clarification to instant replay by placing time limits on both managers and umpires. This is designed to speed up the game when calling for a replay, and reaching a decision on a replay. A manager’s ability to challenge has also been extended through the seventh inning (previously it was restricted to the first six). The one rule which will likely change gameplay, is the new no-pitch intentional walk. Previously, intentional walks had to still be thrown—four pitches—to the catchers well outside the strike zone. Now when a manager calls for an intentional walk, a runner simply takes the base. While this will speed up the game, it eliminates some of the uncertainty as well. Opposing batters no longer have the chance of clipping a wild pitch, and pitches need not fear throwing passed-balls. However, this does save a pitcher four throws—something that could shift strategy and game play in a close game, with a pitcher on a strictly manager count. Once again, the major concern of the MLB seems to be speeding up the game for the fans by eliminating some of the “down time”.

I still think the idea of putting runners on second during extra innings is ludicrous. While it’s just discussion so far, I hope the MLB decides to agree with me after the “failed” tests in Rookie ball. Stop trying to make the game better, that’s not going to make the game better!

The other reason why baseball has struggled, seems to be the United States’ performance in international play. In the seven summer Olympics between 1984 and 2008, the United States finished in first place only twice. The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is a relatively new additional to the world of sports, with the inaugural event held in 2005. Though baseball is still hailed as America’s national pastime, the United States has struggled in previous tournaments. The highest previous finish of the United States? Fourth place in 2009.

yankee_stadium_upper_deck_2010
Photo: Matt Boulton

That is until this 2017 Classic, where the United States defeated Puerto Rico. Fitting for the nation that invented baseball. In the 8 – 0 victory, pitcher Marcus Stroman threw a no-hitter through the first seven innings, and earned himself the MVP award in the process. At the start of the tournament, things looked grim for the United States, as they barely managed a win over Columbia. The United States was beaten by the Dominican Republic—the defending WBC champs. While Team U.S.A. managed victories over Venezuela and Canada, they also lost in a heartbreak to Puerto Rico. To make the finale, the United States had to beat the Dominican Republic and Japan, the two-time World Baseball Classic champions. In the final game, the U.S.A. redeemed itself by beating one of the most energetic, and exciting teams in the tournament, Puerto Rico.

The United States has typically failed to meet expectations in the WBC, a tournament which happens in the United States. One reason for this has been that Spring Training and the WBC run concurrently, so many talented players choose to prepare for the start of regular season instead of playing in the tournament. Another reason for this is the great play internationally. Over the last few decades, baseball has exploded on the international stage. Nations like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Japan, and Korea have developed into the new proving ground for aspiring MLB players, contributing many of the league’s top players. With the abundance of talent globally, it has become more difficult for the United States to stand apart.

With the ratings of the NBA and the NFL declining over the past season, baseball fans should remain optimistic, as viewership seems to be on the rise. Part of this is due to a baseball revival brought about by the 2016 World Series, where two perennial losers—the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians—managed to finally make it to the Fall Classic. With fans tuning-in in droves to watch history, many seem to have been inspired by the slightly “reinvented game.”

The success of the of Team U.S.A. in the World Baseball Classic can only help fuel this trend (despite the failure to limit the championship game to cable television). Baseball can only hope that these successes continue building momentum for the sport.

It looks like we are in for a truly great season of baseball, and what is in store for us as fans? What are the storylines we should tune in to follow?

In the National League:

1. Will the Cubs retain their crown?
Everyone wants to know; will Chicago be the latest team to repeat as World Series Champions? With Theo Epstein only slightly tweaking his championship roster that featured MVP Kris Bryant, the dynamic Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber; the Cubs are still a young team with quality position play throughout. Vegas has the Cubs as the pre-season favorites to win it all again, potentially changing the narrative of the “loveable losers” to that of the perennial contenders.

2. Are the Dodgers poised to be the best team in baseball?
Who knows? Anything is possible with the best pitcher in baseball (Clayton Kershaw) on the mound. Manager of the year Dave Robert’s team looks ready to compete with a roster very similar to last season plus the addition of second baseman Logan Forsythe. It seems likely that come August, this team will be firing on all cylinders. While they will have to wrestle the best record in baseball from the Cubs, the Dodgers seem almost guaranteed a 5th straight NL West title and at minimum a return trip to the NLCS.

3. Will San Diego move to Los Angeles?
Well, no they won’t—but it’s not from a lack of trying. To be fair, they look like a team with a some very green, but promising, talent. The biggest issue for the Padres seems to be their rotation, which looks to be abysmal. At least they have phenomenal weather, one of the finest parks in baseball, and a city of lonely sports fans desperate to smother the sole remaining sports team.

4. Can the Nationals win the National League?
They could. While they seem almost guaranteed to win the NL East, the problem is, the Nat’s don’t seem to have the pitching necessary to win it all. Even if they somehow manage to make it into the World Series, it doesn’t seem like they have the bullpen to beat the Indians. It’s a shame really, with this being Bryce Harper’s last season before free-agency—becoming a Yankee cough, cough—this could be one of their last shots. Or at least, their last shot with one of the best players in baseball.

5. How about dem Giants?
What about them? Remember, the Giants only seem to perform in the even-numbered years—at least that’s the case history makes for us. It does seem very likely that both the Giants and the Cardinals, two dominant teams in the National League, will be facing off against each other in the wild-card playoff game. Both teams share divisions with teams much better than themselves, and have little chance of winning their divisions outright. However, if both teams can manage to stay healthy and keep pace with the leaders, they can make the post season.

In the American League:

Photo: Keith Allison

1. Will Terry Francona find redemption?
Not that he really needs it. Sure, Cleveland lost, but every baseball fan in the world outside of Ohio— and even God himself—seemed to be rooting against the Indians. This Cleveland teams looks like it might have one of the best rosters in baseball, and the experience of going the full distance in the post season. If you ask me, the only ones who can really beat the Indians are themselves. So, the only question remaining is, can Cleveland shake the heartbreak from last season and find a way to make it back to the Series?

2. Whose wins the AL East?
Boston. The potentially lackluster seasons from the rest of the AL East division really guarantee’s that fact. The addition of Chris Sales cements the Red Sox’s starting rotation. Up and comer Andrew Benintendi looks like he may be the future of the franchise. The Yankee’s—well, they seem content to continue waiting for some of the leagues younger superstars to hit free agency—and that seems like exactly what they are going to do, though they do have some impressive young talent of their own. Baltimore can hit the ball, but we are unsure of what else they are capable of. As far are the Rays? One word—done.

3. What about Mike Trout?
Oh, you mean the best player in baseball? Yeah—I’m predicting that he won’t be an Angel for much longer. Yes, technically he still is under contract through 2020, but if the Angels fail to make substantial progress in an AL west with four other teams poised to be much better than them, it would make sense to set up shop and place him on the trading block. The point is, Trout is wasting away his youth and talents in Anaheim, and every moment the Angels wait the waste away the ability to trade him away for a king’s ransom.

4. Detroit, rock city?
With the talent that the Tigers have on both sides of the ball—they have to be the favorite to rock—err, win—the AL wild-card. With significant talent on both sides of the ball—Zimmermann, Verlander, and Fulmer pitching and Cabrera, Martinez, and Upton hitting—it seems like they are capable of everything. A team with an abundance of playoff experience over the last decade, coupled with the unfortunate passing of owner Michael Ilitch, could help propel the team far.

5. Who’s the best in Texas?
The AL West looks to be a tossup between the Rangers and the Astros. Both teams have strengths and weaknesses, it seems like the division winner will be the team who can best embody their narrative. Can the aging Rangers continue their dominance of the division, or can the talented Astros live up to their potential and usurp their rivals in Arlington? Only time will tell.

I personally think we are getting ready for a fabulous season of baseball. What do you think? Did I miss the mark?