Cover Story

Baseball on trial

Sammy Sosa received a seven-game suspension for breaking baseball's rules, but he is likely to retain the affection of most fans. The verdict for many struggling major-league teams may not be benign, unless baseball increases its Confrontations per Hour

Issue: "How to fix baseball," June 21, 2003

WHEN A BALL HIT DIZZY Dean, a great but mentally vacant pitcher of the 1930s, smack on the noggin, newspaper readers the next day were relieved by a Dean comment that became famous: "The doctors X-rayed my head and found nothing." The same relief was evident earlier this month when baseball's Hall of Fame X-rayed and CT-scanned five of the bats Sammy Sosa had used during his 1998 home run race with Mark McGwire and found them all-wood, all-the-time.

When Mr. Sosa ensnarled his reputation by using a corked bat during a game on June 3 (see WORLD, June 14), the Chicago Tribune stated, "It was as if someone had caught Superman using brass knuckles, or accused King Arthur of rigging it so that the sword would slide easily out of the stone." But when radiologists found no cork in the Hall of Fame mementos or in 76 Sosa bats confiscated from the Cubs clubhouse, Mr. Sosa's plea bargain that he used the corked bat only in batting practice and then by mistake in the game seemed plausible.

Cynical reporters at Florida Marlins games here during a June 6-8 series with the world champion Anaheim Angels still muttered about switched bats and cover-ups. A sampling of the fans who rattled around Pro Player Stadium-the Marlins attract little more than 10,000 per game, unless a bobblehead doll giveaway is scheduled-indicated that Mr. Sosa was receiving the benefit of the doubt. But the tens of thousands of empty seats suggested a murkier future for baseball in this city and in those facing a declining fan base.

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Nine losing records during their 10 years of existence have hurt Marlins attendance, and the one exception-the Marlins run in 1997 that culminated in a World Series win-ended up creating more bitterness. That's because then-owner Wayne Huizinga (the Blockbuster mega-millionaire) decided the team payroll was too high and dumped his top talent, so kids who had found new heroes suddenly were orphaned. The only mention of the great year in the stadium is a small poster just inside the left field line: "1997 World Champions." The Marlins media guide virtually ignores the team's one shining moment, since it was followed by "the betrayal."

The Marlins public-relations staff is working vigorously and creatively to try to create new fans, particularly among Hispanics: Marlins Senoritas Day, Fiesta Latina with free salsa lessons before the game, Hablando con los Marlins talk shows, Cafecito con los Marlins meetings, and so on are part of the outreach. But, public-relations vigor aside, it's what's on the field that counts-and in Miami and other cities, potential fans (particularly younger ones) complain that baseball is too slow.

That's commonly phrased as "games last too long," yet football games last longer. Baseball's real problem is what I'd call-this is a novel theory-a decline in Confrontations per Hour (CPH) combined with the problem of Non-Education in Nuances (NEIN). Read on for what I realized during the three games.

Friday, June 6: CPH

Football has mano a mano confrontations on every play: runner vs. tackler, quarterback vs. charging lineman, receiver vs. safety, and so on. Baseball also has a variety of confrontations, starting with pitcher vs. batter and (once the ball's in play) runner vs. fielder. A would-be base-stealer on first confronts the pitcher and then the catcher. But with reams of baseball statistics readily available, a key one that no one seems to be tracking is confrontations per hour.

Example: On June 6 the Angels scored their first run on a line-drive single (which the Marlins centerfielder dove for and almost grabbed), a stolen base, a wild pitch, and a sacrifice fly (on which the runner barely scored). Count the confrontations: pitcher vs. hitter, hitter vs. centerfielder, pitcher vs. runner (trying to hold him at first), runner vs. catcher, runner vs. outfielder. Then the Marlins tied the game on a home run. Only one quickly ended confrontation: hitter-pitcher. The scoreboard showed one run for each side, but the difference in sustained interest was immense.

Baseball with its McGwire-Sosa-Barry Bonds trinity has become homer-happy again, as it was from 1946 through 1961 before players like Maury Wills, Lou Brock, and Rickey Henderson broke stolen-base records. But now, with some new, smaller ballparks, muscled-up (and sometimes drugged-up) hitters, pitchers throwing cautiously because the least mistake can be hit out of the park, and managers induced to sit back and wait for three-run homers rather than start runners, the frequency of confrontation has declined as super-confrontational football has ascended in popularity.

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