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.
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.
The crowd on June 6 cheered for a few seconds when another home run put the Marlins ahead. But a sustained buzz came only when the Angels opened their comeback attempt in the ninth inning with a single off Marlins closer Braden Looper. Mr. Looper successfully challenged the three top Angels hitters-Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, and Troy Glaus-as the small crowd roared. Ninth-inning confrontations in close games are the crux of baseball drama, but waiting for home runs through most of the game is reminiscent of the nihilistic play Waiting for Godot: not much happens.
Saturday, June 7: Beyond NEIN
In this game a three-run HR-this one by Angels leftfielder Anderson following a single by first baseman Scott Spiezio and a walk to rightfielder Tim Salmon-was officially the winning hit, but the confrontations that led to the single and the walk set up the home run.
The Angels scored those three runs in the fourth inning of what had been a scoreless tie. Mr. Spiezio tied a major-league record last year by driving in 19 runs during the Angels' post-season march to World Series victory. This year he is reading the Bible intently, one of his teammates said, but also hitting poorly. In batting practice before the Marlins games he was clearly working on "going the other way," which means hitting the ball to the left side when batting left-handed. Angels manager Mike Scoscia watched Mr. Spiezio and said, "He's working hard. He'll get his hits."
Indeed he did, singling to left field in the fourth inning. Then Mr. Salmon worked Marlins pitcher Tommy Phelps hard, fouling off pitch after pitch-fans applauded uproariously on each pitch of the confrontation, hoping for strike three-before receiving a walk. Mr. Anderson then smacked the first pitch into the right-field stands. Fans non-educated in the nuances witnessed a home run, but that home run came only because of Spiezio batting-practice effort and Salmon plate discipline. (Mr. Phelps acknowledged after the game, "That at-bat with Salmon really frustrated me. And I carried that over to Anderson.")
Sportswriters once tried to educate fans about such nuances; now, many are trying to emulate political reporters by being scandal-driven. Certainly reporters should push baseball to clean up its act on the use of muscle-enhancing drugs, but their key role is explain what would otherwise go unnoted. For example, many fans think of batting practice as Sosa-wannabe home-run-derby showtime, but journalists should explain that on most teams it's carefully choreographed, with players in groups of three to five each receiving a pitch countdown, often from eight pitches (bunting the first one or two) to six, to five, to four, to three, to one. Players take easy swings at first, then more intense (but still smooth) ones, and at the end are racing in and out of the batting cage. The goal, in Manager Scoscia's words, is to "get players into a game frame of mind. Every swing counts."
Reporters should also explain how worldviews contribute to victories, and sometimes defeats. Take the June 6 save by Marlins pitcher Looper: He later said that the leadoff hit didn't bother him as it would have earlier in his career. "I used to be real superstitious-things like putting on the left sock first, the left shoe first-and real fearful about what would happen if I let on the leadoff batter ... ," said Mr. Looper, a leader of the Marlins Baseball Chapel group. "Now, before I start pitching, I walk off the back of the mound and give a little prayer, something like: 'Thank you God for this ability. Let me represent you in a good way.' I put the result in God's hands, then I can just concentrate on throwing my pitch, executing properly."
After the game Mr. Scoscia told reporters clustered around his desk that he appreciates game-winner Anderson's batting "consistency." (The leftfielder is third in the major leagues in hits over the past seven years, with 1,307.) Reporters then asked Mr. Anderson how he felt as he was hitting the home run, but no one in the pack probed the roots of his consistency; only later, when asked, did this Baseball Chapel leader explain, "I've learned not to react too deeply to things. Some players are always looking for the negative side, wondering what they did wrong."
Mr. Anderson was turning on its head the typical view that Christian ballplayers are the ones who are religious: Virtually all players are, but for many the religion is a series of superstitions (chasing for lucky bats, wearing the same underwear day after day when they're on a hitting streak, whatever). Mr. Anderson said, "My faith lets me accept a strikeout or a home run for what it is and move on." Journalists who are skittish about religion do not educate readers in worldview nuances that affect play.
Sunday, June 8: How baseball should be played
The game that afternoon started out with an Angels home run in the top of the first, but the crowd roared in the bottom of the first as speedy Luis Castillo won his confrontation with the pitcher by working a walk, and then won his confrontation with the center fielder by scoring all the way from first on a subsequent double. The Angels struck back with a single, double, and exciting triple, and held a one-run lead going into the eighth. They then scored two runs on daring base-running-three stolen bases including an exceptionally rare steal of home-and won the game going away.
That's how baseball should be played. Stadium architects can help by minimizing the amount of foul territory; a foul pop-up that is usually an easy catch for an infielder or catcher is one of baseball's non-confrontational plays. Retro-fitters can place plexiglass barriers above outfield walls so that towering smashes are still home runs but line drives turn into outfielder vs. runner confrontational doubles.
Baseball should also experiment during spring training with some confrontation-enhancing rule changes. Here's one that would be controversial: Virtually eliminate intentional walks, which zap confrontation at the point when the intensity would otherwise be highest. Instead of freeing pitchers from having to challenge baseball's best hitters, force them into confrontation by making a walk when runners are in scoring position and first base is open worth two bases rather than one.
What are intentional walks now costing us? Last month in Atlanta a crowd of 40,000 that had come out to see San Francisco star Barry Bonds was stiffed when he was walked three times. But in the ninth inning, with the Braves holding a 6-3 lead and Mr. Bonds coming up with one man on base, there was no possible advantage in walking him, so John Smoltz went mano a mano against the hitter with the crowd roaring as loudly as I've ever heard at a ballpark-and erupting when Mr. Bonds hit a weak ground ball to second. I'd like to see confrontations like that throughout the game; my plexiglass wall extenders might reduce the number of Bonds home runs, but he'd have a chance to make up for that by getting more good pitches to hit.
Baseball will still have some slow moments-and that's when reporters' instruction concerning the nuances on the field and in the heads and hearts of players will be valuable. It's good that the evidence points to a Sosa misdemeanor rather than a felony. It's wonderful that the aesthetics of baseball-white baseballs on a vibrant green, open-air field-remain so satisfying. But given baseball's fading popularity, the major leagues will not be able to live on bobblehead dolls alone. They need more confrontation and more fan education.