What is the lifelong baseball fan to do when you have two problematic franchises in the sport’s championship showcase? One team’s players have had serious issues around fair play. The opposing team is composed of likable players, but their owner has made terrible decisions for his team, baseball, and the city.
And both fan bases can be intolerable.
This Weekly Reader, focused on the World Series, features links to recent articles about those games that grabbed my interest.
I watched the 2021 World Series without any real rooting interest, but did suggest that Atlanta most resembles the Washington Nationals from 2019. Their slow start to the season followed by a hot second half, generally likeable players, and low expectations were all similar to the Nats. Fashion accessories went from rose colored glasses (2019) to pearls (2021). Also, like the Nats of 2019 they vanquished the mighty Dodgers this year.
Atlanta entered the World Series playing with house money, while all the pressure was on the Astros. So what did we see?
The good will be short
Congratulations to Atlanta — The first championship since 1995 is a big deal. And like the 2019 Nationals, Atlanta not only defeated the Dodgers but they also took down a strong Houston team.
Brian Snitker — The Atlanta manager is a baseball lifer who toiled in minor-league oblivion for years before getting his chance to manage in the show. He made the most of it.
Freddie Freeman — Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman has a well-deserved reputation as a Nats killer. He is also one of the nicest people in the game and apparently he loves to chat-up opposing players when they reach first base. If there is any position where you want a sociable extrovert, then first base is it.
Dusty Baker — Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker is, by all accounts, a gem of a person who was given the difficult task of trying to be the lovable face of an unlovable team. His Hall-of-Fame-worthy career doesn’t require winning a World Series as a manager. Of course, he’s been in the World Series before, and the memory I like from that fall classic is different from the Game 6 incident most people bring up.*
The youngsters — We were also able to see some other great players who made me smile this postseason, like Houston’s Yordan Alvarez and Luis Garcia and Atlanta’s Jorge Soler and Ozzie Albies.
Then, there is “bad for baseball” bad
Front office data nerds don’t care about fans — That’s the conclusion one gets from watching this World Series. In Game 3, Atlanta pulled its pitcher, Ian Anderson, after five innings. In today’s game it happens all the time.
Except that Anderson was pitching a no hitter in the WORLD SERIES at the time! As our president might say, its a BFD!
Anderson is 23 years old and had only thrown 76 pitches. He still had gas and wanted to stay in. But we are watching the game change in ways that don’t bode well for building a new fan base. Barry Svrluga, writing in The Washington Post, put it this way:
“Baseball on a given night in a particular ballpark is at war with baseball as a sport that was once the national pastime. What’s good for a manager to win an individual game — backed by reams of data from his front office — is bad for baseball as a product to be voraciously consumed by fans.“
Every fan of baseball knows that Don Larsen has thrown the only no hitter (a perfect game, no less) in the World Series. Anderson was most likely not going to throw a no-hitter in Game 3. For the sake of the game and for the fans, however, Anderson should have gone back out for the 6th. Yet the data grunts have the stats to ” prove” why that’s the wrong decision. But their “right” decision is bad for baseball.
The length of games. — The only thing longer than a DJB blog post** is a major league game in 2021. They are slow and start too late, but most of all they are too damn long. I fell in love with Houston’s José Urquidy in Game 2 because he caught the ball from the catcher, got his sign, and threw his pitch. No fuss. Just do it. That game came in at the rocket-like pace of 3 hours and 11 minutes. Too many games now bump up against, or go over, 4 hours. I’ve not been in favor of a pitch clock in the past, but my opinion has changed. Put them on a 15 second clock so batters won’t have time to fidget with their batting gloves, pitchers won’t have time to wander around the infield, and I’ll get to bed at a reasonable hour. Again, Barry Svrluga at The Washington Post has a great piece on this issue.
Finally, there is bad at the existential level…which turns into ugly
I don’t want game announcers Joe Buck and John Smoltz talking about the over/under on the number of strikeouts a pitcher may get — You’ve heard this before, so I don’t need to say more.
The Astros have a well-documented history of egregious cheating. As well as obnoxious fans — While the owner (mostly) did the right thing early in 2020 when the manager and GM were fired, none of the players of this “player-directed” scheme was punished. In fact, they were allowed to keep their 2017 World Series title and make tens of millions of dollars. There are multiple pieces on why you can’t forgive the Astros for cheating. And their fans, who didn’t even know Houston had a baseball team six years ago, now act like they are god’s gift to the world.
But as Kevin Blackistone writes, Atlanta may be even worse, at least at this level — Atlanta has a team full of great players, but as Adam Kilgore and Chelsea Janes note, it also has an offensive nickname and that stupid tomahawk chop. Period. Full stop. We’ve known forever that they need to change the name and get rid of the chop, but their owner has retrenched in the age of white grievance, and many of the fans have joined in that defiance.*** In this day, that alone makes their transgressions worse than Houston’s.
But there’s more. They built their new stadium in the wrong place for very troubling reasons. In the process they abandoned their African American fan base.
Pulitzer-prize winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger spoke to this issue in his wonderful book Ballpark. The fourth and very ominous period of ballpark design — sterile corporate campuses/amusement parks — is most easily seen through the terrible decision in Atlanta to move the team to Truist Park in the city’s far northern suburbs in 2017.
It was a move away from the city, public space, public transportation, and — most egregious from my point of view — communities of color. Goldberger describes Truist as “a mallpark as much as it is a ballpark,” and notes that what makes it different from most of the post-Camden Yards parks is that it “extends the entertainment zone outside the ballpark into a pseudo-urban neighborhood that has been created solely as a complement to the ballpark. A real city, by contrast, is “created over time, with its mix of different types of buildings, different kinds of neighborhoods, and, most important, different kinds of people.”
Bottom line: baseball has long been about making money for the rich owners. It has gotten worse in recent years, at the expense of building loyal, local support among a broad fan base.****
There are solutions to these problems, which are included in the links I’ve posted. Baseball will simply need to do what is right.
I’m not betting on that outcome.
Enjoy the winter.
More to come…
*In Game 6 of the 2002 series, Baker gave the ball to pitcher Russ Ortiz as he was leaving with a 5-0 lead. The Angels roared back to win 6-5. For my memory, there is a nice bit of baseball history. Darren Baker was drafted in the 10th round in 2021 by the Washington Nationals.
**I do have some sense of self-awareness.
- Your team won’t make the playoffs just two years after winning a World Series (and you are only 3 games behind Atlanta at the time, which decided to go all-in for this year)? Well, trade the popular core of your team, including a sure Hall-of-Fame pitcher (Max Scherzer) and one of the two young stars of your team (Trea Turner) to shed salary and acquire prospects and to hell with the fan base.
- Television (which pays those outrageous rights fees) wants prime time slots so they can sell almost three minutes of commercial time between innings? No problem, even if fans young and old can’t stay awake past midnight.
- Clubs want to forget their sport’s own history of gambling and cheating to get in bed with betting sites that dislocate the joy in the game all for the money? Fine, let them in to turn broadcasts into one long gambling commercial. They’ve even pushed out the ED advertisements!
- Owners want to thumb their noses at an African American fan base that has loyally supported the team since 1966? Sure, let them move to South Chattanooga.