There’s a fundamental tension in spectator sports that goes a little something like this: The things a player or coach or team will do to win and the things that make the game fascinating and authentic and fun and are rarely the same. Much of the time they are at odds with each other.
We’ve seen this over and over and over in sports. The most obvious example of this involves performance-enhancing drugs. When players take PEDs, they obviously are not worried about their sport as a whole. They obviously don’t care how it will impact the fan experience or the sport’s integrity or any of that. Taking PEDs is a fundamentally selfish move which is, I think, the big reason why so many fans stay so angry about it.
But this is where the whole thing gets tricky because, in general, EVERYTHING a player or team does to win is fundamentally selfish. I don’t mean “selfish,” the way it’s usually meant in the sports context — where, say, a basketball player takes too many shots or a football player is more interested in individual glory than the team winning. I’m saying strategies to win rarely, if ever, take into account what will make the game more fun for a fan. That’s not the coach’s job. That’s not the manager’s job. That’s not the player’s job either.
Take the NBA in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Based on the rules and trends of the time, teams understood that their best chance to win was to play grueling basketball at a glacial pace, lots of physical play, lots of defense, lots of one guy dribbling as the shot clock went down. In 1998-99, in the aftermath of Michael Jordan, teams averaged 91.6 points per game, the lowest per-game total since the NBA was young. To me, it was just about unwatchable … and I was not alone. The ratings collapsed. Who wanted to sit through that? And it kept getting worse and worse; the 2003 NBA Finals between San Antonio and New Jersey had the lowest television ratings in modern NBA history. The 2007 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Cleveland was not much better.
The team found most often at the scene of the crime was Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs; but how could you blame him for brilliantly coaching the league’s most successful team. His job, the team’s job, was to win. And they did win, every year. Spurs fans sure enjoyed it. And if the style bored the heck out of many staunch NBA fans and turned off many casual ones, that was, as the saying goes, above Pop’s pay grade. That was for the NBA to figure out.
There are dozens of other examples like this, but let’s get to the title of this and discuss Sergio Romo. As you no doubt know, Sergio Romo started back-to-back games over the weekend for Tampa Bay. On Saturday, he pitched one scoreless inning, the Rays scored four runs in the top of the second, and quote-unquote “starter” Ryan Yarbrough came into the game and pitched a very good 6 1/3 innings, three relievers closed things out, the Rays won to get to .500 after a horrendous start to the season.
On Sunday, Romo started and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings, and the Rays again took the early lead (though not until Romo was out of the game). Three pitchers could not hold on to that lead. Romoing worked, even if the Angels ended up winning.
Now, let’s say right off that I’m quite sure this Romo strategy is a winning one. Many of us have been talking about it for years; Joe Sheehan most prominently. Teams rarely use fewer than three pitchers in a game; they average about four pitchers per game. There have been 17 complete games all season. Seventeen. The concept of a starting pitcher as we knew it in the 1970s and 1980s and even 1990s has been blown to smithereens, so the question has been obvious for a while now: When will a team just finish the job and reinvent the whole pitching order of a game? If you KNOW you will use Sergio Romo for an inning at some point, isn’t the best time in the first inning, when he will face the top of the lineup, when you are hoping to grab an early lead in the game?
Romoing is a fundamentally sound strategy, even slightly brilliant, and the only reason nobody did it before, I believe, comes down to that one word: Tradition. We like to mock tradition here and elsewhere, but it’s often the only thing holding people back from taking a wrecking ball to the games we love. I remember a few years ago, Kansas City pitching coach Bob McClure came up with a new way to use pitchers; I think his idea involved three pitchers going three innings every game. It was interesting and, if memory serves, could have worked — and if any team was going to try something like that, it should have been the mid-2000s Kansas City Royals who annually lost 100 games and seemed as hopeless as a team can be.
The Royals’ manager Buddy Bell and the other coaches laughed McClure out of the office and rolled their eyes and shut down every time he started talking about it again. Tradition!
But let’s say something else about tradition. Let’s say the Romo strategy works, as I think it will. Let’s say every team begins to use some variation of it. Let’s say that teams start carrying two or three of the old-fashioned starters and then Romo their way through the other games using some kind of good middle-reliever for the first inning, some fifth starter type for as long as he can be effective, then hand the ball off to the other guys in the bullpen.
Let’s say that’s good for winning baseball games.
Is that good for us fans WATCHING and FOLLOWING baseball games?
I don’t bring that up because I have an answer. I bring it up because we should ask the question. Every one of us who has fallen in love with baseball has fallen in love with a game that treasures starting pitchers. Hey, who is starting tomorrow? I’m going to the game tonight, who is starting? Who will start the All-Star game? And so on. Starting pitchers are at the heart of baseball’s history, at the core of baseball’s romance, at the center of the most cherished moments in the history of the game.
Will the game be as delightful with interchangeable middle relievers starting games and going an inning? Again: I don’t have an answer to that or an answer to would apply to anyone else. I’ll love baseball if they use 27 different pitchers to get 27 outs; I’m hopelessly in love with the game. The point I’m making is that it’s not Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s job — nor in his best interest — to worry about what Romoing will mean for fans of the game, just as it wasn’t Lou Boudreau’s place to worry what the Ted Williams shift would become 70 years later, just as it wasn’t Sparky Anderson’s concern to piece together where his Captain Hook strategy of pulling his starters nightly might lead.
Managers and players will do what it takes to win. That is how it should be. Winning is their North Star.
And what’s our North Star as fans? I don’t know, exactly, but I do know it isn’t necessarily the same star.