I can still see the 1979 baseball cards. No, literally, I can still see them, I have a handful of them in my hand right now.
I love this Bob Horner card.
Look at him — does that look like one of the most feared sluggers of the time? No, he looks like someone you just told that you can bench press 200 pounds. Do you remember that Bob Horner swing? It was so short, so perfectly compact, like a savage right cross … ah, but now I’m off dreaming again which is what those 1979 cards do, and I need to stop and …
Oh come on, stop that, now I’ll never get any work done. Look at that face. Does that face say, “I struck out seven straight batters during my first game in the majors?” No. It says, “They said the sushi was fresh, but I’m not so sure.”
Really? More cards? Will I ever get to the point of this post? I don’t know: I will say that the 1979 Topps set is special because no other baseball card set has so many photos that never should have even been developed, much less used. I mean, these are the photos you delete off your phone. Who looked at this photo of Yaz and thought, “Yep, that’s the one. You can barely see his face. He seems to be looking a bee. His mouth is open. I think that reflects the greatness of the man.”
This post is not about 1979 baseball cards … it is about baseball since 1979 and how this year is unlike any baseball season of our lifetime. See the way …
Another one? Really? OK, yeah, one more because this one’s great — let’s get Molitor looking down at something but make sure he has this weird smile on his face. What is he seeing down there? A ladybug wearing a funny hat? A Susan B. Anthony dollar? What’s so funny, Paul?
OK, 1979 is forty years ago. And those forty years are the point. When you look across that stretch of time … well, I just noticed this. Take a look at this list and tell me if your mind is blown:
Lowest batting average: 2019 (.246)
Highest home run rate: 2019 (1.33 homers per game)
Most strikeouts per game: 2019 (8.79 Ks per game)
Fewest sacrifice hits: 2019 (.16 per game)
Fewest intentional walks: 2019 (.16 per game)
Fewest hits: 2019 (8.34 per game)
Fewest triples: 2019 (.15 per game)
Fewest stolen bases: 2019 (.46 per game)
Fewest double plays: 2019 (.70 per game)
Most hit by pitch: 2019 (.41 per game)
Fewest complete games: 2019 (about 1 percent)
Length of game: 2017 (this year is third)
Folks, it’s not your imagination. We are watching an entirely different game than the one any of us grew up with.
Baseball is, I believe, the only sport that claims to be timeless. Timelessness is a huge part of the baseball story. Football takes great pride in its adaptability, in its effort to always become a better game. Basketball and hockey vividly evolve as the players get bigger, taller, stronger and faster. Golf fans cherish the sport’s history, yes, but the equipment changes daily and so does the game.
I’ve seen up close how religiously English soccer fans hold on to the past, but — and I am ready to be corrected here — I don’t think it’s quite the same thing. I don’t hear those fans talk about soccer’s particulars with the same reverence that baseball fans use when discussing 60 feet 6 inches, 90 feet between the bases and the forever superiority of Babe Ruth.
Many people who don’t get baseball grow pretty annoyed by the poetry so many of us attach to the game, and that’s understandable — time doesn’t really begin on Opening Day. But much of baseball’s charm comes from its equilibrium, its regularity, its familiarity. I went to baseball games with my Dad in 1979, when I was 12 years old. Those were some of the happiest days of my life. How can I feel just a little bit of that again? I can never again be that young, that light, that hopeful, that filled with possibility. But if I go to the park, and I smell the beer and mowed grass, and I see the bases in their usual places, and the crack of the bat and the roars of the crowd sounds just the same …
How — Billy Beane and Brad Pitt ask — can you not be romantic about baseball?
But here’s the less romantic part: The game is getting less and less recognizable all the time. It’s getting harder and harder to connect the game we see with the game we grew up on. And the oddest part is that I don’t think anybody INTENDED for the game to go like this. I don’t think there was plan AT ALL. It has been pure evolution, a story of smart and industrious and ambitious people finding new and not always entertaining ways to take advantage of the rules … and those rules staying the same long after they do.
In the 1980s, baseball stayed fairly constant. There was a home run surge from 1985-87, one that has been generally blamed on a change in the baseball, though there were other factors. Hitters began swinging harder and missing more — the strikeout rate in 1987 was the highest since the year of the pitcher. But things returned more or less to historical norms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the mid-1990s, though, as you well know, batters en masse realized how much harder they could hit baseballs if they worked out. Up to then, there were some players who worked out but most didn’t — there were three baseball proverbs that mostly discouraged workouts.
Proverb 1: If you work out, you will get too stiff and will lack the flexibility necessary to hit.
Proverb 2: All the muscle in the world can’t help you to hit a fastball.
Proverb 3: Drinking beer is much more fun than lifting weights.
But, inevitably, hitters realized these proverbs hid the truth: Working out makes you stronger, and being stronger helps you hit the ball harder. The steroid scandal freaked people out so much that it was easy to miss that this realization fundamentally changed baseball: Sure, steroids were an illegal and unethical way to get strong, but the point is that GETTING STRONG mattered for the first time. And, legally and illegally, ethically and unethically, everyday players began weight training like never in the history of the game. That changed the game forever.
At first, it wildly changed the game by making it an offensive circus. Pitchers were at a loss of what to do then. Hits skyrocketed. Doubles skyrocketed. Home runs skyrocketed. In 1994, teams set a record for most total bases per game. They broke the record in 1996, then again in 1999, then again in 2000. Pitchers didn’t want to throw strikes, nothing good could come from those — in 2000, they walked 3.75 batters per game, the most in 50 years.
Before 1996, teams had not averaged five runs per game since the wild 1930s. But teams average five runs a game in 1996, 1999 and 2000. Home run records crashed. Baseball was very slow to put a clamp on steroid use, we all know that, but in a less-observed trend the game encouraged batters to work out more — building state-of-the-art workout facilities in EVERY clubhouse, thus giving players a place to escape from reporters and such. Offense got so out of control that it became an embarrassment. Congress stepped in on steroids. Fans began doubting everything they were seeing. The game, which had built its whole image on the “Chicks dig the long ball” thing, began downplaying home runs.
Then it was the pitchers’ turn to change the game. In 2010 — after a 15 or so year stretch of offensive might — pitchers set a record for strikeouts, averaging, for the first time, seven strikeouts per game. They have set a record every strikeouts every single year since. That year, batting averages dropped below .260 for the first time since before the strike, and hitters haven’t hit .260 since. Complete games were over with. Triples were over with. The age of the 100-mph fastball and a blitzkrieg of relievers had arrived.
By 2014, batters were basically helpless. That year, teams averaged 4.07 runs per game, the lowest total in the forty-year window we are looking at. Batters were striking out almost eight times per game, they weren’t hitting home runs, that year the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants — two mediocre-to-poor offensive teams that did not have a 25-homer guy between them, played in the World Series (a GREAT World Series, but still).
The Royals went BACK to the World Series in 2015, again without a 25-homer guy or a particularly good offense. They won with grit and a bullpen and by putting the ball in play and by taking advantage of an American League in flux. It felt a bit like a return to 1970s baseball but there were so many differences. It was 1979 baseball without so much of the spark and speed and energy of 1979 baseball.
And then, yes, it all blew up again. People talked about the baseball itself being different — the baseball HAD to be different — but whatever the reason, 2016 began our march to today’s baseball. Home runs jumped. Strikeouts jumped. Defensive shifts became the it thing. Complete games went extinct. The idea of sacrificing an out or stealing a base lost most of its currency. Cubs GM Theo Epstein, who had anticipated the power game coming back to baseball, put a great offense on the field and they won their first World Series on the North Side since the world was young.
And the game has grown even more extreme since then. Now, take another look at the list above — lowest average, fewest hits, fewest triples, fewest stolen bases, most homers, most strikeouts, etc. — and tell me: Where is the game going from here? Is it going to bounce back? Or is it going to ricochet off the atmosphere and bounce into space?
You hear people in baseball talk a lot about speeding up the pace of the game. I get that: Baseball games are a half hour longer now than they were in 1979, and as you can see by the lack of hits, triples, stolen bases, baserunners and so on that it isn’t an action-packed half hour.
I think we need to ask harder questions. We all can see baseball attendance tanking (along with too many teams). We all can see baseball absolutely dying in Florida and throughout the Rust Belt and Midwest. We all can point to the obvious — high ticket prices, teams not trying to win, ease of seeing games on television, etc. We all can hear people saying that baseball is losing.
But my question: Is baseball staying true to itself? I think about this beautiful old car I saw not too long ago. I looked at that car and thought: “Wow, timeless.” And the owner told me, yeah, timeless, he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions of dollars, keeping that car timeless. If he hadn’t worked and reworked that car, it would have rusted, it would have deteriorated, it would have lost its luster, it would have broken down. He said it is a daily job to make that car look like it was never changed.
And I wonder if baseball — by falling for its own timeless trap — has allowed the game to rust. Is baseball better with unlimited pitchers? Is baseball better without a starter who has to figure out how to get people out even when his stuff is fading? Is baseball better with hitters swinging from their heels every pitch and accepting strikeouts as the light cost of doing business? Is baseball better when home runs are so plentiful that there’s really no advantage in taking risks on the bases? Is baseball better as a three-plus hour game with fewer and fewer balls in play?
Maybe it is better. I’m not the best judge of that — I’m an obsessive who will watch baseball even when it’s 27 pitchers getting one strikeout each. But I think you could argue that baseball could use a little more 1979.
And it’s not going to go back on its own.