Last week pitchers and catchers reported to the 30 Major League spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona. In the midst of one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, baseball fans have a welcome diversion. Instead of the consistently dreary and monotonous daily weather reports – more snow and cold on the way – we can now focus on cheery and optimistic reports emanating from the Grapefruit (FL) and Cactus (AZ) Leagues.
Among the stories sure to be written are ones that say player X is in the best shape of his career, rookies (pick one) up from the minors will add energy, youth and talent to the team, the front office staff of the (name any team) thinks they made all the right moves over the winter and the (name of team) can win the division or will compete for a wildcard spot in the playoffs.
Despite the unfettered optimism that abounds throughout baseball this time of year, reality has a harsh way of introducing herself. Injuries are a fact of life. Touted prospects don’t always pan out. Those free agent signings boost payroll and ticket sales but history proves they rarely improve a team’s win total.
The good news for fans is that due to increased revenue sharing clubs have the wherewithal to not only sign their own stars but dip into the free agent waters as well. That has produced more parity in the sport, perceptions aside. MLB has more parity than the NFL which allows teams to remain competitive into September and beyond. The small market Kansas City Royals earned a wildcard berth last year and made it to the seventh game of the World Series. Don’t be surprised if another small market team duplicates that feat this year.
There are a number of interesting story lines to follow this year. At the top of the list is new Commissioner Rob Manfred. In his first month on the job Manfred has shown a willingness to consider virtually any idea to improve the game. He reorganized the commissioner’s office in an effort to improve efficiency, has explored ways to market the sport to a younger audience and, with the consent of the player’s union, recently announced new rules to speed up the game which some see as slow and boring compared to other sports. The latter issue is another example of the triumph of perception over reality. Similar to the issue of parity, a number of studies have concluded there are more minutes of action in a baseball game than there are in a football game.
Manfred has even said he is open to discussing the possibility of reinstating Pete Rose, something Bud Selig refused to consider for 23 years. From this perspective, a middle ground – permitting Rose to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot while maintaining the ban on working in baseball – would be the preferred approach.
The rules to speed up the game warrant watching. Granted, the average length of a game is now 3 hours and 2 minutes, up from 2 hours and 33 minutes in 1981. But the biggest culprits aren’t the players. It’s the increased time between half innings for advertising messages. However neither the union nor the owners are clamoring to reduce those spots for fear of negatively impacting player salaries and team revenues. Thus the burden to speed up the game falls to the players and the umpires who are charged with the unenviable job of enforcing the new rules through mandated warnings and fines. Good luck with that.
While all the changes were tested in the Arizona Fall League in October and November, those players weren’t major leaguers averaging $3.5 million per year in salary. Furthermore, the games themselves were meaningless with nothing riding on the outcomes. Wait till an umpire fines a batter for stepping out of the box between pitches or a pitcher for taking too much time before delivering a pitch to the plate.
Like the games themselves, we won’t know how the new rules play out for some time. What we do know is that pitchers and catchers have reported. All is right in the universe.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)