If you share my interest in sports trends news but only in the slightest way, you could do a lot worse than to get your sports news from my favorite sports "journalist," Tank McNamara (the fictional cartoon avatar of Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds). Knowing that the Mitchell Report was coming out this week, Tank spent a chunk of last week making absolutely sure that whether former senator Mitchell got it right or not (and he did), that people remember there are a lot more people culpable in the baseball cheating scandal than the cheating players and the designer drug dealers and the body sculptors who hacked the cheaters' bodies. (As an aside, how can any science fiction fan who was reading cyberpunk in the 1980s not be fascinated by an early 21st century business scandal involving performance enhancing designer drugs and extreme body sculpting?) For the next couple of days, you can read the relevant strips (December 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th) on UClick.com. And at the top of Millar and Hinds' list of points to make is that it was always in the power of the team owners and of the commissioner of baseball to do something about this before it got out of hand. Why didn't they? Money. Steroids and human growth hormone and life-threatening training regimens have been good business.
Now, most of the attention to this point, today, has been with regard to the danger that, in the long run, they weren't going to be good business. Even if having a few players cheat made the game more attractive to fans in the short run, in the long run those players' success created pressure on other players to cheat. (The first law of systems analysis, as I was taught it: "The behavior that a system rewards is the behavior the system produces.") If enough players cheat, the secret of their cheating becomes impossible to keep. If enough players get caught cheating, the game gets a reputation for being rigged, and full of cheaters. So, much of today's analysis has centered around the question of what the league needs to do, at bare minimum, to keep the tax-subsidized wealthy in their deductible sky boxes, to keep the middle class and working class attendees in the bleachers buying massively overpriced refreshments, and most importantly to keep the butts on couches all over America tuned into the advertisements that provide nearly all of the non-taxpayer revenue that props up the asset value of those monopoly franchises. And I don't mean to demean that question! It's a fascinating question, it's one that touches on important matters of fiscal policy, and of corporate law, and of economic policy, and of law and justice, and of consumer psychology. Yes, by all means, keep discussing these questions.
But while we're at it, let me ask you another question, one that only a few cranky sportswriters (and paid whores for the players' union) have asked. Let's say we manage to make the game of baseball squeaky clean. Will anybody still watch it?
Right before the steroids era, I think it was around 1980, some comedian described baseball as two guys playing catch, one guy with a stick trying to stop them, and seven guys standing around in a big open field with nothing to do but scratch their testicles. He wasn't far off. Advances in pitching technology and training had turned baseball into something that baseball jargon and statistics still treat it as; the term is "a pitchers' duel." And if you're a baseball nerd, especially a baseball statistics nerd, there is nothing more exciting to you than that rare "perfect game," a no-hit shut-out. A game where one side fields exactly 27 batters, not one of which ever connects with the ball. The thing is, careful frame-by-frame analysis of baseball pitching and other advances in training got it to the point where that was happening almost regularly, where a pitcher's career was suddenly in danger if more than a couple of runs were scored, between the two sides, in the entire course of a 9 inning game. Baseball scores were starting to resemble hockey and soccer scores. And half or more of the fans, myself included, were bored to death. If pitchers get that much better than batters, it's even worse for baseball than when 8% (estimated) of the batters turn themselves into heavily juiced semi-cyborgs and don't really bother to hide it, because slow-motion pitchers' duels are boring.
That's why everybody in a position of authority looked the other way when juiced up baseball players grew to the size of small tool sheds and bulked up to the point they could no longer turn their heads or raise their arms above their shoulders. There was, among insiders and not a few professional sportswriters, a sense that the juice was all that was saving baseball from terminal ennui. Nor is it a coincidence that the players' union and the owners and the commissioner's office waited to even start talking about curbing steroid use until the mid to late 1990s. Why, because of negative publicity over steroids? Maybe a little; during the 1998 McGwire/Sosa home-run race, the fact that McGwire was no longer recognizably human did attract some negative publicity. But 1998, and to a lesser extent 1993 before it, changed baseball in another way that made discussion of curbing illegal enhancement of batters discussable at last: the addition of 4 more teams to major league baseball diluted the pool of available top-quality pitchers. There were no longer enough guys in America who were capable of learning to pitch at the very top level to provide each team with enough such pitchers to have one on the mound at all times in all games, and suddenly even non-juiced players were able to hit the ball occasionally again, too.
But population keeps going up, and players are recruited from many countries, and the technology of pitcher training keeps improving in ways that don't qualify as cheating in baseball. (And yes, admittedly, occasionally in ways that do.) So major league baseball faces a question that seems fascinating to me: if we take away the hitters' human growth hormone and steroids and it turns out that ordinary well-trained human athletes can no longer reliably hit the ball, what are we going to do about it? For what it's worth, I think it may be time for yet another rules change. It's not unthinkable, you know. The pitchers' mound used to be a lot closer to the plate than it is now; maybe it's time to move it farther back yet again to give batters more time to see the ball coming. Or maybe lower the mound or eliminate it altogether, making the players arc their pitches more to cover the distance. Strike zones have theoretically not changed ever, but we know that umpires vary widely over time in which way their errors bias, against the pitcher or for him. Maybe it's time to change the bats themselves to improve hitting, or change the design of the balls to make them easier to hit. And if minor tweaks don't keep the game lively, remember that other sports have rewritten their rules in even more aggressive ways before, like imposition of the shot clock in basketball after players determined to run out the clock boringly got too good at keeping the other team from stealing the ball. So, yeah: If honest baseball turns boring again, like it was when I was a kid, will they go back to turning a blind eye to cheating by batters, will they let baseball wither on the vine for a few years, or will they change the game itself to make it more active and more interesting? That's the question that's most interesting to me.