Each year around this time, my friend Joel travels to Las Vegas to put down $5 for me on the Yankees to win it all. It's a bet that hasn't paid off in a long while, admittedly—but it's a ritual that, like Rocky Colavito stretching his arms behind his back and crossing himself before coming to the plate, gets me ready for what's coming.
Major League Baseball probably loves fans like me. I watch it on TV, go to games in person, read box scores, and fold in a handful of baseball books, old and new, into my annual reading diet. From every April to October, baseball is part of the rhythm of my daily life, like a fifth season of the year.
While few experiences in life can match the relaxation and contentment of leisurely watching a game on a summer night, what ties it all together, and what I love most, are the stories. No sport can match baseball when it comes to stories, in part because of its long history, but also because the sheer number of games provides a stage for more characters, plot lines, twists, and shocks than any other American sport can muster.
Other sports have taken up much of the national attention that baseball used to dominate. The NFL is far more popular than MLB now, and my 15-year-old prefers the NBA. Mike Trout, the best player on the planet these days, is much less of a national celebrity than Tom Brady or LeBron James. As baseball fans know, though, and as Trout probably appreciates, being an object of obsession has its disadvantages. In 1950, Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who would win the MVP that year, received a death threat warning him not to show up in uniform in the city of Boston. Yankee manager Casey Stengel suggested that Rizzuto change his number with rookie second baseman Billy Martin for protection. Rizzuto refused, insisting he'd prefer to face an armed maniac than be mistaken for the pugnacious Martin, and risk getting beaned or beaten up by one of the many players with whom Martin had made enemies.
As the recognition discrepancy suggests, baseball faces some problems. That said, on this opening day, I think reports of its slow demise are hugely exaggerated. In fact, in many ways, the game we see today is faster, better, and more exciting than ever before, even as it retains links to the past that will always give it more resonance than its competitors.
One reason baseball is better than ever is the quality of the athletes. Gone are the days when Mickey Mantle would go out drinking all night, stumble up to the plate to pinch hit a home run, and circle the bases huffing and puffing as his teammates giggled at his evident hangover. Gone are the Carl Yastrzemskis who, in 1966, concerned about being traded, went to see a physical trainer, which Sports Illustrated referred to as a "physical culturalist." The trainer, Gene Berde, was shocked at how poor the Red Sox outfielder's physical conditioning was, and couldn't believe he was a professional athlete. Fans of my age remember Yaz smoking cigarettes in the dugout, which nobody thought was odd at the time.
Yastrzemski was a harbinger of the fitness revolution, though. He spent the 1966 offseason working out with Berde and showed up at spring training stronger than ever. Pitchers who thought they knew how to beat Yaz suddenly found him able to get around on pitches he couldn't previously handle. As a result of his offseason fitness regimen, which at the time seemed rather exotic, Yastrzemski had his best season ever in 1967, winning the Triple Crown and MVP and leading the Red Sox to the World Series.
Today's players don't show up at spring training having put on 30 pounds while selling insurance in the offseason, needing the summer to sweat out the winter's beer. They presumably have lots of fun on their own time, but on the field they're some of the most well-trained and ruthlessly focused professionals in the world. Think of a freakishly cut giant like the Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton, or two-way Angels marvel Shohei Ohtani. Not that we don't still love the occasional overweight pitcher, like Bartolo Colón, who can get batters out. About Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, teammate Rudy May once said, "Look at Gossage. He's 6-feet-4 and most of it is fat. He pitches maybe an inning a week. And for that, they pay him a million dollars a year. And you know what? He's worth it."
Another huge improvement is the rise of analytics, which is now used in nearly every sport but began in baseball. By employing statistics geeks and data analysts to figure out how teams can improve lineup construction, pitching, shifts, and offensive strategy (and drop questionably effective tactics like bunting and base stealing), the analytics revolution has broadened baseball from the preserve of jocks into a beautiful marriage between jocks, nerds, and weirdos. This in turn has attracted different kinds of people to coaching and management positions, not just former players but also mathematicians, entrepreneurs, software engineers, and professional gamblers. Analytics hasn't only created marginal improvements in efficiency; it has completely changed the way teams and fans experience the game.
(As for the shift—when a team strategically places players in spots on the field where a batter is most likely to hit the ball—it may make it harder to get hits, but it's nothing new. In the 1940s, lefty slugger Ted Williams was flummoxed by defensive shifts, so much so that the Hall of Famer Ty Cobb sent him a letter explaining how to beat them. The proud Williams tore the letter into pieces, to the shock of his teammate Bobby Doerr, who even at the time wondered how much a letter from Ty Cobb to Ted Williams would be worth in the open market.)
Analytics has also reduced the importance of money in baseball. If the net worth of owners used to determine who could buy championships, analytics has created a more level playing field. Despite the fact that teams like the Red Sox, the New York franchises, and the Dodgers routinely outspend their rivals (often by orders of magnitude), no team this century has won consecutive World Series. Because the average player is so much better, and brains now matter at least as much as brawn, there's far more balance among the teams. No longer do we face a decade like the 1950s, when only one manager not named Casey Stengel won a pennant in the American League. (That manager was Al Lopez, by the way, a Stengel protégé to whom Stengel gave the backhanded compliment, "The big knock you hear about Al is that he has an outstanding record of finishing second." Lopez beat out Stengel's Yankees only twice, taking both the 1954 Indians and the 1959 White Sox to the World Series, but lost both times. Stengel's Yankees, meanwhile, won eight pennants and six World Series before the decade was done.)
Another sign of MLB's strength is its international presence and appeal. Baseball has long been played in Japan, Cuba, and Korea, of course, and MLB has had big fan bases abroad for decades. But now, generations of those foreign fans have grown up to become some of the best players in the world, and the world still sends its best to America. In days past, you might've had Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth barnstorm through Japan, as they did in 1934, and get whiffed by Eiji Sawamura, a Japanese high schooler. Today, barnstorming is a relic of a bygone era. After nearly two decades in MLB, Japan's Ichiro Suzuki is now considered by some as the greatest base hitter in American baseball history—and perhaps rightly so, since his combined career hit totals outclass all others.
Of course, critics might say that fitness-obsessed, Olympic-level athletes like Stanton are less relatable than the beer-guzzling, tobacco-chewing stars of old, and that the overreliance on data-based analytics makes strategy too machinelike for many fans. There might be some truth to this, but the fact is, the genie is out of the bottle. No player would return to the haphazard training regimens of the past, and no team would willingly go back to strategies that have been demonstrated to be ineffective. And the fans, despite occasional grumbles, wouldn't want them to. As Babe Ruth once said, "Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games."
The combination of changes to the game with a persistent reverence for its history is why baseball will long be with us. And it will continue to look much the same as it always has. Watch a professional football game from the 1950s, and it's played between the tackles—not in the air. Watch an NBA game from the 1960s, and nobody dunks or shoots beyond the free throw line—today it's only around the basket or beyond the three-point line.
But the iconic moments in baseball—Willie Mays' over the shoulder catch, Bobby Thompson's Shot Heard Round the World, Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run, Ruth's called shot—all happen at roughly the same frame rate you still see today. When the fans of 2122 look back at the games from 2022, and at the ones from 1922, I believe they'll see a single continuum, and have no problem relating to any of it. It's in the nature of the sport itself.
"This is a very simple game," manager Joe Riggins aptly explains in the 1988 film Bull Durham. "You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while."