04.01.13

Why This Is Baseball’s Golden Age

Forget the steroid scandals and embarrassing franchises. As Major League Baseball celebrates its opening day, Michael Brendan Dougherty says the sport has never been better.

In 2013 Major League Baseball’s opening day could not be more propitious. After a national-election year overstuffed with anxious national debates and alternating rhetorical wars on women and the Catholic Church in which umbrage taking became our defining national trait, it seems like the right time to take a break from the national obsessions and enjoy the national pastime. And lucky for us, we are living in what is unquestionably the golden age of baseball.

It’s a human endeavor, so baseball naturally has some embarrassments. Some franchises, like the Marlins, are in the hands of pathetic con men and subsidized to an absurd degree by the taxpayer. Others, like the Astros, seem determined not to compete at all. The lingering crimes and negligence of the steroid era threaten the sport’s own Hall of Fame, the institution that connects previous generations of play to the games of the day. Even after improved testing, some players on the leading teams are tainted by suspicion. Each year it seems that the owners and players make money far beyond the social value they create. The games too often have a slack pace.

But overall the sport has never been better. The league has achieved a wonderful balance of parity and dynastic success, feeding just enough hope to smaller-market teams and just enough resentment of larger, perennially competitive ones. Most of the league’s ballparks have been updated in the last 20 years, and on the whole they are better than the stadiums that preceded them, less claustrophobic, better staffed, safer, and, yes, more expensive.

And for all the faults of the league office, the sport has effected a revolution in how we find the sport. Online watching allows fans to see every out-of-market game on their computers or on television. The league has opened up the data about itself available to the nerds. You now can quantify the movement of every pitch thrown.

Advanced statistical analysis has given us greater depth of insight into the players and the franchises themselves. But at the same time we don’t have to be intimidated by the spreadsheets. Some self-designated “old school” writers like Murray Chass complain that the new stat freaks think the game is simply a clash of abstracted probabilities. But the geek view of the game has not penetrated the experience of the ballpark or even the way the game is portrayed on television. During a televised game, we’re not told a player’s VORP—his Value Over Replacement Player—which would add nothing to the narrative drama of a televised game. But we’re still informed of his batting average, giving us a sense of what is about to happen. The fan’s experience of baseball has not become an embodied math problem. It is still a game of leather, ash bats, cleats. It remains an athletic endeavor. We just understand it better.

The players themselves are more accomplished than ever. A generation of greats like Pedro Martínez and Albert Pujols gives way naturally to an even more impressive generation of Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts. In this era, even a pitcher’s career that seems defined by unrealized potential, like Johan Santana’s, turns out on inspection to be one of the 100 greatest at his position. The talent pool is just that deep.

As long as we have baby-boomer nostalgia and Internet gossip, the tendencies to idolize or vandalize will be indulged. But alternating temptations to lift baseball into a civic religion or pull it down into a sty of frat antics have largely canceled each other out, and neither threatens to overwhelm the culture around the game. MLB’s own television network, though it sanitizes coverage of the league, sets a great example of nonhysterical, worthwhile coverage of the sport.

The geek view of the game has not penetrated the experience of the ballpark or even the way the game is portrayed on television.

An under-remarked quality also distinguishes baseball and sports in general from our other national obsessions. After the game is played, we all agree on the facts. Every reporter and fan walks away from a game knowing the score and agreeing on the number of hits. Fans of a losing team are not made to feel less American or less dignified than the winners. We do not suspect that this game and its players are destroying the American way of life.

For a long time as a political reporter and opinion journalist, I looked sideways at sports writing. So inconsequential, so trivial. (Wherever did I get the idea that political writing was usually of great merit?) But for the past few years, and against my own expectations for my life, sports have become more important to me: as a refuge from strife, as a preserve of human excellence in a culture that revels in mediocrity, as a place to reconnect with my friends who would otherwise drift away as their lives diverge from my own.

Pete Rose said opening day is “like Christmas, except it’s warmer.” And this year, it does feel like a great gift.