This was a big week for news in Major League Baseball. Alex Rodriguez. Clayton Kershaw. Instant replay. PEDs. Sky-high contracts. Robot umpires. They all turned the world of Major League Baseball upside down in their own way.
While none of these items were all that surprising on their own, the parade of news was quite shocking to see in one short week -- especially for those who cling to the "tradition" of baseball's "golden age." I mean, we live in a world where, 40 years later, the designated hitter is still considered to be going against tradition, so there's very little chance that this week of news is going to pass without some kind of challenge from the old guard. Not that these "traditional" fans would have much of a leg to stand on.
One common phrase claims that the heroes of the golden age played baseball "for the love of the game." Except that was never true. The Black Sox threw the World Series because they weren't getting paid enough. Babe Ruth made more money than the president ("I had a better year!"). Willie Mays was the highest paid player of his day. Ted Williams too. It wasn't the "love of the game" that they were playing for.
Then there's the "Steroid Era", which has been blamed for ruining the purity of baseball since the moment the term was coined. Only we know that this is not true at all either. There were the drug trials of the 1980s. The greenies and amphetamines that Jim Bouton wrote about and that World Series winners were documented using. Babe Ruth took injections of sheep testicles. And, of course, there was always baseball's institutionalized racism dampening that purity. Baseball has never been "pure" and a player failing a few tests today isn't going to change that.
Meanwhile, instant replay just feels yucky to some people. By taking the control of the game out of the umpires' hands, there's the sense that the game is one step away from being played on the computer. I can understand that feeling to some extent, but then I remember the likes of Jeffrey Maier, Eric Gregg, and Don Denkinger. These might be colorful moments in baseball history, but they are certainly not moments to be proud of. Instant replay can and should fix this. It's good for the fans, it's good for the players, and it's good for the business.
And that's all we're really talking about, anyway. Major League Baseball is and has always been a business. It's a business to the owners trying to make money off of their nine-figure investment and it's a business to the players trying to make as much money for their families as they can before their bodies give out and they're left with no means to earn a living. There is just no room to play "for the love of the game" when the business of the game controls everything from your morning meal to your holiday vacation at Six Flags.
But fear not, dear traditionalists! To find that place where people do play baseball for the love of the game, you only need to think back on your life for a moment. For me, it was a large empty lot behind the apartment complex I grew up in. With the wooden fencing of a housing tract looming in the outfield, and a blind, but rarely traveled curve of road winding behind us, my brothers and I had all the real estate we needed to play our three-man games of baseball. Whether it was watching the ball fly or chasing it into the brush, there was no better place to play a game.
When we moved, the field changed but the game didn't. We were now confined to a space roughly 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, a palm tree jutting out in centerfield like a poor-man's Tal's Hill, but we kept playing. It was baseball distilled to its purest form, the batter/pitcher confrontation, over and over again, and we loved it.
My story isn't yours in detail, but it is in spirit. For you, maybe it was a daily ballgame on the schoolyard, or a game of catch in the streets. Little League, perhaps. Whatever it was, your childhood self was playing baseball because it was fun and because you loved the game. The business of Major League Baseball never crossed your mind.
And that's as it should be. Baseball as a game is one of the greatest things on this earth. Baseball as a business is no more interesting than a Wall Street board meeting. If you ever start to get disenchanted with Major League Baseball for any reason -- and there's always a reason, even if you aren't clinging to a past that never existed -- it might help to remember that. After all, the kid heading back to the plate with grass-stains on his jeans and yelling "Ghostrunner on second!" is most certainly enjoying the game more than you.