With baseball, you get what you get (#NaBloPoMo Day 7)

Players like Alex Rodriguez are the product of baseball’s design

The return of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the news has me altering my #NaBloPomo plans again a bit. Was intending to write this post sometime over the next week, but reports that Rodriguez admitted using steroids to federal prosecutors in January has pushed this piece up the schedule.

I’m a so-so fan of baseball (yet know enough to use Yogi Berra as an inspiration for today’s blog title), but that and sports in general does have positive things to say about human nature – competition, teamwork, excellence, discipline, our drive to succeed. As a purely man-made invention, it also demonstrates how the environment shapes the people who live within it. Of course, elite sports are full of stories of cheats and criminal behavior, from misdemeanors to outright felonies, but here I’m just focusing on the kind of athlete you end up with from the game.

Baseball has many facets, but much of the attention is paid to the power factors of the game, especially when it comes to home runs and pitching. For Alex Rodriguez, amongst many others over the past twenty years or so, the allure of more power through steroids to gain that competitive edge that could lead to fame and success, and the big dollars that follows it, led to the widespread scandal that continues to haunt baseball’s reputation.

Beyond this cheating aspect (I have more to say that in a post for another day), the problem I have with baseball’s design is that while the game produces players with tremendous strength and skill, at least when it comes to hitting and pitching, it’s a relatively imbalanced sport when it comes to athleticism.

This is especially the case when you look at many of the home run hitters. These are often men whose bulk and weight slow them down to the point that they can only play fairly stationary positions like first base or designated hitter. Sure they have to make it around the bases like all other players when they step up to the plate, but they don’t have to run if they hit a homer.

Also, the most difficult type of hit to get in baseball is not the home run (not including the inside-the-park variety). That distinction belongs to the triple. For that, you not only must have hitting skill and power, but the speed and stamina to beat the opposing team’s defense to third base.

I’d be really curious to see what would happen to the game if you changed the rules so that the traditional balls hit over the fence home runs were instead considered ground rule triples while inside-the-park triples were automatically awarded home plate. Picture the suspense as a player rounds second and the throw comes in to third knowing a run hangs in the balance on the outcome. Moreover, imagine how such changes would make the players in the game more athletic since the reward for being faster becomes greater than being stronger.

This all just amounts to an interesting sports fantasy thought exercise, but it does point out how the setting does matter to the type of person you end up with from it. Significantly, though, the fans all play a role in determining that environment through the dollars they pay to watch the game, and if they want to see home runs rather than triples, they get those kind of players, including those who turn to steroids to meet that demand.

As America’s number one pastime, baseball’s reverence of the home run is also symbolic for a dependence on power as a means to overcome immediate challenges that does not necessarily help the game and its participants build the character needed to enduringly protect its integrity and reputation.

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Posted in Economics, Environment, Sports

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