This column originally appeared in the Daily Lobo, the independent student newspaper at the University of New Mexico, and can be viewed here.
Major League Baseball is in somewhat of a transitional phase the likes of which neither the sport, nor its fans, have never really seen before. It’s not experiencing an existential crisis, per se, but the sport has devoted much attention and resources towards tailoring a very traditional game for a younger generation.
The modern sports fan tends to prefer the fast and furious of the NBA and NFL over the more easy-going nature of our national pastime. That’s not a bad thing, but the overused cliché that “baseball is boring/too slow/just not that exciting,” will just make the lifelong baseball fan roll their eyes.
It doesn’t have to be any of those things, though, and most people who say baseball fits any combination of those three might not have taken the time to actually sit through a game.
As it turns out, the 2016 season might be the perfect time to do just that – give the sport a try.
You don’t have to fight the urge of resisting the sport any more. And with pitchers and catchers from most major league ballclubs reporting for Spring Training duty on Friday, you’re only going to hear about it more and more as Opening Day (which has as much a right as the Monday after the Super Bowl to be a national holiday) gets ever close on April 4.
At the very least, the boys of summer will keep you occupied until the boys of fall hit the gridiron once more.
Here are just some of the big reasons why this upcoming 2016 season is a great one to start watching the sport.
Baseball’s “final four” of the 2015 postseason field – the Cubs, Mets, Royals and Blue Jays – had a whopping zero World Series Championships, collectively, this century. Their respective droughts added up to 188 seasons, until the Royals ended theirs by beating the Mets.
That that relatively inexperienced group of organizations was in the running to win it all in late October is no fluke; for the past few years they and other teams have rebuilt themselves to challenge perennial contenders like the Yankees, Giants and Cardinals. It amounts to an incredible level of parity in the sport, one in which fans would be reluctant to say who is going to make it all the way.
It could be the mega-hyped young Cubs, trying to end one of the most infamous and mocked droughts in all of sports. It could be the Astros, who last year shook off the label of division cellar-dwellers to reach October and look poised to go a step further. It could also be the Mariners, who have vastly underachieved the last few years. It could even be the Giants, vying for their fourth championship in seven years.
The point is, save for a couple organizations in rebuild mode, the postseason field tough to predict, between the established contenders and the teams trying to make a name for themselves as underdogs. It will make for an exciting season, but even more importantly, an unexpected one.
Now Batting: The Kids
Just as baseball is achieving a level of parity rarely seen historically in the sport, so too is there an unprecedented amount of young talent that has taken the league by storm.
Players like Carlos Correa (21 years old), Kris Bryant (24) and reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper (23) have started to hog the spotlight, and for good reason. With veterans like Albert Pujols (36), Alex Rodriguez (40) and David Ortiz (40) all playing in the twilight of their careers, the torch has been figuratively handed off to the young guns who have a big role to play in ushering in a new era.
And don’t forget about Mike Trout (24), either. Arguably the face of major league baseball ever since Derek Jeter’s retirement in 2014, he’s finished in the top 2 in American League MVP voting in each of his four full seasons. Any perfectly competent baseball fan could agree he’s already an all-time great.
Relishing the DH Rules While We Still Can
MLB stands out from the other “big four” American sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL) in that there is a stark difference between how American League and National League games strategize, due to the designated hitter rules in the AL.
Essentially, in the National League there must be a pitcher’s spot in the lineup, while the AL has a “designated hitter” to occupy that spot. The result is two leagues with distinct personalities – one with more offensive fireworks and one that prides itself on being essentially a chessmatch in terms of making decisions with pitchers.
It’s a fun dichotomy to experience, but it might not be around for much longer. Due to the recent increase in pitchers suffering long-term injuries at the plate, there is now, for the first time, very real consideration to employ the DH in both leagues.
Traditionalists of the game sigh at the thought of such a change, which could be implemented as early as 2017. For that reason, the person on the fence about baseball should take it upon themselves to experience the way the game has been played for virtually its entire history before the changes (may) take place.
Vin Scully’s Final Ride
Vin Scully, lone wolf broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1950, is as much a baseball icon as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson or Pete Rose.
From his ability to interweave personal anecdotes seamlessly into the game to staying insightful and reactive well into his 80s, to his catalogue of memorable calls at historic moments (see: Hank Aaron hits No. 715), Scully is a pure national treasure.
Which is why the baseball world shed a collective tear when he announced that his upcoming, unprecedented 67th season would be his final one. If there is just one reason to tune in to the sport for the first time in 2016, it’s to marvel and appreciate Scully’s magic behind the mic, and to experience his final year that marks the end of an era.
Thanks for reading!
The Warning Track is a blog that covers all things Major League Baseball on a fairly consistent basis, from discussing why some teams are getting hot, who’s in line for awards at season’s end and who is getting ready to make the leap to contender status, as well as off-the-field issues like first-time Commissioner Rob Manfred, which players could be headed to new homes, and A-Rod’s latest conundrum.
If you have anything MLB-related that you would like to see discussed in the upcoming edition of The Warning Track, or have any comments at all, you may suggest/comment/rant/agree/disagree/tell me I know nothing about baseball at any time on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.