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BASEBALL’S EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA THROUGH TWO ARTICLES IN 24 HOURS

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

In a span of about a day earlier this week, baseball readers who follow such things were treated to what amounted to a succinct and well-argued summation of the existential box baseball finds itself trapped inside these days.  With the start of another football season, the chorus of chants proclaiming the superiority of the NFL have revved-up again and baseball, along with its dwindling cadre of hardcore fans, is once more wondering not only how the hell the game wound up in this box but how the once national pastime can ever get out of it.

On Monday morning, baseball’s uber nerd, Travis Sawchik, dropped his latest Vulcan mind meld with MLB’s front office statheads in the form of a (really) lengthy piece on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, asking: Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?  Sawchik went on to make numerous smart and, in their way, unassailable points arguing that, as a developmental tool, minor league baseball is practically worthless.  Better, he argues, to eliminate it and focus each club’s scant resources on developing ballplayers in centralized training centers, lasering in on the better prospects and discarding the lesser ones.  Of course, the Astros comprise Ground Zero in his argument:

“After the 2017 season, [the Astros] reduced their affiliate count from nine to seven clubs. The Astros believed they could become a more efficient producer of talent with fewer farm clubs.  ‘For the baseball people, it was a feeling that it was better to concentrate the coaching resources. We were trying to support a bunch of players that had a less than one percent chance of making the major leagues,’ said an ex-Astros official.”

Sawchik’s arguments are based on pure efficiency – the minor leagues are a colossal waste of a club’s time and money.  Eliminate them, Sawchik argues, along with the thousands of minor league games played in small cities and towns across America, as a means of producing better big league talent at a lower cost. 

The following afternoon, Albert Burneko filed his reply brief on Deadspin, which was...pure Deadspin.  Snarky and punchy, Burneko clearly doesn’t give a crap about efficiency.  He just loves going to minor league games.  Why?  Because they’re inexpensive and fun.  Killing them to further enrich the sainted few who run baseball in the names of efficiency and sabermetrics is acid in the eyeballs to a fan like Burneko.  Maybe You Just Like Watching Baseball Games was the title of his piece, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about where he’s coming from and where he’s going. 

“Who exactly is minor-league baseball for?,” Burneko asks.  “The 30 big-league clubs use it as a developmental system for their young prospects, of course. Is the fact that tens of millions of people choose to buy tickets to watch affordable baseball games incidental to that, or is it the other way around?”  Baseball exists simply to exist, Burneko believes.  Reducing the number of games, or the number of people who can access the games, runs contrary to the very reason there are baseball stadiums at all.  “Professional baseball is a spectator sport that exists so that people can enjoy watching it,” he writes.  And, of course, he’s right.  He’s just as right as Sawchik.

Which is precisely how and why baseball finds itself where it is right now.  Trapped in the middle of an argument between the economists and the fans.  Pushed and pulled this way and that, in an effort to be all things to all people, baseball has somehow managed to make itself unpalatable to nearly every constituency – it isn’t nearly efficient, analytical, technical enough for the economists but it’s way too sabermetric for the (admittedly older) fan, who came to the game initially as a tonic for the type of cold, heartless analysis he was subjected to all day at the office.  Now, more and more, he’s finding it whenever he turns on a game or reads about it afterwards. 

In a way, Sawchik’s article, itself, is a distillation of baseball as we know it today.  It’s complicated, complex, fascinating in the details, but way, way too long.  You’d learn a lot if you made it to the end but you'll probably check out at some point beforehand.  After all, you've got to get to bed at some point and this isn’t world peace he’s writing about.  And in the end, his point is sort of absurd – improving baseball by playing less baseball.  Sure, it might be efficient but why not go all the way and eliminate all of the games at every level?  Simply run an algorithm each October and hand out the hardware. Imagine how efficient that would be.

Burneko’s article is more like the baseball you grew up with.  It’s sort of messy, profound in some places, profane in others.  You’d enjoy reading his rant while downing a cold one, or five, but most of it probably wouldn’t stick.  It’s a brushback pitch aimed right at Sawchik’s chin.  Above all else, Burneko wants Sawchik to know that he owns the plate; if Sawchik insists on digging in like he did in his piece, he’s gonna get drilled.  It’s old school all the way.  It too, though, borders on the absurd – contrary to Burneko’s romantic portrait of it, minor league baseball, as baseball, is typically horrible.  Not even a carnival act at this point, today it’s little more than a sideshow to the main attraction, which, more often than should be legally permissible, might be dogs racing around the outfield between innings with monkey jockeys aboard.

Baseball’s dilemma is how to satisfy both constituencies – the nerdists who see baseball as the ultimate laboratory, and the purists who see it as the purest form of entertainment on Earth.  As of now it’s doing little more than pissing off both of them.  Which is why most televisions in America last Sunday were tuned into Week One of the NFL season, while baseball’s playoff push entered its final weeks with half empty stadiums and ratings weaker than a ballpark cocktail. 

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Stew Thornley

Of course, baseball can use and needs the minor leagues to grow fans. However, if the minor leagues of organized baseball disappeared, my guess is that independent leagues would expand. They wouldn't have the players who might someday be stars, but would that matter? I'm not sure. As for the "Why not eliminate all games at every level?" snark, it seems to miss Sawchik's point, which is to develop a more efficient way of processing players through the system to develop and pull out the major-league talent. This already happened in the minors during the 20th century when they went from being independent entities unto themselves into development systems. That's why a proliferation of independent leagues to replace the minors of organize baseball might work out. The snark reminds me of umpire Gerry Davis at the SABR convention. Davis is against robo-umps for calling balls and strikes. I'd expect that from his perspective, as an umpire. He added, "Why not just replace the players with robots?" Davis seems to think the fans come to watch the umpires. They don't. Baseball has changed a lot over nearly 200 years. It's always tough for some fans to accept the changes. Baseball is discovering all sorts of ways to develop players better and how to increase the changes of productivity and winning. It's not always pretty, such as it now leading to fewer balls put into play (which is unpleasing to most everyone except official scorers, whose jobs get easier as a result). I can blame players, teams, organizations for pursuing better ways to do things.

Stew Thornley

Follow up (should have proofed for typos first): I meant baseball is discovering ways to increase the chances (not changes) of productivity. And I meant that I can't (not can) blame organizations for pursuing better ways to do things.

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