The Washington Nationals opened their 2008 baseball season, and their brand new ballpark, in story-book fashion last night. The Nats jumped out to a 2-0 in the first inning and then failed to get even another hit until the ninth. By that time, the Atlanta Braves had tied the score. However, “face-of-the-franchise” Ryan Zimmerman sent the fans home delirious with a two-out walk-off home run.
The baseball season now starts in March and, if the World Series goes the limit, can extend until November. Compared to the 1950s when I started following the sport, there are more regular season games, many more post-season games, and individual games last significantly longer.
The players now come from many different parts of the world. They are much bigger and stronger than their counterparts from half a century ago. The pitchers throw harder and still have better control. The batters hit for more power and (at least as compared to the 1950s) also run considerably faster.
The talent pool is much deeper these days. Well-run teams can build and re-build quickly by cultivating their farm system (though they may have problems keeping their talent on board, due to free agency). Expansion teams can become very competitive very quickly and even small market teams like the Florida Marlins can go from champions to loser to champions again in short order. Even with many fewer teams, this never seemed to happen In the old days.
Baseball parks are vastly improved. The new stadium in Washington is only the latest in a round of building that has provided the game with a massive face-lift. The new parks combine the charm of the best ancient parks with the comforts we baby-boomers demand. The mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s (of which Washington’s RFK was a precursor) — shared-use with football, lack of intimacy, symmetrical outfields — have all been avoided.
The game is much better understood now. Thanks to the work of Bill James and others, a reasonably well-informed fan arguably comprehends important aspects of the game better than the average general manager of the 1950s did. Fans have access to statistical information with which to answer questions that baseball insiders apparently didn’t even think to pose 50 years ago.
Instant access to statistics has also enabled many fans to double their baseball pleasure. These fans not only enjoy the real game, but they also participate in it as virtual general managers through the ubiquitous fantasy leagues.
But even for those not involved in fantasy leagues, baseball can be a constant presence. In the 1950s, baseball was “consumed” almost exclusively on the radio. Fans in many major league cities were limited to a few televised games per week and only when the team was on the road. Fans in cities without major league teams had to settle for the Game of the Week. These days, fans usually can view several games per night, and can follow every game in real time online.
Little, then, is left to the imagination. Perhaps that’s why real baseball — the non-fantasy version — may not grip our imagination the way it once did.
JOHN adds: Just for fun, let’s take a vote:
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