Last weekend at the Porter Cup, I ran into my old pal Marty Shimmel, the tournament media director and a kindred spirit who grew up loving baseball and box scores as a child of the Sixties.
We exchanged pleasantries and agreed that it had been an interesting baseball season. Then, at virtually the same instant, we said, “But it’s not the same game.”
I was reminded of that Sunday afternoon, when I attended my first MLB game as a spectator in two years. Fully vaccinated and wearing my wide-brimmed hat as protection from the sun, I watched the Blue Jays lose to the Astros, 6-3, at Sahlen Field.
A pandemic-limited crowd of around 5,400 saw the finale of a five-game “Toronto” homestand, in which gleeful Buffalo sports fans were able to witness regular-season MLB action for the first time since the city had its own NL team back in the 1880s.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a glorious day at the downtown park, sunny and warm and populated by baseball fans who were grateful for the opportunity to watch big-leaguers in action. Any MLB game is a treat, and it did feel Major League in that ballpark.
But I was reminded how much baseball had changed in just two years. It’s still essentially the same game, of course, but it’s evolved radically from the one I grew up with half a century ago, or for that matter, even five years ago.
Some of the change is for the better. The scoreboard now lists OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) by the players’ names, which might seem esoteric for the casual fan but is a better gauge of a hitter’s performance than simple batting average.
The first thing I noticed was the high black netting, extending all the way down the right-field line near our seats. MLB added more netting after several fans were seriously hurt, and even killed, by foul balls along the lines in recent years.
One problem, along with the increased velocity of the balls off the bat, was people’s habit of looking down at their cell phones during games. That was a problem when a baseball was whistling toward your head at harrowing speeds in the old days.
It’s understandable that people spend a lot of time looking down at their phones during a game. The games are too long. And it seems the longer it takes nowadays, the less that actually happens.
Kind of like Congress.
If you suspect there’s less action, you’re correct. Batting average is at all-time low of .237 — the same as in the Year of the Pitcher of 1968, which caused baseball to lower the mound. Strikeouts are at all-time high. Homers, though down from a record in 2019, are at steroid era-levels.
You don’t need to be a mathematician to know there are fewer singles than ever, fewer balls put in play, less of the running and throwing and fielding that pleases us old school baseball fans. Still, the games drag on.
Sunday’s game lasted 3 hours, 32 minutes. Despite rules changes to shorten the games, it’s taking longer than ever. The average time of an MLB game is 3:07, same as last year. No wonder fans are looking at their phones. It beats waiting for guys to keep stepping out of the box and wasting time at the plate.
There wasn’t a lot of drama on Sunday. Fans were ready to jeer the Astros for their sign-stealing scandal of a few years back. We made cracks about banging on garbage can lids. Someone in Section 100 yelled “Where’s your buzzer?” at Jose Altuve when he dug in for the game’s opening at-bat.
Altuve homered, which took a bit of the sting off all the fans’ razzing. There was plenty of booing during the game, but I wonder if Houston has been elevated by the hostile crowd reactions during otherwise uneventful baseball games. I think it helps them.
The Jays didn’t do much to inspire the home crowd. Vlad Guerrero Jr. had a rare bad game. Astros rookie starter Luis Garcia was terrific, holding the Jays to three hits in six innings. Garcia has won his last five starts with 1.86 earned-run average over that span.
Naturally, they took him out after he threw only 79 pitches. I realize that teams have analytics to back up all these pitching changes. I know smart baseball people who still defend what the Rays did with Blake Snell against the Dodgers in the World Series.
My god, imagine them trying to take the baseball away from Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale or Jack Morris after they’d thrown 79 pitches over six sparkling innings! Those guys would have fought the manager right there on the pitcher’s mound.
I know, this makes me sound like some old geezer who pines for the old days of baseball (at one point Sunday, I did holler “Get off my damn lawn” after one especially egregious defensive play.)
But just because you’re a boomer doesn’t make you wrong. My old friend Roger, who was a sports copy editor for several newspapers, including the New York Times, spent half the day complaining about the lack of fundamentals by today’s players.
Roger has good reason to complain. Have you noticed how often players run into each other on fly balls these days? Whatever happened to guys calling each other off, Roger whined at one point.
Later in the game, Jays second baseman Marcus Semien backpedaled for a fairly routine popup to shallow center. Or it might have been shortstop Bo Bichette. With all the shifting nowadays, it’s hard to keep track of who’s making plays around second.
Anyway, centerfielder Randal Grichuk came dashing in and, despite the infielder waving his arms to signal it was his ball, nearly ran him over. “You see what I was saying!” Roger bellowed.
It happens all the time these days, I’m telling you. Invariably, the players have a little chat as they head back to their designated positions. Do they practice this stuff in spring training, or mainly work on getting up and down from the sand traps?
Then there’s the base running. I’ve seen half a dozen base-running gaffes this season — and that’s just the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez.
What is it about catchers? Toronto’s Danny Jansen doubled to open the third. Then Marcus Semien smashed a grounder up the middle. It would have been a close play at first base, but Jansen helped the Astros by foolishly taking off for third He slid head-first into third and was summarily gunned down.
Making things worse, Jansen strained his hamstring on the play (don’t get started on the stupidity of head-first slides). Injuries are an epidemic in baseball today. If you have a fantasy team, it seems half your roster is in the injured list or nursing some minor elbow strain.
Maybe Jansen was so giddy about the double that he lost his mind. The guy is hitting .157. His catching counterpart on the Astros, Martin Maldonado, is at a robust .163. Maldonado caused an inevitable “Play Under Review” by loafing on a misplayed groundball that led to a disputed out call at first base.
Look, I hate to seem ungrateful. It’s great that Buffalo fans get to host an MLB team after all this time, and after getting shut out last summer. But when customers shell out $200 for tickets (admittedly, presale tix for a game with limited capacity), you’re hoping for a little better show.
The beer lines were nice and short, which was a bonus, and $9 a can is actually a bargain by modern-day MLB prices. But the prices reminded me why the Riches decided Buffalo couldn’t afford a big-league team when they bailed on the effort 30 years ago.
The Riches realized they had a special baseball product in Buffalo: Minor-league baseball for families at an affordable price, where the ballpark experience and the entertainment was more important than the actual game on the field.
The Bisons folks won’t say it publicly, but I’m sure they can’t wait to get their team back, to return to the simple charm of selling the minor leagues to a community that came to terms with it long ago.
It’s not the major leagues, which is what die-hard baseball fans prefer. But one thing you can say about Bisons baseball is the experience doesn’t change much. It’s comfortable and familiar, like falling into an old lounge chair at your parents’ house.
The Bisons found out long ago that you need to give people more than just baseball. Sitting there for more than three hours while fielders nearly run into each other chasing flyballs, you can see their point.
We left after the eighth inning, by the way. There was a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs on TV.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.