The Ozzie Smith Generation vs. the Mark McGwire Generation

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The Ozzie Smith Generation vs. the Mark McGwire Generation

hollymccaigdesigns / FlickrI've been on this earth for 24 years.

All things considered, that's not too long.  But in the world of baseball—a game that
changes with regularity—it seems like ages.

The players of my early childhood are distant memories.  The players of my adolescence seem more vivid, but still light years away.  Even 1998 seems like a helluva long time ago when I really think about it.  

In my 24 years of life, I've spent 18 as a "true" baseball fan. Call me crazy, but I don't think that at age three you're old enough to really appreciate everything the game has to offer.  That process starts around age five and a half, reaches new heights in your teens, and peeks whenever your obsession with the game gets so out of control that it becomes the focal point of your life.

For me, it wasn't until high school that following baseball turned from hobby to obsession.  Those were fun times.  While my other friends were playing sports or participating in other "extracurricular activities" to get them into college, I opted for Glavine painting the outside corner, or Big Mac smashing little white balls out of the Milky Way.

I might have taken the occasional break to do some homework, but watching those games (and of course, Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter) was priority numero uno.  My parents worried that I wasn't trying hard enough in school; my friends made fun of me for being such a huge dork.

As for my girlfriend—well, I never had one.

Tony Gwynn was my first true love.

Those were great times because I was old enough to watch and analyze the game of baseball with a legitimate understanding of what it all meant.  I had matured to the point where I realized how the history of the game was intrinsically linked to the matchup on my 15-inch Panasonic Television, and I took the initiative to educate myself about the players and teams that came before my time.

Perhaps most importantly, I wasn't yet bogged down with the responsibilities of
the real world, so I had enough free time to actually fit it all into my schedule.  

That being said, there will always be something about my early childhood memories of
the game that will stick with me forever.

Sure, I didn't crunch numbers and stuff my face into a baseball encyclopedia like I would later in my teenage years, but I collected baseball cards (namely those '88-'91 Topps cards that are as worthless now as they were then) and watched games with regularity, fascinated by how these gods among men could put on the show of a lifetime with their gloves and bats.

Both periods in my life were unique in their own right, and beautiful in their own way.
As I see it now, I've been a fan of the game for 18 years, and have been lucky enough to witness two generations of quality baseball.

I draw the distinction between the two generations less as a rigid, inflexible line and more as a transitional gap.  This gap falls somewhere between 1993 and 1995.  The game began to change dramatically during that time—and when the new millennium rolled around, baseball looked nothing like it did ten years before.

I was thinking the other day about how crucial it would be to communicate the nature of this change to my children.  While the glass-half-empty types will describe it as a product of steroids, I'll probably opt instead for the "when offense gotz busy" explanation.

That's the crux of what separates the two generations: the lack of offensive production
and power in the first generation, and its sudden emergence in the second.

Of course, there are other things that separate the generations:  Brightly colored uniforms as opposed to more modest tones;  cocaine rather than steroids as the drug of choice; the routine "shortstop-jumping-over-the-runner-sliding-into-second," instead of merely stepping aside before making the double-play throw to first.

IconBut let's cut through the bullshit here: The real difference between Major League Baseball in 1990 and 2000 was a gross disparity in the offense/defense balance.

In 1990, hitting 40 homers was quite a feat.  By the year 2000, Sosa and Mark McGwire had each smashed Roger Maris' home run record to pieces.  After Barry Bonds got into the action the following year, 61 was but a distant memory.

Consider the following: Major league hitters whacked 3,317 balls into the stands in 1990.  By 2000, that number had nearly doubled to a total of 6,002 dingers.  

Or try this on for size: In 1990, the ERA in the national league was 3.79.  By 2000, it had risen to 4.63.

To summarize—between 1990 and 2000, hitting got a lot better, while pitching and defense got a lot worse.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the star players of the previous generation tend to be more-well rounded than those of the latter generation.  After all, if your players are already hitting so many bombs, why mess up the formula with a squeeze play?

Before I was a teenager, guys could run, steal, bunt, field, and throw. 

Now?

They can hit...and sometimes they can walk.  And that's about all.

Not literally.  I'm not trying to argue that Scott Rolen can't field, or that Carl Crawford can't run.  For that matter, it's not like Andre Dawson couldn't hit for power.

But if generalizations must be made, I think everyone can agree that players before 1993 focused on playing a more balanced game of baseball, where as players after 1995 were concerned primarily with hitting.         

Certain players defined each of these time periods. Two in particular embody—in exaggerated form—the characteristics of their peers.
 
From here on out, I'll refer to the first generation as the Ozzie Smith generation, and the second as the Mark McGwire generation.

Ozzie Smith played a style of baseball that emphasized speed, defense, and
teamwork.  During Smith's time, you could weigh 150 pounds and still be awesome—which is why the Wizard of Oz was a 15-time all-star.

Mark McGwire defines the second generation because he epitomizes the shift from balanced to offensive baseball.  Speed and defense became irrelevant; power and on-base percentage meant everything. Pitching hit the bricks while
home run totals skyrocketed and fans emptied their wallets to see record-breaking, tape-measure shots.

In Mark McGwire's generation, good (but not great) players like Albert Belle and Greg
Vaughn could hit 50 homers in a season; in Ozzie Smith's generation, it was not only
possible but likely that at least one player would steal 80 bases in a given year.

McGwire's generation offered sticks but also stones—in the form of 6'3", 200+ pound
sluggers who lifted weights every day.  Smith's generation touted mostly sticks—like Willie McGee and Walt Weiss—who wouldn't be caught dead doing a bench press.

Given my age, I've watched more baseball in McGwire's generation than in Smith's.  But when I tell my kids about the legends of the game I've seen in person, I'd never dare to leave Ozzie and his ilk out of the equation.

To be clear, I really only caught the end of the Ozzie Smith generation—say from 1988
to 1992.  But while I may have only been seven years old when Nolan Ryan struck out
Rickey Henderson for his 5,000th career K, and nine years old when Rickey broke Lou
Brock's stolen base record two years later, those are vivid childhood memories that I'll
never forget...and couldn't in good faith hide from my children.

Besides, let's be honest here: The baseball played in the Ozzie Smith generation was more fun, wasn't it?

What's more entertaining: Watching a patient Brett Butler lay down a sacrifice bunt, or a suspiciously muscular Luis Gonzalez whack a juiced ball out of the park?  Watching Tony Gwynn wait on an opposite-field single, or watching Jason Giambi walk to first base?

Bill James may have proven that the strategies utilized in McGwire's generation are more conducive to winning, but that doesn't mean they're entertaining.  Smith's generation had a balance of ability that was quite absent by 1996. 

Then again, tape-measure home runs and falling records are exciting in their own  right—and there were a whole lot more of those in Big Mac's generation.

Either way, we've got two generations of baseball at work here: the Ozzie Smith
Generation (from 1980 and 1992) and the Mark McGwire
Generation (from 1996 to the present). 

As mentioned previously, 1993 to 1995 was a transition period in which the way the game was played began to change drastically.

And now, finally, the question implicit in all this nostalgia: What does it all mean?

It means that baseball has changed.  It means that, for better or worse, baseball is
different now than it was 15 years ago.

It means that all you baseball freaks and fanatics, amongst other things, have the
privilege—or, more accurately, the responsibility—of explaining those changes to your
children and grandchildren.

Tell them about what it was like to watch Ozzie Smith in 1988, and how that stacks up
to McGwire breaking the home run record ten years later.  Tell them about the surge in dongs, the steroid investigation, and how Barry Bonds walked to first base a record 232 times in 2004.  

Talk about guys like Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, who played during both generations.
Convey to them what it was like to see those players as artifacts of the old game when the new game was in full swing.  Share with them how you felt when Ripken and Gwynn got into the Hall of Fame while the country turned its back on Big Mac.

In the words of Graham Nash: "Teach your children well."

Because if you don't compare Trammell to A-Rod, Murray to Thome, and Gooden to
Schilling…who will?

Thanks for reading—tune in next time to catch the Major League ballplayers I've
pledged to tell my kids about.   

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