In this piece, Jon Grilz responds to Frank Zachary's article "Killing Tony (and Baseball) Softly."
"When I was a boy I used to walk in the snow 40 miles, uphill, both ways, just to watch Hank Aaron play. You whipper-snappers don't appreciate anything!"
Enough of that.
Where are our priorities when it comes to baseball? Are we simply lemmings that stampede our way into stadiums (and the waterways behind them) solely for the opportunity to see or catch another home run, and probably try to sell it on eBay? Maybe. What is to become of the next generation of baseball fans if we are bombarded by home runs, on-base percentages, and slugging percentages? Will we forget to appreciate a .350 batting average? I wouldn't be surprised. It doesn't bother me, either. Times change and so do we.
On July 11, 1914 a man, the likes of which baseball fans had never seen, stepped onto the field for the first time. Back then, the game was simple: hit the ball and run it out. Home runs were a freak occurrence. Babe Ruth made them a reality. Don't let that statement, or the movies, fool you. It wasn't until Ruth's fifth season with Boston that he hit double digit home runs (11). He didn't hit less than 22 home runs again until his final year.
Thanks to Barry Bonds, more and more people know that Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career, now 3rd all-time. But how many people know that his lifetime batting average was .342? His 1330 strikeouts show what he was aiming for, but does that make his batting average irrelevant? Even in the days when the game was played one single at a time people focused on his home runs. Priorities change not only with the time, but also with the player.
Turn on SportsCenter at any given time and you will either be reading about who-hit-how-many-home runs on the ticker at the bottom of the screen, or you will see the longball clips with a catchy tagline or witty remark. Is there anything wrong with that? I have nothing but respect for a player's batting average - go Joe Mauer! - but I don't really care about watching each single he hits.
Home runs are entertaining just like deep passes in football. Does that make the fullback or tight end that go for the short-yardage first down any less important? No - he's underappreciated maybe, but he's not irrelevant. Power displays make baseball interesting to fans and non-fans alike. I find golf boring, but a hole-in-one is still pretty impressive.
Will the next generation know or even care who Tony Gwynn was? Padres fans will. People who saw him play will. The rest will probably be few and far between. There will be more great players in the next 20 years. That doesn't mean that Gwynn's .338 lifetime batting average was worthless. And just because you don't win a World Series doesn't make you less of a player (you listening to this Yankees?). Times change.
Warning: if someday you are playing bar trivia and the guy next to you doesn't know who hit .372 in 1997, don't be that guy that curses under his breath. Instead, simply shut up and finish your happy hour chicken wings. Don't blow your lid, it's just a stat.
I never saw Ty Cobb play, and I had to look up his stats (4189 career hits and a lifetime BA of .366). Does that change anything? Should we love him more because he was a drunk that probably saw three balls every time the pitcher released the ball - I mean, that's real talent!
How many people watched Kirby Puckett in anything other than a chance matchup against their home team or the 1987 and 1991 World Series? Will my kids know who he was? I'll tell them about him, and they may or may not care. It's not my responsibility to tell them how to appreciate the game or whether to appreciate it at all. Believe it or not, a lot of people think that baseball is boring. And that's fine. I think that basketball is the definition of repetitive stress disorder, but that's just me.
Then there is the existence of steroids in baseball. The plague that taints our national pastime (people still call baseball our national pastime, right?)! What are we supposed to do about it? Test them, ban them, call them dirty names and scowl behind their backs while wagging our finger in disappointment? Perhaps if we ignore them they will go away. Think that will work?
I make no secret of it; I don't like Barry Bonds, but I HATE hearing about him. "Is he on steroids? Oh my God, do you think that a professional athlete would do something illegal?" I miss Darryl Strawberry.
Watch your favorite athletes, cheer for them, and support them through their best and worst times. When people ask who your favorite team or player is, answer without elaborating, unless they ask. Occasionally tell your kids about your favorite sports memories.
I still remember where I was when Kirby Puckett hit the game winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. My kids won't care. Show your kids that there is a long and proud tradition of baseball that existed before and through Game of Shadows. Let them decide why, or if, they want to love the game.
And if we are lucky, the next generation will love baseball as much as we do. But here's a little hint: freaking out because baseball isn't watched for the reasons you prefer... well, that's just sad.