A lot of hot air has been expelled recently with regards to MLB players’ behavior.
Hanley Ramirez was benched for an impressive combination of clumsiness and laziness in fielding a hit.
Milton Bradley, in addition to his very successful board game franchise, continues to have very public, shall we say, issues.
Ken Griffey, Jr. allegedly fell asleep in the clubhouse.
Lastings Milledge was tagged out while jogging on his home run trot. For a double.
If these sorts of lapses were just one-offs, they would exist as YouTube clips and nothing more. Sadly, they are both frequent and nothing new.
In addition to the many (founded) gripes about the length of games and abuse of performance enhancing drugs, one more thing has been on the decline in professional baseball: fundamentals.
The decline of basic baseball skills (and the accompanying focus and competitive spirit that accompany them) in baseball has been an ongoing process. Watching baseball growing up, I noticed a number of things the pros did differently than what I was coached to do.
Batters were moving the bat while waiting for a pitch to be delivered. They were letting go of the bat with one hand on their follow-through. After making contact, batters were watching the ball instead of running out their hit.
Defense was not nearly as bad, but still unimpressive at times.
I saw players making underhand basket catches instead of positioning themselves under the ball for the catch. They jogged after fly balls that dropped before they could catch them, rather than running them down to avoid giving up bases and runs.
This grew noticeably worse during the steroids era. I'd see gigantic sluggers like Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder and be confused as to what constituted an athlete. It was unfathomable to me that any team would want a batter who was subtracting at least one base per hit just because he couldn't be bothered to eat healthy and work out anywhere outside of the weight room. The same batter was inevitably a defensive liability due to his lack of mobility.
Baseball in the 1990s and 2000s was more like watching a home run derby than actually baseball.
And I guess now we know why.
Unfortunately, the side effect of this style of play is the quality of play (and players) we see now.
The pitching, defense and situational hitting we are seeing currently is a phenomenon born of a reduction in power hitting and seeing this style of play succeed on the world stage, as well as in smaller markets within the MLB (think Tampa Bay).
But even with this push for fundamentally sound baseball and scrappy run-scoring, we still see remnants of baseball's old guard.
True athletes are still quite rare.
I find this to be one of the strangest things about baseball. In any other sport, a combination of speed, agility and strength are basically required in top athletes. In baseball, this is only the case in the aforementioned small markets.
Baseball players have no apparent focus on anything other than weight training in most cases. As a result, you have players like Johnny Damon who are considered fielding liabilities. You also see more injuries due to pulled muscles, which is not coincidental.
So instead of high-quality baseball that includes strategy and electric play, what we see in most games is basically a series of stall tactics and examples of what we want our kids to avoid doing in Little League.
Imagine a team of 8-year-old boys that played like the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry plays out. At 15 minutes per at bat, the entire outfield would be snoozing. Not to mention, watching a bunch of children make a ritual out of stepping into the batter's box or throwing a single pitch would be a tad on the creepy side.
Unfortunately, if this were the case in Little League, it would be the product of what kids are seeing in their MLB role models.
Personally, I haven't seen a baseball player as a hero since noticing that none of them played with the fundamentals in mind. Individual achievements have impressed me, and continue to.
There are definitely a few good apples out there who are rarely injured and don't make bone-headed mistakes due to mental lapses.
But in terms of overall play, the league is more like Hanley Ramirez than Ichiro Suzuki.
Until players (and coaching staffs) make it a focus to ensure that their players are athletically finely-tuned machines and play fundamentally sound baseball to avoid costing their teams runs and outs, the quality of the game will continue to suffer.
Silly, preventable injuries will persist in altering our fantasy rosters. We will continue to see the lack of focus that results from a corresponding lack of routine.
This is not likely to change until a greater focus is made from Little League and up to require these things of baseball players.
In professional baseball, as fans, we should expect and require the highest level of play night-in and night-out. And in a culture of individuals that assumed it was better to juice than to work hard for success, regardless of health risks, I suppose it makes sense that we don't.
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