Baseball, You Make It Hard to Love You

(via Kevin Madden)

One afternoon last week I opened my laptop and spent way too much money on tickets to far too many spring training games and an overpriced West Palm Beach, Fla., hotel room for my upcoming baseball holiday.

And then I read the news.

A Major League Baseball investigation proved the Houston Astros blatantly cheated with elaborate sign-stealing methods during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

The penalties were severe: A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ manager, and Jeff Luhnow, their general manager, were suspended for a year; the Astros lost two years of high draft picks; and they were fined $5 million. They got to keep their 2017 World Series trophy, which New York Times columnist Joe Drape described this way: “In years to come, this might be the week this age of sports came to be known as the ‘asterisk era.’”
The penalties got worse: Jim Crane, the Astros owner, fired Hinch and Luhnow shortly thereafter, an obvious admission that the architects of Houston’s franchise turnaround were so toxic that they could never return to the team’s clubhouse.

That wasn’t all. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Hinch’s bench coach in Houston in 2017, was prominently named in the MLB investigation. If Hinch was suspended for a year and lost his job, Cora’s punishment had to be similar, if not worse. (The Red Sox, thinking their World Series-winning manager also was toxic, fired him a day later — two of baseball’s top franchises firing their managers a month before pitchers and catchers report for spring training.)

It was another dark, gloomy day for a sport that too often has dark, gloomy days that damage its reputation and make even the most committed fans wonder why they stick around.

Granted, no sport is immune from its faults. Concerns about brain injuries cloud the NFL’s future. Despite spectacular television ratings and wild popularity in the South and Midwest, national college football attendance averages have noticeably dipped. The top levels of men’s basketball in the United States — the NBA and the NCAA — are reaching crisis mode on the pro game’s age-limit rule that has essentially created the controversial “one-and-done” model for the best college players. Even U.S. gymnastics is still reeling from a devastating sex-abuse scandal.

But in the past 30 years, baseball has faced a barrage of events that undermines the game’s credibility and puts Major League Baseball at risk of losing some of the lifelong fans who reflexively defend this imperfect yet glorious game but tire of that mission.

I’m not going anywhere — except spring training, of course — but I understand. To be a baseball fan is to defend baseball, to listen to concerns about pace of play, to justify its place in today’s American society, to wonder critically why there aren’t more African-American players in the majors, to fret over the dearth of millennial baseball fans, even while admitting that the NFL behemoth has surpassed it in virtually every metric.

The Pete Rose gambling scandal in 1989 took down a remarkable player, tainted the game and remains the reason why the majors’ all-time hits leader is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The players’ strike in 1994-95 — the eighth work stoppage in major league history, and its longest — wiped out nearly half a season before canceling the 1994 World Series, an unforgivable offense. Even the highlight of the sport’s late-’90s comeback — the Mark McGwireSammy Sosa home run duel in 1998 — was eviscerated when the performing-enhancing drug scandal broke wide open in the 2000s.

What worse picture could baseball have shown the world than discovering that Sosa and McGwire’s bromance wasn’t free of PEDs; a record home-run season in 2001 was posted by a proven steroid user (Barry Bonds); and a panel of big-leaguers facing questioning about PED use in a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.?

I still get chills when recalling those 2005 hearings and the way baseball, my baseball, appeared that day. Adam Berenbak, writing in the National Archives’ Prologue magazine, described them this way:

“The most famous of these hearings, titled ‘Restoring Faith in America’s Pastime,’ occurred on March 17, 2005, when several of the game’s biggest stars were called before the House Committee on Government Reform to analyze the growing problem of players’ use of performance-enhancing drugs. The hearings involved such stars as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Curt Schilling (appearing to voice his opposition to steroid use). Although none of the players faced accusations of perjury before Congress, popular opinion suggested that few of the stories they told were believable, and the hearings fed a growing sense of outrage among fans.

“Though only a few players have ever been convicted of lying to Congress, the steroids investigations have proven to be the closest Congress has come to punishing those in baseball who didn’t live up to the high standards required of an iconic sport.”

And yet, the sun rose the next morning. Baseball has survived. And it’s thrived. Until this latest cheating scandal, the professional game has ushered in a new generation of younger, more athletic players and steadied its gait. This is the game I now cheer, the game of Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado and Bryce Harper and Aaron Judge and Francisco Lindor and so many others.

That also is the game I steadfastly defend, proudly so. But there’s always so much negativity to deflect, so many questions to answer from those who believe football is king, that basketball is the new global sport, that soccer, the other football, is destined for widespread popularity in America, so many questions about what once was the undeniable national pastime.

Baseball’s critics harp on the game’s sagging attendance, and for good reason. In November, Forbes reported that major league attendance has dropped 7.14 percent since 2015, the loss of more than 5 million fans. Fourteen of the 30 teams drew fewer fans in 2019 than they did the year before. And last season was the “first time in 15 years that total attendance dropped below 70 million,” Forbes wrote. Ticket prices obviously play a role, given that last year the average outlay for a family of four to a major league game was $234.38 for four tickets, parking, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, two beers and two souvenirs, according to Team Marketing Report’s annual tally of fan costs. And, truth be told, I still don’t know what to make of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s scatterbrained proposal to contract 42 minor league teams and redistribute prospects into a “Dream League” of unaffiliated teams. So much for growing the game’s grass roots.

Come late February, I’ll head to Florida with sunscreen and a bucket hat and think of none of this, not PEDs, not cheating, not the game’s risked reputation. Before me will be green fields and blue skies and men playing a child’s sport. All will be splendid; there will be nothing to defend, not then, not there. But baseball makes it hard sometimes, if not often.


Phillip Tutor is a newspaper columnist in Anniston, Alabama. He blogs about baseball at On Twitter: @ThePhillipTutor
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4 years ago

Could not agree more. As a fan who lives in a minor league town, I can’t understand wanting to get rid of my team.

4 years ago
Reply to  rlw42619

Manfred was told to save the owners money if they were going to have to increase minor league wages (which they are).

Marc Schneider
4 years ago

Baseball obviously has a lot of problems as do most of our institutions. The game itself, I think, needs some significant tinkering. But it always amazes me how baseball fans trash the sport in a way that football or basketball fans never trash theirs. Complaints about the price of attending a game seem ridiculous. Let’s take a family of four to a movie-4 tickets:$60; popcorn for 4:probably $30; drinks: another $30; hot dogs? probably not. Ok, so probably parking is not an issue at suburban malls. And, there are no souvenirs to buy at movies. But, frankly, baseball is, in comparison, not much more expensive than other entertainments; and that’s not even to mention other sports, where the tickets are far more expensive. I understand it’s difficult for a lot of families to attend games, but that’s true of all sports and of a lot of things in the Age of Inequality. I find it silly to call out baseball as the only form or entertainment that’s expensive.