There’s not a lot about how baseball goes about its business that makes sense to me. Their blackout policies might make sense on some level most of us couldn’t possibly see, but it leads to terrible press, and there just has to be a way to make more games available to more people for the same (or more) money. The policy prohibiting the free publicity for their product that comes from unofficial videos on YouTube makes much less sense than that. A more thorough, efficient instant replay system is years overdue.
Even more than those things, though, I find myself confused by the issues MLB, and the people covering it, decides to emphasize (or not). It reminds me a bit of the American news media, and its habit of sensationalizing and harping on certain stories — many of which don’t amount to anything — while largely ignoring other, more important ones. Here’s a bit about the former that’s kind of like the latter:
The media and fans still completely lose their minds over the whole PED thing, which, a few years down the road, might look awfully silly. Remember when we all freaked out over computer systems not reflecting the date properly when the year 2000 rolled around? It seems a bit like that.
Remember what a huge freaking deal the media made out of the “Y2K virus,” or the “Year 2000 bug,” or some combination of those words? Older computer systems (and still older, non-computerized data-keeping systems) weren’t built with any thought that they might still be around in in the year 2000, so they used two digits to indicate the year, and there was a real, legitimate fear that a lot of them might reset to 1900 when the new year rolled around, wreaking havoc on the world’s financial institutions, among other things. Companies spent millions on Y2K preparation, though, and whether because of the preparation or because the whole problem was wildly overblown (very likely both, I’d think), while there may have been some real problems caused by Y2K, very few were reported, and none were catastrophic. At least from the outside, the “Y2K bug” ended up looking like a phony scare, invented (or at least seriously exaggerated) by a sensationalist media.
Years after baseball finally acknowledged the steroids “issue” and took steps to curtail it, it remains probably the biggest single story in the game — at least among casual fans and non-fans — and continues to be widely viewed as a giant black mark on the game. Still, there remains no evidence that drugs exist that can actually enhance a baseball player’s performance. We have no idea what, if anything, these drugs do for a player. There’s plenty of evidence that offense jumped up in 1993/94 and then climbed slowly through the early 2000s, of course, but that’s a different thing, and the math just doesn’t add up. To ascribe those changes solely or even primarily to the effects of steroids, you’d have to argue that everyone juiced up all at once in about 1993 (which we know isn’t true; PED use was rampant by the mid-to-late 1980s, and had been available for years before then), and then got off the juice just before 2010, years after Selig supposedly cleaned up the game and instituted serious testing. Or: you can acknowledge that there were probably a large number of other factors driving scoring up in those years — just like in the 1930s, and the 1950s — and that PEDs had very little, if anything, to do with it. And while you’re at it, you can acknowledge that even if they did have some effect, there’s no way of knowing who was “clean” and who was “dirty” — that’s all based on narrative and misconceptions regarding the physical effects of PEDs — and there’s no sense in punishing guys who were either (a) bad at not getting caught or (b) better than everybody else at hitting baseballs, when the whole sport was essentially “dirty.”
It’s all just right there staring us in the face, and I think people have to realize it eventually. One of these days, people will start to come around to the fact that PEDs in baseball were essentially a non-issue, and that we’ve all been exceptionally silly about all this, like the people who hid in their basements on New Year’s 2000 and waited for the end of the world.
(If this all sounds a little too familiar to you, you’ve probably been paying a bit too much attention to me: I used the Y2K comparison in a somewhat similar (but different) context in January. I can’t stay away, apparently.)
This issue with Ubaldo Jimenez and the Rockies is a bad, ugly deal, but I wonder if people aren’t jumping to conclusions and overreacting just a little bit. Which reminds me a little of the time some terrorists got their hands on some white powder and made us all terrified of our mailboxes…
If you remember Y2K, you certainly also remember the anthrax scare in the aftermath of 9/11. Starting about a week after that tragedy, political figures and media offices started receiving letters containing anthrax spores, contact with which ultimately killed five people and injured seventeen others. And, look — that’s a big deal. If you’d been one of the five or one of their family members, it’d be about as big a deal as there can be. But that handful of letters, for a period of several weeks, had almost all of the US literally terrified. It was like people really thought that because it had apparently happened to NBC News, they’d show up at their factory jobs in Cleveland and open a piece of mail and boom, anthrax. There were only ever a handful of confirmed anthrax letters, but the fear they caused set off dozens, or hundreds, of hoaxes, any kind of innocuous white powder you can name tossed in an envelope to ruin some organization’s day. It’s the same kind of mental paralysis and overreaction that some might argue led to everything from the drastically increased security at airports to the PATRIOT Act to the war in Iraq. Anthrax is a legitimately really scary thing, and those incidents that did occur were terrible, but in retrospect, the media’s handling of it and the way we all sat on the edge of our seats was probably a bit overboard. We weren’t thinking clearly, didn’t have all the information, and probably overreacted.
That’s what I think is true about this situation with Ubaldo Jimenez plunking his former teammate, Troy Tulowitzki. I’m about as firmly opposed as anyone you might find to the phony baseball honor culture of threatening or causing serious physical harm to a fellow professional athlete as recompense for some real or imagined slight, and if we knew for a fact that that’s what Jimenez was doing, I’d argue his five-game suspension is much too light. But we don’t know that. While the narrative certainly fits, the umpire on the field didn’t see or hear enough to eject Jimenez, who noted that he had been having issues with his command in that game — and I’d do him one better and point out that his command has kind of been coming and going at will since early 2011. And Jimenez almost immediately started yelling at and challenging Tulowitzki…but not until after Tulowitzki had already yelled at him first, and who knows what Tulo had to say? It certainly could be that the HBP was unintentional, and that whatever Tulo said to Jimenez (along with his own struggles) set him off. That seems to be how the presiding ump saw it, and I doubt anyone was in a better position to judge than he was.
It’s not by any means something that should be ignored — this practice of sending messages by intentionally hitting batters was silly and antiquated decades ago, and whatever can reasonably be done to make that nonsense die a quick death would be welcomed by me. But I’m seeing a lot of harsh criticism of Ubaldo that I don’t think is necessarily justified. You can’t just assume the worst and jump to conclusions, because that’s what gave us the anthrax scare, and that sucked hard.
While baseball worries about stuff like the above, players keep getting drunk and getting behind the wheels of cars, and nobody in a position of power seems to notice or care. That’s kind of like how everyone ignored the lead-up to the banking crisis of 2008.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from those huge overblown stories was the way, in the mid-2000s, that banks kept giving loans to anyone who asked (or suggested or looked at them funny or sneezed), and were a mess of regulations-ignoring and conflicts of interest, and nobody noticed. Then of course everything blew up, and it set off a global recession. Innocent people out of jobs, innocent people out of their homes, all that stuff.
Nothing in baseball is as serious as the economic crisis that has been so damaging to so many lives (or, for that matter, the anthrax scare, or what could have happened in the Y2K scare). But the one story that I think is the ugliest and most legitimately worrisome in or around baseball is the DUI epidemic among players (and sometimes managers). This spring alone, five players have been charged with driving under the influence (see a list going back to 2004 here, and add Braves reliever Christhian Martinez from just yesterday). On one hand, of course, an employer can’t control what its employees do at all hours of the day. On the other hand, it’s become enough of a recurring issue that it seems fair to wonder whether something in clubhouse culture is encouraging it. And if not, the league and teams seem perfectly happy to tell players how to behave on their own time in other contexts — on social media, for instance — so why stay silent on this issue? It’s not baseball’s legal responsibility to do anything about it unless it actually happens on their watch or they do something to facilitate or encourage it (and, in fact, failing that, they might be severely limited in what they can legally do about it), but they sure as hell ought to take a stand against it.
A guy who shoots himself with a steroid breaks a law, and might arguably make himself a bit better at baseball than the unknown others who decide not to shoot themselves with similar substances. On the other hand, a guy who gets hammered and climbs behind the wheel puts real human lives at risk, including but obviously not limited to his own. This is, or ought to be, a lot more embarrassing to the sport than the whole PED nonsense, and baseball has ignored it almost completely. They’re refusing to address the real-world problem, much the same way we all ignored the excesses and recklessness of lenders. The fallout won’t be nearly the same for MLB as it was for our global economy, but it sure is starting to get ugly.