Here we are, wrapping up January, and we are just now beginning to feel winters stinging winds and isolating cold. For the baseball fan it is normally a time of longing, when we count in months rather than days to the start of the next season. When the economists of the game compulsively watch their twitter feeds and endlessly speculate who will be wearing what jersey next year. Yet we are mere weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for duty, and suddenly it’s not so strange to hear the pop of the mitt or the crack of a bat, and we’re just now starting to remember that “winter” is still here.
This past year gave us plenty to enjoy, including one of the most exciting postseasons (at least in the American League) in recent memory. It saw the resurgence of a long broken franchise in Houston, a nostalgic (near eery) run in Chicago’s north side, probably the most memorable inning in this decade in Arlington, and ultimately, a champion in Kansas City that defied convention and stayed true to themselves. It saw the continuing story lines of rebuilding in Atlanta, heartbreak in Pittsburg, and disappointment in Washington. The theme over the last few years has really been inclusion. While dominance has been had in some cases (San Francisco, St. Louis), we’ve seen teams suddenly become relevant (Toronto, Minnesota, New York Mets) and begin to give fading fan bases hope, if not now, then in the near future.
Now I look ahead to this year with great optimism. There is suddenly a murmur of hope, that the game can grow again into a game that we all can stand behind, and be proud of. To scream for victory and cry in defeat as a country. This is my wish list for things i’d love to see this upcoming season…
The End of a title drought (But NOT the Cubs)
Last year, hoverboards weren’t the only prophetic vision nearly come true from the movie “Back To the Future” in 2015. The Chicago Cubs, with possibly the most impressive core of young players (now only made better by addition Jason Heyward) were making a strong case for themselves to fufill their Marty McFly induced prophecy and win the World Series, their first title in nearly a century (1908). Unfortunately, they fell short in the Championship series, when they met the unstoppable New York Mets (who fell short of the Royals epic run). This year, the smell of championship baseball is in the air on the South Side of Chicago… but smells can be decieving, because while I would love to see a title drought broken, this story just doesn’t have enough spice yet. America got behind the Red Sox in 2004, because their seemingly endless montage of heart breaking baseball over the century made the payoff so much more satisfying (helped coming back from 0-3 to the Yanks, of course). The Cubs haven’t even visited the fall classic since 1945, and with such a young roster, they will have plenty of chances, but I think they need to get there and lose before the drama truly reaches its payoff. Strong contenders would be the Blue Jays (1993), Astros (Never), Rangers (Never), or the Pirates (1979).
I think anyone who followed the playoffs this past season sat mesmerized the most dramatic single inning of postseason baseball in the modern era unfold in Toronto, when the Rangers (more accurately, Elvis Andrus) committed a slew of errors to put the Blue Jays in position to tie the game. Their best slugger to the plate in Jose Bautista…. and then this.
I love it. The batflip to end all batflips, and at probably the most intense moment baseball had seen (to that point) in the season. There are few expressions of triumph in baseball that draw such emotion as the simple celebratory flick of the wrist while holding a bat, and it needs to happen more often. The game is getting younger, more diverse, and more exciting, and it’s good to have the players reflect that. Of course, there’s something classy about a player that puts his head down, jogs the bases, and quietly high fives his teammates in the dugout, but we shouldn’t be so quick to shun those who decide to take the showmanship route. It’s less antagonistic than an end zone dance, more exciting than a fist pump after making a put, and less ridiculous than a shriek on the tennis court. Observe games in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, anywhere in Central America, this is the norm, and no one seems to care. I believe there is, in fact, a way to celebrate personality in this game without being ridiculous, and I don’t think an epic bat flip from time to time is doing anything wrong.
The Return of Small Ball
The sacrifice bunt, the hit and run, suicide squeeze, and the double steal. Remember these? There are few alive even that remember when these tactics were simply part of the game. For a pastoral, leisurely paced game, the pace was blinding and the excitement was palpable. It seemed undoable in the modern era of high home run totals and big contracts, but the Kansas City Royals brought it back, and took the World Series with it. With inflation in the free agent market seemingly spiraling out of control (especially with pitchers), teams will have to get more inventive in how they approach building their rosters, and this writer in particular hopes that means that rather than stacking lineups with strikeout-prone bludgeon ball players, the old-school Negro League tactics will make a much needed comeback, and the pace of the game will begin to match the pace of our lives, making it that much more accessible and exciting for the next generation of fans.
The game continues to impress, surprise, shock, and grow. It’s a beautiful thing really, and as it does all of these things, it brings more people to it. Those that wrote it off as boring, walked away because of steroids, or just simply lost interest are trickling back to America’s past time. Something the nation can celebrate and get behind, and here’s to hoping that 2016 only continues that trend.