Requiem for a Game

Alexander Pope wrote once that “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Apparently, he forgot to tell sports fans.

It’s no longer enough for the focus of these fans’ passion to excel; now they must do it all the time. They must never err, especially should in erring they cost their team/club/franchise a run/goal/basket/point and ultimately, a win or loss.

But it’s always okay. Because if your team has somebody who isn’t living up to his/her expectations, s/he can just warm the bench until they get it all together.

At least, that’s what we’ve always believed.

Tuesday morning, the Boston Globe published a marvelous piece written by Tony Massarotti, who – as members of the over-burdened and over-criticized media in this sport-obsessed hamlet go – is one of the most straightforward writers this town has ever seen. He wrote about a subject that’s been beaten fairly to death in these parts lately – the plight of the never-ending, but soon-to-end Boston Red Sox season.

He, like anybody else with a pen, paper or Red Sox license plate frame, re-enters the overdone conversation about how ratings have dropped, and points a finger at anyone still blaming injuries for the team’s demise. But unlike those who wear the pink hats, belt out their best inebriated rendition of Sweet Caroline even though it’s Monday night and the Sox aren’t coming back from 8 runs down to the Indians, and whine ad nauseum when they sober up, Mazz doesn’t stop there.

He does what fans are either overly excited about or completely afraid to do. He looks forward. And if the Red Sox are bad this year, just wait until next year, he says.

The outfield, of course, will feature another-year-older Mike Cameron and a Jacoby Ellsbury who might be afraid to dive for balls – but really, that’s no matter, because Ryan Kalish and/or Darnell McDonald can step in in their stead.

The infield will feature Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis on the right. Marco Scutaro will likely still be at short, but if it’s a bit overbearing to just assume that Adrian Beltre will re-sign with the Sox for four or five years at around $15 million a year, then it’s downright silly to assume he’ll take the $5 million option he has pending for 2011.

We don’t know if Victor Martinez will be behind the plate, or if David Ortiz will continue to torment the Red Sox’ opponents’ pitching. It’s reasonable to believe, above all other things, that at least one of Beltre, Martinez or Ortiz is not coming back next year. That’s not to say it can’t happen.

The Red Sox could look very different next year without Ortiz or Beltre in the lineup.

Ortiz is owed $12.5 million on a club option held by the Sox for 2011. Theo could renegotiate this contract and extend Ortiz to the tune of something like three years for $20 million. That would save the team somewhere around five million on Ortiz alone.

Mike Lowell’s $12 million salary is coming off the books this year, as the oft-disgruntled first baseman has said numerous times that he plans to retire. So far, the Sox have $17 million that they didn’t have this year.

Likewise for Jason Varitek, who could still make a fashionable switch-hitting DH for a lot of teams, but likely wouldn’t do that with the Red Sox, and likely wouldn’t play elsewhere, either. The Captain, it’s fairly safe to assume, will also hang up the cleats.

Another long-tenured member of the team likely to join the retirement platoon is Tim Wakefield. Wake is only owed $1.5 million in 2011 on the contract extension he signed with the Sox last year, but if he leaves, the gain in salary will be off-set by Daisuke Matsuzaka’s gain of $2 million entering the second-to-last-year of his contract.

Hideki Okajima’s $2.75 million salary will come off the books, and it stands to reason that he may be replaced straight-up by a returning Junichi Tazawa, should the young gun have a successful return from rehabbing after Tommy John surgery.

At this point, things seem rosy for the Sox. But that’s far from the case, and here’s why.

Although it seems to fans like closer Jonathan Papelbon has struggled, he’s actually had one of his best statistical seasons. Heading into arbitration, that will only help his case – he earned $12 million this year, and he’ll probably get that and then some again next year. And don’t think the Red Sox don’t want him back. They do.

Two other volatile names are up for arbitration: Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz. Expect the front office to try to extend both before going to arbitration, because Bard will command around $10 million and Buchholz would command John Lackey money (about $16 million on a one-year deal).

That still doesn’t address the contract situations of Bill Hall, McDonald, Kalish, Daniel Nava, Jed Lowrie, Felix Doubront and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, among others.

Back to Mazz’s article. The Red Sox have hardly lost money this year, but they’re not nearly as well-positioned financially heading into the offseason as they have been in years past. Fans who have been turned off by the franchise’s unwillingness to make a big deadline deal are going to be in for a long summer, because even though names like Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta and Toronto’s Scott Downs are out there, Boston doesn’t really have the money to go after them.

***

This is bigger than the Red Sox, though.

In an age where icons aren’t affiliated with teams (see: Williams, Ted; Mantle, Mickie; Clemente, Roberto) as much as they are their own, oft-inflated statistical achievements (see: Bonds, Barry; Clemens, Roger; Ramirez, Manny), winning becomes a lot more personal for athletes while fans’ attachments to their teams slowly wanes.

The Red Sox’ ratings drop on NESN exemplifies that: gone are the days of the Idiots, when those who didn’t even like baseball would watch a game to see what crazy thing Manny might do, or at least to get an inside scoop about which bar Millar, Mientiewicz and friends might make their presence felt at after the game.

If people want to be entertained, there are 3-D IMAX theatres, video games that actually respond to their movements and, of course, Chat Roulette. They don’t need baseball to get them through the long summer months anymore.

Maybe it is the Red Sox. Maybe it was predetermined when Theo admitted that it was a bridge year and said that he was going to build a team focused on preventing runs and not scoring them. Maybe it was the 20-20 start.

But the reason Fenway continues to sell out and the pink hats continue to come back – unabashedly, at this point – is simple. Of all the sports out there, baseball’s the one that still has longevity with people. The premise – throw, hit and catch – is simple. But what’s more important in a here-today, gone-in-five-minutes society is that, of all the major professional sports, baseball is the one where you can obtain both instant gratification and long-term security.

It is, as pastimes go, something the federal government is beyond envious of.

Theo Epstein's "bridge year" prophecy has become a reality due to a glut of injuries and a weak bankroll in 2010.

Football, Basketball and Hockey all have salary caps – and all might not be playing next year. The big word that comes up whenever the salary cap is brought to question is parity. And it’s an appropriate word – the NHL hasn’t had repeat champions in twelve years, the NFL hasn’t had back-to-back winners in six years and the NBA…well, you know.

Because of the juniors system, hockey teams are able to sustain and predict success over longer periods. But basketball and football don’t have that luxury – if anyone argues to you that the NBA D-League is a legitimate minor league and not just a clever marketing ploy, they’re crazy – and as a result, the teams that win are the ones that operate best within their respective league’s structures: scout and draft well, make low-risk trades for good system players and keep your stars happy (if you’re scoring at home, this is what made the New England Patriots good ten years ago. It also seems to be what might be the death of them. Vice-versa for their basketball counterparts).

The point is, it doesn’t matter how much money a football, basketball or hockey ownership team has. Sure, they can build new stadiums and appease the fan base, but they can’t give Alexander Ovechkin or Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning $27.5 million a year like the Yankees can give Alex Rodriguez (hold your breath on the Manning thing if you’d like; he might come close).

Baseball owners can do that. And in the big markets, they happily do. The Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets and Phillies have led the league in salaries for almost the entire last decade. And there’s a reason.

Ticket Prices.

No team makes enough money to float their business on the sale of merchandise alone. They make close to 90% of their profits on ticket sales – teams like the Yankees, Mets, Braves, Cubs and Red Sox that have their own television networks make a substantial profit from the sale of TV ad space, and rightly so. But ticket sales are what drive revenue, and the more over-priced tickets a team can sell in one year, the better their chances of landing marquee free agent X in the offseason ahead, thereby generating more interest, justifying another price bump and so on.

But baseball’s starting to struggle. As prices increase amidst a recession, there are less and less consumers to gobble up the tickets. And the businesses which companies rely on to buy the really expensive seats are leaving teams in the dark – Yankee Stadium saw it last year; Citi Field, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are seeing it this year.

And if it continues, baseball’s going to start bleeding money the way that the NBA has been over the past few years. Not at the same rates, and not nearly in the same volume, but the baseball ship will start to spring leaks.

This isn’t about money. This isn’t a cry for fans to stop or start snatching up tickets to keep their team’s hopes for the next decade afloat.

This is bigger than baseball.

***

This is about the American Dream.

While this particular writer doesn’t think that baseball is still America’s pastime, and feels so strongly about it that he once wrote a twenty-page reaction paper stating that football was the new pastime, there’s no denying the Field of Dreams sensation that is subconsciously tied to seeing a baseball field or going to a ballpark.

It’s like Fitzgerald wrote at the close of The Great Gatsby:

for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Baseball, for all its flaws, has always provided the fan with the ability to wonder. It has long been a game of possibility, but in the past fifteen years, has slowly started to become impossible.

The simple game, one of throwing, catching and hitting, started to develop limits. Roger Clemens showed up and, along with Cal Ripken, The Wizard and a few other stars, baseball had reached its golden age. The game couldn’t possibly get any better.

…Naturally, anyhow.

When Brady Anderson’s sideburns went off for 50 home runs in 1996, nobody thought much of it. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started spanking baseballs around any park they played in, everyone was caught up in the moment. It wasn’t really until a self-righteous Barry Bonds populated McCovey Cove with more baseballs than fish that anyone said boo. And anyway, it was too late by then.

Drug policies showed up and home runs declined. Two-and-a-half perfect games and three no-hitters to boot later, 2010 was ruled the year of the pitcher before it was even over. Names like Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, Armando Galarraga, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson became overnight celebrities, and Clay Buchholz, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, David Price and Phil Hughes became conversation pieces.

Then the kid showed up.

Stephen Strasburg had simply baffled minor league hitters for two months before being called up to the Washington Nationals. In that game, against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, Strasburg struck out 14 and the coronation had just begun. But a funny thing happened on the way to Strasburg going 12-0 with a 1.21 ERA in his first season in the big leagues: he didn’t.

Stephen Strasburg was all systems go before his body started to crumble under the weight of expectation and a longer season.

Two and a half months later, the kid with the 100-mph heat and the 90-mph slider is preparing to go under the knife. Even though the Nationals protected him, brought him up through the system and never let him get overworked, the kid still got hurt. Because just like batters twenty years before him, his body couldn’t keep up with the changes.

Almost every team in the major leagues now has somebody capable of throwing 100 mph – the Mets may not, but ask K-Rod’s father-in-law and he’d surely tell you that it feels like the kid can. While the mechanics behind a 100-mph heater may not be ideal for the hurler, they’re downright injurious for anyone throwing a 90-mph slider.

Baseball is beginning to notice this trend: the game has hit a ceiling. The players’ bodies cannot improve anymore; the equipment can’t change (without amending the rules) anymore and the specifications of the game, long without restrictions past 90 feet and 60 feet, 6.5 inches, can’t be amended to change the game.

The NFL has devoted a large amount of time, money and passion to researching  ways to prevent – or at least slow down – the neurological regression of its players in their advancing age. It has worked to come up with safer equipment and rules that not only protect the head and neck, but the knees, shoulders and ankles as well.

Baseball isn’t a contact sport in the way that the NFL is, but it could be well served to learn from its brethren’s efforts. The commonest injuries among baseball players are not linked to any sort of neurological degeneration later in life, but are focused primarily on the arm, elbow and shoulder. They would, in theory, be easier injuries to treat and ultimately, to prevent.

The American Dream has faded because of complacency and, let’s be honest, the internet. Baseball is lining itself up for a similar fate, though it’s hardly through any fault of its own.  The game, like so many other American institutions, is simply realizing its limits.

It has not dropped the ball – yet, but it is quickly becoming defined more by what it is not than by what it is.

And as errors go, that one might just prove to be unforgivable.