Bickley: A new brand of baseball may have saved a dying sport – AZCentral.com


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The city of Houston held a celebration parade and rally for the newly-crowned World Series champion Houston Astros. Credit to: @KHOU11
USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is no longer a dying flame or a doddering grandparent. The sport is so hot that it now requires leather gloves and oven mitts.

A wistful generation applauds. Even if we don’t recognize the game anymore.

In the past two seasons, the Cubs have broken a curse and the Astros scored a major victory for analytics. The rebirth of America’s pastime has been fueled by home runs, advanced metrics, tricked-up baseballs, revamped swings and other accoutrements of evolution.

Television viewership tells a powerful story. The past two World Series scored the highest-rated Game 7’s in history. The Astros and Dodgers produced two of the greatest games on record, including a night when five home runs were struck in extra innings alone.

Pitcher’s duels are now like antique clocks. Sacrifice bunts are considered a waste of resources. Stolen bases are down. Strikeouts are no longer a shameful scourge. Defensive shifts are so effective that hitting the ball on the ground is considered a fast pass to the minor leagues. 

“This is a fun time for Major League Baseball,” Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said. “The game could be changing before our very eyes. And in a good way.”

Fans celebrate during the World Series championship parade and rally at Houston City Hall. (Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)

As the game has shifted from weather-worn scouts to Harvard MBA’s, we’ve been inundated with information and algorithms. We’ve learned about WAR, WHIP, OPS and spin rates, making barstool conversations cumbersome. But the home run remains the sexiest statistic in sports, relatable on every level. And they’re at the root of the current renaissance.

Over the past season, Major League Baseball players compiled 6,105 home runs, smashing a record set during the Steroid Era. Before 2017, the World Series had never staged a game where more than six players hit home runs. That changed when eight players went deep in Game 2, and another seven in Game 5. 

The sport has shifted so dramatically that J.D. Martinez was once released by the Astros before he started swinging for the fences, while Arizona native Cody Bellinger hit only one home run in his prep career at Hamilton High School. That blast hit the top of the fence and bounced over.

A general view as the Houston Astros celebrate during the World Series championship parade and rally in downtown Houston. (Photo: John Glaser/USA TODAY Sports)

There were 117 players who hit 20 or more home runs in 2017. There were 140 players who struck 100 or more times. Small ball is dead and no lead is safe in today’s game, when momentum shifts are one swing away.

That keeps people interested and watching from the edge of their couch, even when games last beyond four hours. The Diamondbacks were among a handful of teams that unveiled inexpensive ticket promotions, exposing young consumers to a new brand of baseball. The confluence could spark a grass-roots revival on Little League diamonds across America, fields that represent a safe haven from concussions and a chance for kids to experience the greatest thrill in athletic competition:

The glory that comes with hitting a ball over the fence.

“We’ve watched some of the greatest games ever seen in the history of baseball,” Hall said. “It’s because of the come-from-behind victories. And that’s because of the home run.”

There is a level of suspicion attached to the current trend triggering the rebirth of baseball. Pitchers have complained about baseballs that are slicker, harder to manipulate and flying out of the park with alarming velocity. While MLB has discounted these conspiracy theories, something has changed, and something has tilted the playing field considerably. And if the ball has been juiced, it means the fireworks show of 2017 is both manufactured and fraudulent.

But the emotion is real and sustainable. The flurry of home runs in 2017 created energy and excitement, helping players break down their stoic walls and their unwritten rules. The postseason was full of exuberant hitters displaying great passion as they rounded the bases.

Maybe it’s OK to celebrate once the playoffs arrive, when the margin for error does not allow retaliation from bruised pitchers. The Diamondbacks’ Archie Bradley almost blew the roof off Chase Field following a postseason triple. The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after a bloop single, while Joc Pederson made a money gesture with his fingers while rounding third base. It all added to the carnival atmosphere, when nobody complained about playing the game the right way

The proliferation of offense, home runs and come-from-behind victories have helped the sport move past one of its biggest internal battles, the tug-of-war between old-school types who demand that players act like they’ve been there before, and a new generation that wants to party like it’s 1999.

It’s about time the latter mindset prevails. If there’s anything fans love more than home runs, it’s athletes who aren’t afraid to show personality and passion. That’s the biggest lesson to emerge from the 2017 season, a year when baseball became entertaining once again.

“We’ve benefitted from the World Series matchups over the past two years,” Hall said. “And when you couple that with the over-the-top show of emotions, where it felt like a Little League World Series after every home run … that connects with a younger generation.

“This might be a challenge for traditionalists who aren’t used to seeing this kind of baseball. But it’s definitely a new chapter, and I think we saw the birth of emotion. Players seemed to be having fun. Personalities are shining through. It’s gotten to the point where that stuff is considered acceptable and exciting. And as long as it’s not offensive or considered too in-your-face for the fans or the opposition, it’s a great thing for the game.”

It couldn’t come at a better time for MLB, especially with the NFL angering fans and trending in the wrong direction. It also proves the enduring power of America’s pastime, a sport that once seemed to be digging its own grave. 

Now, baseball is sizzling, hot to the touch, proving once again that there’s no place like home plate.

More: Arizona Diamondbacks’ offseason goals include rebuilding bullpen

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Reach Bickley at dan.bickley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on 98.7 Arizona’s Sports Station.


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