Monday, May 9, 2022

An Aesthetic Review of Baseball in 2022

Major League Baseball gets stereotyped as a slow, hidebound organization bound up in its own tradition and high on its own bow tie colunmist-addled romance, but the signature element of Rob Manfred’s tenure as commissioner has been rapid change in rules, strategy, and the general aesthetics of the game.  Within the last decade or so, MLB has imposed new limits on a game whose signature feature is a lack of a clock and the basic idea that the game lasts for 27 outs.  Now, teams have restrictions on when they can bring in relief pitchers, which has not done anything to stem the game from shifting to an endless parade of relief pitchers, and it has put a finite cap on mound visits, which has only existed to confuse people who are wondering what MVR means on a scoreboard.

The biggest and most noticeable change to Major League baseball in 2022 has been the long-predicted move to bring the designated hitter to the National League.  This is a recapitulation; the DH appeared in the NL during the odd, shortened Covid Season and then last year baseball fans were again treated to the absolute shittiest hitters to play in Major League games ineffectively flailing at baseballs and almost always getting out.  I assume that anyone reading this has attempted to discuss the designated hitter and is aware of the poisonous futility of the debate where fans of pitchers hitting discuss strategy and symmetry and the pro-DH faction attacks its opponents as sepia-toned bowties; in the worst case scenario, an American League pitcher would get injured running the bases and we’d have a debate over whether the professional athletes that do so much damage to their arms that a Frankensteinian cadaver ligament procedure is now considered routine should be shielded from the extremely dangerous task of running briefly in a straight line.  

I am not interested in discussing strategy or ASSETS or anything that has to do with the effects of designated hitting on actual baseball.  Instead, I am approaching this by weighing the aesthetics of the extremely common and hideous results of pitchers hitting (almost always getting out, horrid strikeouts, the contemptibly cowardly strategy of managers walking the eight hitter to get to the pitcher, sacrifice bunting) with the much more rare and sublime sights (an opposing pitcher fuming after giving up a hit or walking his counterpart, the ecstasy of a pitcher home run, pitchers wackily pressed into outfield duty).  In essence, I am weighing how many mind-numbing and unwatchable pitcher plate appearances are worth it for the sight of a guy standing somewhat confused on first base wearing a dorky satin jacket.  The other important element to weigh aesthetically is the actual designated hitter, whether watching an enormous, beefy oaf get to blissfully bop dingers versus watching him lummox around on the field.

An aesthetcially perfect baseball image. In 2022, Zambrano as a pitcher would have no understanding of how to use a bat and he would be at a complete loss as to how to destroy a Gatorade machine

Unfortunately, we had a perfect solution for this by having both sets of rules operable at the same time, but even with the advent of the universal DH, we are getting aesthetically shortchanged.  The universal DH has not led to the addition of several pleasingly refrigerator shaped doofuses showing up to destroy baseballs, but with a lot of teams choosing to rotate their designated hitter among the otherwise normal roster.  Kyle Schwarber, a man who is built like he hangs around the wharf antagonizing Popeye, one of the most prototypically DH-shaped human beings currently produced by baseball, has constantly found himself forced to ply his lummoxical arts in the outfield, first by the Cubs in 2020 when they elected to use a backup catcher as the designated hitter, and now by a Phillies lineup that is so graceless and lead-gloved that he is their best option in left because the operating philosophy in Philadelphia was to build a team of sixteen-inch softball players.  In my mind it is not only an aesthetic downgrade to replace the 25 times a year when a pitcher does something cool on offense with a DH rotating among fourth outfielders and backup catchers; it is a catastrophe.

The other major innovation is the PitchComm system where catchers wear a small device that looks like an NES controller that relays a pitch type and location to a small speaker located in the pitcher's hat.  This is designed to obviate the use of hand signals and prevent them from being stolen by other teams while also speeding up the game so that the pitcher does not spend what seems to be 38 minutes squinting at the catcher in between each pitch.  This is a triumph.  Even though dugouts are now filled with tablet computers and scoreboards show HD highlights, this is first on-field innovation baseball has had that makes the sport seem like it is evolving into High Tech Future Baseball since outfielders discovered those elaborate futuristic sunglasses in the 1980s.  

PitchComm seems to be simple, works, and looks really cool strapped to a catcher's arm or shinpad.  For several days, I desperately wanted to hear what the PitchComm voice sounds like, and when they played it on a Cubs broadcast, I was disappointed although not surprised that it is the same generic computer voice that tells you that your call is important to Comcast that is also telling a genetic arm freak to throw a 98 mph heater on the outside corner.  

(UPDATE May 25: a recent Cubs broadcast has informed me that teams are free to choose their own voices for PitchComm.  The Phillies, for example, use the voice of catcher J.T. Realmuto.  The ideal voice for the Cubs is unfortunately the late actor Dennis Farina screaming at the pitcher to "throw da fuckin' cutter," but I have heard the Cubs are experimenting with the voices of Svengoolie and Peter Francis Geraci who implores pitchers to consult his breaking ball info tapes.    

I think that it should be possible for catchers, in emergency panic situations, to switch the voice to Arnold Mode.  I also remain intrigued with the possibilities for a team to hack into the oppositions PitchComm system or for teams to elude to it the same way that Ryan Tepera insinuated that the Houston Astros were at it again in last year's playoffs after a vanquished team notices that the Astros' new coach in the dugout is a code-breaking robot hidden under a trenchcoat.

The Houston Astros introduce their new Quality Control C.O.A.C.H.


The NFL Draft has come and gone again, the single most deranged event on the sports calendar and the most quintessentially American, replacing any game action with a large crowd of people who cannot possibly have an informed opinion on anything going on and yet are getting insanely mad.  I love writing about the NFL draft because of its disparate and genuinely alarming combinations of freaks: the NFL executives who put on this bloated and cartoonish paean to the self-importance of the National Football League led by a commissioner losing his annual duel with a teleprompter; the facepaint maniacs enduring hours of tedium in order to hoot and holler for players they have never heard of in order to be shown hooting on television at the opportune moment; Mel Kiper, Jr., one of the genuinely weirdest sports-adjacent personalities on the face of the Earth whose appearance on a satellite feed combined with his ascending balding Dracula haircut made him seem like an evil Space Emperor cutting into the broadcast to threaten the planet with an offensive lineman who should have gone in the second round; and (most disgustingly) dorks watching the draft for content to put on their sports blog for three dozen people.

Kiper demands the people of Earth send him a "sudden, explosive" pass rusher or he will laser Jimmy Clausen's face onto Mount Rushmore

Yet while the NFL Draft serves as an insane fever dream, the league has actually managed to ramp up and hype the draft to the extent they have successfully made it a traveling annual party for fans of the league.  This is in addition to the Super Bowl, which is already an annual party involving the NFL, albeit one that seems to be catered increasingly towards corporate sponsors and not a place where a person who has worked very hard on an elaborate Arizona Cardinals bird headpiece can get on television bellowing about a 6th round guard from Gerald University II.  The NBA's all-star weekend functions like this as well, as a sort of party and NBA convention.  Major League baseball throws its annual party when an 85 year-old person from Boston writes a 250,000 word book about the pastoral grace and youthful violence that provided the keening engine for America and then immediately dies.

This year, the NFL managed to lessen its own berserk weirdness by putting the draft in Las Vegas.  The magic of the draft presentation combined the draft's procedural inanity with the NFL's version of spectacle, which gave it the air of an alien circus.  There is simply no way to describe NFL draft decisions like "Mike Mayock threatens to walk off the set after an orangutan reveals draft picks using an ipad" that does not seem like it is lifted from the Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers.  Unfortunately, Las Vegas runs entirely on knowing, campy excess, so there was no amount of cheesy Criss Angel tricks or appearances by an orange, plasticine Wayne Newton that did not feel out of place.  The most interesting thing that happened on the parts of the draft broadcast that I saw was former Viking Ed Marinaro rambling for so long that an NFL official came out to scold him, very nearly brandishing a vaudeville hook.

The move to Las Vegas allowed the NFL to do the unthinkable and outsource its draft spectacle to local entertainment instead of trying to manufacture it.  There is something ineffable and intriguing about the way the league presents itself in all aspects other than the game itself, with a perspective that seems rooted in a remote executive clubbiness that is completely divorced from a multi-billion-dollar entertainment concern.  At all times, the principle guiding the NFL is a mix between stodginess and the things that genuine country club weirdos like Goodell or maybe Jim Nantz think would be interesting.  More than any other league, the guiding hand of the owners' bizarre sensibilities pokes through the entertainment side of the NFL leading to one of the strangest things annually to appear on mainstream television.  

The draft broadcast should feel like an eerie dystopian nightmare bracketed by truck commercials but failed in that respect this year.  This is why I propose that the next NFL draft should be held on an aircraft carrier.

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