© 2010 Aaron Atkinson

A Changing Game for Changing Times

It was finals week during my senior year at Graceland University. In my writing class, I had to either write the ‘current events magazine article’ of my life, or lose a chance at a 4.0 year. With 48 hours to go, this essay pretty much wrote itself. I hope that it’s as fun to read as it was to write. Oh by the way, the essay was a hit.

A throwback to my Graceland days

From dusty little-league ball diamonds full of screaming kids, to the cool multi-million dollar industry of the big leagues, baseball is America’s pastime.

However, Major League Baseball was thrown a nasty curve in 1994. We all know that balls and strikes can change the course of one given game, but it just so happened that a strike might have changed baseball as a game forever. The player’s strike that occurred in ’94 has been judged, “the longest and costliest work stoppage in the history of professional sports.” The strike came in response to the owner’s attempts to institute a salary cap, and revenue sharing between large and small market teams. Under the proposed cap “teams could each spend no less than $38.2 million on player salaries, and no more than $49.9 million.” The cap had the double purpose not only of saving the owners money, but also would have allowed smaller market teams to compete with the big spending, large market ones. But the players refused to comply with the proposition, as it would have meant salary cuts. A season ending strike ensued.

Fans found the strike to be a slap in the face. They felt betrayed by players who refused to play because their salaries may have been cut from eight to seven million a year. And the fans had grounds for feeling upset, after all, in 1975 the average player’s salary was $61,000; “it is $1.6 million now.”

When baseball resumed in the 1995 season, fans showed their resentment by not attending games. Baseball was as popular as jock itch, and the commissioner and owner’s had to work fast to provide relief.

Since no salary cap is in place, big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers have come up with a simple solution to attract fans: spend the big bucks to get the big stars. The Yankees picked up Roger Clemens, a veteran addition to a young pitching staff. The Red Sox signed superstar free agent, Manny Ramirez to an eight year, 160 million dollar deal. And in the largest contract in baseball’s history, the Texas Rangers courted Alex Rodriguez into a contract worth $252 million over 10 years. Big name players, mean big time action, which attracts big numbers of fans.

But of course most teams in the majors do not have the finances of these large market teams. So the ball was passed to baseball’s business people who had to step up and decide how they could get the fans back into the game in the smaller markets. Two solutions were initiated. In the first, it was decided that the strike zone needed to be enlarged. The larger strike zone encourages a faster pace game with fewer walks and more aggressive batters. It is hoped that more hits will mean more fans. “Umpires in the majors and minors have been instructed to stick with the rulebook definition, which puts the strike zone between the knee and the midpoint of the belt and shoulders.” The strike zone this season is the largest it’s been in the history of baseball.

The second, and more controversial change that has been instituted, is the idea of interleague play. Whereas teams in the past have only competed in the World Series and All-Star game against teams in the opposing league, with interleague play in place, teams from the AL play teams from the NL during the regular season. This has baseball purists kicking up a cloud of dust and saying, “Baseball is a game of purity built on tradition and separation of leagues.” But when you think rationally about it, fans control the game by paying the bills; tradition isn’t filling the stands.

In the midst of all the changes flying about, it is true that baseball is a game deeply rooted in a long tradition. But with contracts signed and new rules in place, it’s safe to say that the days of five figure salaries, miniature strike zones, and separate leagues are over. And if it takes these changes to keep the players and fans happy, for the sake of the game, I say tradition and traditionalists take a seat, and batter up. And at the one-month point in the 2001 season, fan attendance and interest seems to be back in full force.

The other day I was watching the movie For Love of the Game. A line from the movie reads, “Everything’s changed, the players, the fans… it isn’t the same, the game stinks.” I must say that I couldn’t agree more with the first half of the statement. Baseball, its rules, its players, and its fans have changed. But the game doesn’t stink. It’s the same game. Baseball is just doing what it has to to survive: it’s evolving with the times so as not to be left in the dust. And so it should change and continue to adapt to the needs of the people who make the game go ‘round: the people in the seats.

One Comment

  1. Aaron Atkinson
    Posted October 13, 2010 at 2:42 am | #

    On a sad note, I wrote this essay in a Magazine Writing course taught by Graceland professor Jon Wallace. I learned today that Jon passed away yesterday. Dr. Wallace always held me and all of his students to the highest standards and he demanded nothing short of our best work – all the time, every time. It was a good lesson for writing and it continues to be good council for life. We’ll miss you Jon. Thanks for setting the standard.

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