Baseball is dying, or so I’m told, though it is a long and painful death. As a lifelong baseball fan, I agree with this assessment, to some extent, which is to say that baseball is not what it used to be. And in a changing world, I believe that the game needs some major modifications.
Which brings me to this year’s All-Star Game and the overwhelmingly young collection of talent that will be on display Tuesday in Cincinnati, which led me to ponder a rather curious question:
Is this the one truly positive and long-lasting thing to come from the steroids era?
Think about it: of the All-Stars chosen for this year’s game, 35 of them are no older than 27. Without reviewing the bios of each player, that puts their birth years in the approximate five-year period from, say, 1988-92. That means that the current crop of young All-Stars was anywhere from 6-14 during a baseball era that, while wildly controversial, remains one of the most entertaining in the history of the game.
See where are we going with this? Chicks aren’t the only ones who dig the long ball. Kids do, too. Mike Trout was precisely 10 years old when Barry Bonds finished with 73 home runs during the 2001 season, and it’s impossible to think that Bonds (or others even remotely comparable to him) didn’t have some bearing, however small, on Trout’s passion for the game. Ditto for Bryce Harper, who was approaching his ninth birthday when Bonds put the record book in the recycling bin.
The point of this is that Trout and Harper were exceptional, impressionable young athletes when baseball players were among the coolest of the cool, before the real stain of the steroid era. I don’t know about you, but when I was 9 or 10, I remember those years as being positively huge when it came to identifying sports idols.
There is no way to know for sure, of course, but maybe Trout and Harper would have chosen a different sport if baseball weren’t so popular at the time. Maybe they would have played football. Or soccer. Or basketball. Or lacrosse. Maybe they would have played baseball, anyway. But the attention heaped on Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa at the time certainly didn’t hurt, and one must assume the steroids era at least helped spawn an entirely new crop of baseball stars.
And so now here we are, in the summer of 2015, and guys like Trout and Harper are leading the way for a cast of youngsters who play the game as dynamically as any players in a long time. Harper currently leads the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, as a result, OPS. Trout ranks sixth in a group that also includes 25-year-old and 24-year-old Nolan Arenado. And we haven’t even gotten to 25-year-old Anthony Rizzo (11th) or 23-year-old Manny Machado (13th).
As my father would say … capisce?
If there’s anyone that can “save” baseball, these are the guys. They are not sluggers as much as they are ball players. Trout and Harper can both run. Arenado is a slick fielder. In a place like Boston, Xander Bogaerts (whose childhood idol, in Aruba, was Derek Jeter) and Mookie Betts are playing the game with energy and flair. Last night, with the Red Sox trailing the Miami Marlins in the seventh inning, Bogaerts delivered a two-out, three run single to right center field in which the speedy Betts, who was running on the pitch, scored from first.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the Red Sox looked dead in the water. Today, while still in last place – and admittedly benefiting from a mediocre division – they are within five games of first place. And the Sox are there largely because players like Betts and Bogaerts have given them a huge shot in the arm, infusing them with the kind of energy that comes only with youth.
Obviously, we live in a world now where patience isn’t merely a virtue; it’s an endangered quality. Baseball still moves a little too slowly for many people’s liking, particularly the younger folks, for whom the term “instant message” is redundant. (For them, everything is “instant.”) The lords at MLB finally seem to have acknowledged this issue with the pace-of-play initiatives, at least in part, though the game needs more aggressive, dramatic changes.
That said, the short-term future of the game looks as bright as it has in some time, and not just because Stanton and Joc Pederson routinely tee off as if at the driving range. The young players in the game perform with flair, with energy, devoid of the stuffiness and propriety that older players seem to perpetuate.
Personally, I think these players can help save baseball, or at least extend it.
And I now wonder if we have the steroids era to thank for them.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.