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Saturday, November 29, 2008

ESPN bosses told Joe Morgan to mute concerns about increased power hitting--Zirin

Zirin, 7/17/07, NPR: "Increased offense and media buzz meant increased money. In 1995, with the sport on life support, the owners sold their broadcast rights for 565 million bucks, which represented a major loss. In 2001, they sold the playoff rights alone for $2 billion.

As Joe Morgan said, "I would be broadcasting a game and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them."

Morgan's unease about the "cheapening of the home run" was rooted in reality. But it would be wildly ignorant to accept the conventional wisdom put forward

  • by everyone from the sports media to the U.S. Congress to the baseball moralists that steroids are the reason or even most of the reason for the 1990's power boom. It doesn't even come close to telling the whole story. It's an argument born of hysteria.
The owners actually had a multipronged strategy to make Major League Baseball more like beer-league softball—and it was subtle as a blowtorch.
  • And little by little, step by step, this became the new reality. There has been too much to write it off as coincidence."
People call this a conspiracy theory, but baseball has a proud history of conspiracies. For six decades, without ever putting the idea to paper, owners kept out African-American players. In the 1980s, they colluded to keep down salaries and deny players the right of free agency, costing players, according to an arbitrator's ruling, millions of dollars.

Sources of the Boom

The new parks are "fan-friendly"—unless your kid happens to go to a school whose shrinking budget paid for these monuments (ballfields built with public funds) to corporate greed. They are, in any case, long-ballfriendly with shorter fences.

Then there are the balls and bats themselves.

  • Countless baseball insiders believe that the ball is now wound tighter than it was twenty years ago.
  • As for the bats, as recently as fifteen years ago, players used untreated ash bats.
  • Now the bats are maple and lacquered. That means the ball goes farther.
Add on the impact of technology: players now go into the clubhouse after every at-bat to look at videotapes and study and correct their swing immediately in a way previous generations could not have dreamed of doing. They even have video iPods with which they can analyze their latest swing as soon as they step down into the dugout.
  • Next we have the incredible shrinking strike zone. The area where a pitched ball can be called a strike has shrunk, in the words of pitcher Greg Maddux, to "the size of a postage stamp."

The owners consciously engineered this trend, and when umpires refused to assent to a microscopic, uniform strike zone,

  • Major League Baseball crushed their union and

installed machines to monitor their abilities. The smaller strike zone means that pitchers have to hit very precise spots to get a strike. That means batters can target those areas for upper-cut home run swings.

  • Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said,

But an equally big reason that power numbers are up is that the game finally shed its nineteenth-century view of strength conditioning.... For example, it has been the conventional wisdom for most of baseball's history that lifting weights would destroy your swing, causing the muscles to bunch up....

  • Many teams even had a practice of fining or suspending players if they were caught pumping iron. Now weight lifting is a part of every team's regimen as they have realized—to the shock of the old-timers—that being stronger means you can hit the ball farther.

All of these factors are independent of illegal steroids. I made this case last winter on a radio show and a writer for Sports Illustrated asked me if I also believed in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus....But the best proof is that in 2006, the off-season saw intensive testing and far fewer positive results, while home run numbers this year were up. Before he was injured, Albert Pujols was on pace for eighty-four home runs....

Well Then, Why Use Them? Sports are a lottery ticket out of poverty. The gap between success and failure is razor thin, but the practical difference is astronomical. A minor league player makes on average about $1,200 a month while an even marginal MLB player can make $500,000 a year.

Poverty marks the background of most pro athletes, but in baseball this tendency is particularly extreme...Teams fund multimillion-dollar "baseball academies" to develop talent on the cheap. But it bears repeating that, for every star like Pedro Martinez or Miguel Tejada, there are thousands of Dominican players cast aside.

And the Dominican Republic is attractive to major league execs for more reasons than its sunny beaches and never-ending supply of prospects.

  • But those not in the top tier often take cheaper animal steroids. Minor leaguer Lino Ortiz took this route, went into shock, and died.

This is billionaires telling people from desperately poor backgrounds to do what they say or have fun in the cane fields. Sure they're free not to juice. They are also free to go back to the ghetto or back to the island."...

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