Baseball’s Mark on Time

The television screen is filled with screaming men wearing tailored suits and expensive haircuts. What possible topic of such urgency could reduce otherwise stately middle-aged fathers to foaming at the mouth? Insisting that each knows best, the pundits deliver their rejoinders to an age-old question: who is the greatest baseball player of all time?

Younger men will inevitably lean towards players they watch and follow on their media devices. Older curmudgeons, settled in their ways, will talk of the sad decline in play over their lifetime. The argument has been passed from father to son, generation after generation, as a constant theme in America’s story.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

The iconic quote delivered by James Earl Jones in the movie Field of Dreams still resonates with Americans. The MLB Network continues to use the clip in their advertising despite the film being more than thirty years old. What is it about baseball and the homages made to it that remain timeless?

Perhaps, it is as simple as being the big brother of American sports mythology. Most records suggest the game began sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, with professional leagues forming some 150 years ago. Yet, if it were that simple, it would fail to account for how baseball has risen like a phoenix from its own ashes time and again following scandals and disappointment. Maybe, it is tied to the import-export trade of goodwill that America’s pastime produces. After all, baseball is played professionally on five continents, and more than 250 foreign-born players made the Opening Day rosters of the 2019 MLB season. Still, that doesn’t explain away America’s other great export sport: basketball. Something about baseball remains ethereal. How can a game that admittedly moves at a snail’s pace in between plays leave children transfixed and adults feeling nostalgic?

The answer is quite simple. In fact, it may be overlooked precisely because of its simplicity. Despite evolutionary changes to the game over its considerable lifespan, baseball allows for comparisons across time and space. Grandfathers and grandsons can sit together in an easy chair watching a game, sharing a cherished memory, while gently dissecting the imperceptible differences between Dizzy Dean and Zack Greinke. Of course, the child never saw Dean play, but the availability of countless statistics offers a ready comparison.

The grandson would open his iPad, type in the players for comparison on sites like Stathead.com, then -- filled with pride -- hand the device to his granddad for having made such a convincing argument. Reminiscing on his own strong-headed bygone youthful days, the grandfather would smile and say, ‘ah, but you should have seen Dizzy play.’ Similar discussions occur in living rooms, bars, and little league ball diamonds across a nation in love with its cultural artifact. To be fair, not all of those debates are as quaint as the one between the grandfather and his grandson. The passion of those exchanges is the lifeblood that helps baseball live on from one generation to the next.

Arguing over the best hitter or pitcher is as much a part of Americana as grilling burgers and hot dogs on Independence Day. Sure, there are dark stains on the history of baseball, just like those that tarnish the memory of what the country is supposed to represent. At the same time, baseball evolves -- albeit slowly -- and then resumes its place as a national treasure.

This year marks the 74th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the game’s color barrier. Few today would argue that baseball commissioners were within their right to bar minorities from sharing in the game’s preeminent leagues. Many names are now etched in immortality thanks to the bravery of men like Robinson and Larry Doby. The efforts of more than can be named here are enshrined at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum -- a sanctuary every American should schedule a visit to see. One name all fans need to know is that of Buck O’Neil. His achievements for the game garnered him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Beacon of Life Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award. Buck’s hometown Major League team -- the Kansas City Royals -- honored him with the Legacy Seat at Kauffman Stadium, where a resident of the metro area who positively impacts the lives of others is nominated to sit in Buck’s seat.

Each of these is characteristic of a game that elicits a lifetime of emotion. This author has been infatuated with the Kansas City Royals since learning what baseball even was after being adopted in 1980. For the record, nobody would convince him that George Brett is anything less than a long-heralded second coming. Therein, the passion that turns reasonable men into ranting fools speaks to baseball’s otherworldly record keeping. All events in a game can be recorded by a vigilant fan using an official scorecard. An entire organization is dedicated to advanced research on the game’s statistics. If sports is about numbers and records, baseball is the embodiment of that pursuit.

Returning to the question of who is the greatest baseball player ever, the faith placed in each claim rests on something more than the emotional outbursts it evokes. The rightness of those public declarations relies on underlying metrics, which in turn depend on statistical models that assign a specific value to each event on the field. In the spirit of disclosure, all statistical modeling must use certain assumptions as a predictive measure. When those assumptions are proven accurate, the evaluative tool provides a practical measurement of players from different generations.

A man by the name of Bill James reinvented how Americans look at baseball. He changed how the game is discussed. He is personally responsible for creating thirteen new statistical measures of baseball players. In a 2010 speech to the University of Kansas Department of Statistics, he humbly admitted that he is no statistician. His work spurred a revolution in a never-ending search for the perfect evaluation tool.

There is no “perfect” metric. There is only the pursuit of perfecting the metrics that describe the achievements of almost 20,000 different baseball players over the last fifteen decades. The changes to the game over that timeframe do not rule out comparisons across different eras. The modern standard-bearer for such measurements is Wins Above Replacement. The future will be Effectiveness Scores. The new scores don’t erase household names like Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, or Nolan Ryan. Instead, it adds names to that conversation like Pud Galvin, Steve Carlton, and Rusty Staub. It enriches a dialogue about a beloved thread interwoven throughout the fabric of American history. It compels a new generation to pick up a bat and a ball for a love of the game.

Echoing words that can only be gracefully delivered by the man who gave voice to Darth Vader, baseball will continue to mark the time.

Photo credit: Pixabay license

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