The New York Yankees are in town this week and if you were around in the late 70s, you probably remember the Yankees-Royals rivalry vividly: Hal McRae knocking Willie Randolph into next week with a cross-body block or Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in the face and Brett responding with a punch to Nettles’ head.
They don’t make rivalries like that anymore.
Depending on your point of view, baseball is now safer — or softer.
How the game was played then; how the game is played now
Ask old-school guys who played baseball back in the day about tactics no longer allowed and there’s no shortage of examples:
If a runner on first base wanted to take out the pivot man on a double play, he could come in hard and do a pop-up slide. If he snapped his head back as he came up, maybe his helmet would catch the pivot man in the face.
And if the pivot man wanted to avoid getting taken out by the runner, he could drop down and make his throw to first base from a low arm angle. That put the ball in line with the runner’s head and if the runner valued his face, he’d get down early.
If it sounds like a battle, it was.
If a baserunner could intimidate a middle infielder, double-play balls might get dropped during the transfer from glove to hand and throws to first might be wild or not made at all; so middle infielders had to show they couldn’t be intimidated.
Jobs were at stake and without the security of a big, long-term contract, players had to battle to stay on the field.
That was then.
Now runners don’t even try to break up double plays; they peel off early because if they flip the pivot man, both runners are likely to be called out anyway. And who wants to take the chance of getting hurt?
How about pitching?
Back in the day, if a pitcher hit a batter everybody knew retaliation was coming: you hit one of ours, we hit one of yours. And if we really want to make a point, we hit two of yours.
Getting hit by a pitch was considered part of the game.
These days it’s not uncommon for umpires to issue a warning after the first batter is hit and that means there’s no chance to get even in that game. If a pitcher feels like he needs to respond and protect his teammates, he might have to wait until the next day or the next time he faces that team.
And these days fewer pitchers feel the need to respond.
Now some of the big names in the game get offended if a pitcher even dares to pitch inside; the big stars might start barking even though they haven’t been hit.
In the old days that might get you a pitch in the ribs, now it might get you hittable pitches out over the plate.
So what changed?
Ask around and the first thing you hear about is money; everybody’s making a lot of it and nobody wants to lose some by getting hurt or suspended.
And the league wants its stars on the field.
You might also hear about the schedule; if you only see another team six times, there’s less chance of something starting a feud and less chance to retaliate.
And you will definitely hear about fraternization: over their careers guys are more likely to play for more than one team. So the player on the other side of the field might have been a teammate in the past, in the minors or in the winter leagues.
There’s not as much us-against-them attitude.
The old-school guys point to all the hugging, butt-slapping and “my bad” gestures; two guys collide and help each other up. A pitcher drills a batter and apologizes. A hitter calls time and apologizes.
And for the most part, instant replay has taken manager-umpire arguments out of the game. Unless a manager gets tossed, you’re unlikely to see a good old-fashioned hat-throwing, dirt-kicking tirade.
New guys, old-school attitude
But even with all the rule changes and apologizing, you still see some new guys with old-school attitude.
When Jose Bautista did a takeout slide against Rougned Odor, Bautista got up and walked toward Odor with a “what are you going to do about it?” demeanor. Odor shoved Bautista away and when Bautista approached Odor again, Odor clocked Bautista with an overhand right.
Bautista appeared to huffin’ and puffin’ (acting tough with no intention of really fighting) and Odor wasn’t playing around.
Odor got suspended, but sent a message to the rest of the league and now nobody messes with Odor.
Early in 2015, the Royals hitters were getting plunked at a high rate; Royals players felt like the league was challenging them to see how they’d respond. After Brett Lawrie hurt Alcides Escobar with a spikes-up takeout slide, Yordano Ventura drilled Lawrie.
But then things escalated, culminating in Kelvin Herrera throwing a pitch behind Lawrie and then pointing at his head. Some fans were horrified and some ballplayers didn’t like it either; no matter the provocation, you don’t throw at a batter’s head.
Herrera sent a message and Royals batters quit getting hit by pitches quite so often.
The game may have changed, but some of the new guys still have old-school attitude.
So is the game safer or softer?
The answer to that question depends on your point of view, but if you choose to be a cynic, you could always follow the money.
The NFL did not seem to care about concussions until it became an issue and threatened to cost them money.
MLB did not seem to care about PEDs until it became an issue and threatened to cost them money.
We put two human beings in a cage and let them beat or choke each other into unconsciousness because it makes people money.
Stars put butts in seats and money in the owners’ pockets, so I’m guessing someone, somewhere decided it would be a good idea to keep those stars on the field; so the game was made safer.