Some people countdown the days until Christmas. Many of us know how many days until vacation starts. But in my house, the biggest countdown of all (aside from my kids’ birthday) is the start of baseball season.
That day, that magical day, is today, and we’re ready. The MLB package has been ordered, the baseball books have been pulled off the shelf, and opening day outfits have been selected.
There’s an excitement in the air, not just for the return of America’s pastime, but the promise of summer and warm weather — particularly for those of us living in cold climates — and the idea of a fresh start. As my friend (and contributing healthsystemCIO.com columnist) Bill Russell put it, “This is the best time of the year. Every team is tied for first — hope springs eternal.”
It’s a beginning; a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew, and for a few weeks, every team is a contender, and every fan has something to believe in. Normally, I’d never write something so cheesy, but baseball brings that out in me. Perhaps it’s because I have so many great memories of going to games at Fenway Park, Shea Stadium, Camden Yards, and even Yankee Stadium, and gathering together with friends to watch playoff games.
I love hearing the story of how my dad would sneak into Ebbet’s Field to see Willie Mays, how mad my mom’s grandmother would get at the Yankees, or how my brother Pat lost a bicentennial quarter on the 1978 AL East tie-breaker game (where Bucky Dent earned a new middle initial in New England). And some day, my kids will hear about how I ditched work to attend the 2004 World Series parade, and how I got in trouble for running a gambling ring during the 1986 playoffs – as a sixth grader.
It’s also a connection to those we’ve lost. There’s no time when I miss my brother Pat (who passed away in 2014) more than baseball season, but I find comfort when I look at the photos of us at games and relive the great memories we had.
The game is also intricately tied to our history, from the players whose careers were interrupted to serve in World War II (like Ted Williams), to the racism that kept players out of the game for far too long. It’s part of our fiber, and I hope it remains that way for a long time.
Unfortunately, the game’s popularity has taken a hit in recent years. Ratings have dipped — some say it’s because the game is too slow, some say not enough is being done to cater to young audiences. But I’m not so pessimistic, for a few reasons.
First, although there has been a downturn in national ratings, MLB continues to dominate local markets, according to Forbes. As far as the pace, the league is working on ways to speed it up without compromising the integrity of the game. And finally, there’s the issue of catering to a wider audience. Baseball is indeed doing this, and it involves analytics.
Several years ago, general managers started utilizing sabermetrics — the “empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity” — to change the way players are evaluated. Team executives realized the value of statistics like on base percentage, which had previously been overlooked, and it paid dividends.
Since then, more analytic methods have been adopted. Vince Gennaro, MLB consultant and president of the Society for American Baseball Research, is using what he refers to as a Netflix approach to more effectively project the results of pitcher-hitter matchups. His method leverages data to present a much more thorough picture. For example, this approach looks at a hitter’s performance against all pitchers (not just the one he’s facing), and analyzes factors like velocity, pitch movement, and pitch sequences. The results, he says, “are remarkably accurate.”
Of course, this new way of thinking wasn’t embraced universally, as many organizations were resistant to such a big change (sound familiar?). But as teams started to see results — including slugger Mike Trout, who changed his swing to break out of a slump — excitement started to build. Now it’s become a common practice, and it’s making the game more compelling.
Imagine that — even baseball, a game that conjures images of Babe Ruth and Gil Hodges, has embraced change, and many believe it will generate more interest and win back fans.
After all, hope springs eternal.