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Commentary: Why MLB Is Hot, and the NFL Is Not

  • Houston Astros' Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa celebrate after Game 7 of baseball's World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Astros won 5-1 to win the series 4-3. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Washington Post
Published: 11/3/2017 11:55:27 PM
Modified: 11/3/2017 11:55:37 PM

The NFL just got another big problem: baseball.

It takes a long time for trend lines to cross. We may be talking about a 10- or 15-year process here. But after a thrilling seven-game World Series for the third time in four years, baseball, a sport that was never far “down,” is headed back up, with just a handful of problems, most of them manageable. Meanwhile, the NFL has more intractable issues than a junkyard mutt has fleas.

For the third time in four years, baseball had one of the all-time best World Series, each with a completely different flavor. In 2014, the Giants won on the back of Madison Bumgarner vs. the world; then last year the Cubs grabbed their first title in 108 years. Now we now have the “Houston Strongest” Series featuring two games that stand among the 10 best World Series games ever played, plus a jubilant, exuberant young champion that will bring power, energy, advanced critical thinking and athleticism to the sport for years.

This World Series was so good that when Game 7 was just a decent 5-1 game, it was not just anticlimactic but a shock that two teams so close — 34-34 total score — did not go 11 innings, change leads five times and hit 10 homers. After all, didn’t they hit seven homers in Game 2 and a record eight homers in Game 5? This Series had more blown leads than blown calls.

On Sunday night, MLB’s TV ratings stomped the NFL by a third. Yes, of course, it’s the World Series, so it should. But it did.

This World Series cast baseball in sharp relief against an NFL season that so far is drab, injury-filled, controversy-laden and so full of parity that almost nobody is worth watching. However, the difference between the directions of the two sports is deeper than that and follows long trend lines.

These days, baseball is smart, innovative, in love with change and so dynamic you can hardly keep up with it, while the NFL has been asleep for decades, collecting cash and becoming sclerotic.

MLB is broad-minded, inclusive, not just multicultural, but multi-continental and in touch with the best in traditional core American values. Yuli Gurriel didn’t just get booed to the high heavens in Southern California for his racist gesture and remark toward the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish in Game 5. The introduction of his name in the heart of Texas brought a strong undercurrent of boos and tepid cheers. And MLB’s commissioner said any sort of racist gesture or remark had “no place” in his game and would be disciplined strongly.

These days, baseball is in sync with the lucrative digital world with its enormous marketable MLB data bank. MLB wishes for transformation and progress, while respecting its past.

The half-in-the-bag-before-kickoff NFL, in its often family-unfriendly venues, is cornball and square and doesn’t know it has mustard on its forehead and beer spilled in its shoes. New ideas? Hey, congratulations on that zone blitz, 25 years ago. What, you stole the read option from college? That lasted 18 months.

Baseball evolves, sometimes so fast that your head swims. But it’s change that is fun, controversial and infinitely debatable. Just five years ago, nobody thought that, by now, most teams would use radical defensive shifts leaving huge swaths of the field undefended, or that hitters would discover “launch angle,” transform their value in one offseason and turn hitting theory on its head.

Back then, a blink ago, Stephen Strasburg’s fastball was news. Now, in the age of “core strength” and study of biomechanics, most teams have relievers who touch 100 mph and maybe a starter or two as well. Oh, Lordy, what are hitters going to do? Maybe choke up three inches on the bat with two strikes like those bums Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo. Or, disguised behind one stance, have multiple swing styles so that you can use the whole field like Daniel Murphy.

Who says you’re a “starting pitcher” or a “reliever.” Once you get to postseason, you’re just “a pitcher.” Be ready. Rich Hill got pounded on the back with congratulations after a pair of World Series starts in which he got just 12 and 14 outs. Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton, starters, got the final 11 and 12 outs in Houston’s wins in Games 3 and 7.

“I’m not trying to bring back the three-inning save,” said Astros Manager A.J. Hinch, a Stanford grad. But he was. Everybody from Firpo Marberry in the ’20s to Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage would be proud. If the Dodgers had come back to win Game 7, one hero would have been that long reliever with 12 outs of shutout work: Clayton Kershaw.

We now have starters who, on occasion, are not even allowed to pitch long enough to qualify for a win, but we have “high-leverage” multi-inning relievers, such as Andrew Miller, who worked in the innings of most dire need in 2016 — 19⅓ innings in 10 games — and almost got Cleveland a World Series win.

Hello, NFL, are you around here anywhere? Speak up.

About what? The NFL hasn’t had a new idea in 15 years, unless Bill Belichick had it. The NFL is just formulaic frat-house-on-the-lawn touch football with conservative five-yard passes that you could throw when you were 14 years old. Bubble screen, shallow pick route, draw, stretch sweep, quick hitch, punt. Yippee!

Hard licks, once the pride of the game, have become just another CTE crack in the wall. What Night Train Lane and Dick Butkus once did to make us pump our fists now turns out stomachs because we know every player is just human fodder with an expiration date on his brain, except he doesn’t know what year it says yet. We all sacrificed knees to football, but nobody told us that “practice in pads today” was just a couple of hours of killing brain cells for early-onset everything.

If you want to know how appealing baseball is becoming, relative to the NFL, just compare their problems. The NFL’s issues make you shudder. Baseball’s problems just make you think and have a nice debate about how to get better.

Were there “too many strikeouts?” Yes. Hitters are going to have to broaden their approach and not just settle for one swing, repeated endlessly, that “covers the plate” and produces power — a mode of attack as inflexible as a rattlesnake strike. You can’t tell a rattlesnake to “bite that guy behind you.” That’s not in its do-one-thing-well repertoire. And the big leagues are chockablock with players who can’t hit “the other way” or bunt to beat shifts.

These guys, like poor lost Dodger super-rookie Cody Bellinger, who fanned 17 times in the World Series, are going to have to learn two brand-new words: “opposite” and “field.”

Were there too many homers? Yes. But that’s the easiest fix in the world. Commissioners never tell you how and in what seasons MLB decided it needed to jack up the ball a bit, or encourage umps to call a wider, narrower or deeper strike zone to fine-tune the game’s scoring to aesthetically pleasing levels. But after they retire, they sure will.

One ex-commissioner told me they used a juiced ball in spring training to see how it would work in season. After two or three days, so many pitchers had nearly been impaled by invisible liners that all the balls — they may have been called “The 10-X” — were taken out of “commission,” so to speak, though they’re probably still in a warehouse in Area 51.

This is the sport that has lowered the mound, added the DH for more offense, turned its eye away from PEDs (the only real sin along these lines) and gotten umps to reshape the strike zone to the point where Tom Glavine, by the end of his career, lamented the loss of his 22-inch-wide plate. Where did this built-to-code 16-inch-wide hideosity come from?

This World Series, and this entire postseason, which had six winner-take-all games, crystallized what baseball has become. It’s the sport where we talk about civilized issues such as how to improve pace of play by, maybe, holding each team to two mound visits per game.

Meanwhile, the NFL, with TV viewership down 18.7 percent from two years ago at the same season midpoint, waits each week for its latest current or recent star to announce the damage football has done to his whole life.

Baseball is the sport where we tsk-tsk about too many whiffs and, oh, isn’t it terrible that two players hit more than 50 homers. NFL teams keep the police scanner on 24/7 with lawyers at the ready. Baseball looks like it might have a pretty good commissioner. Football still has Roger Goodell and —this tells you everything you need to know — thinks that is the good news.

The NFL didn’t need another problem.

Now it has to cope with 5-foot-5 Jose Altuve’s smile.

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