Not Everything’s Great, but that’s OK
We are living in a time of greatness. I think. Or at least that’s what I hear.
The Chicago Cubs are on pace to be the greatest team of all-time.
Clayton Kershaw may be the greatest pitcher ever.
Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game is the greatest 20-strikeout game ever pitched.
But is it?
What happens when analytical levels (facts) for greatness aren’t met? We repeat arguments to ourselves long enough that they eventually become true. “Clayton Kershaw is the greatest pitcher ever? That sounds right. I was there.” And maybe in 10 years, he will be. But not right now. Before Kershaw there was Pedro, Randy, Rocket and Maddux.
When those narratives don’t take, then we tinker. How can we make the game greater? Let’s speed things up and cut to the chase: automate the intentional walk, install pitch clocks, limit mound visits and redefine the strike zone.
Management consultants call this “continuous process improvement.” But what happens when there isn’t anything to improve? There are only so many changes you can make before it begins to fundamentally alter the organization’s foundation. Rob Manfred wants the glitz and glamour of years past, but he hasn’t figured out how to pay for it.
While MLB makes every effort to distance itself from the Steroid Era of the late-90’s and early-aughts, they still expect results, where every season some ridiculous storybook individual or team record was set. For instance, check out what took place in 1998:
-Mark McGwire hits 70 home runs
-The New York Yankees win 114 games and the World Series
-Cal Ripken ends his consecutive games streak at 2,632
-Sammy Sosa collects 158 RBI
-Alex Rodriguez joins the 40/40 club (NB: home runs and steals, not Jay-Z’s terrible nightclub in New York)
And make no mistake, this wasn’t just a golden era for offense: Greg Maddux finished his second consecutive season with a sub-2.25 ERA, won 18 games, and still finished OUTSIDE the top three in the Cy Young voting. Kevin Brown, he of the 8.1 WAR, finished third. Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros on a cold day in Chicago.
Now that the game is more specialized than ever, multiple 20-game winners and 50 home run hitters are becoming extinct. Does that mean today’s game is any less exciting? Maybe. However, fans (like me) need to realize that greatness doesn’t happen every day, and if it does, we need to try to appreciate it instead of ranking it.
Is Clayton Kershaw the greatest pitcher ever? Are the Cubs the greatest team ever? Is Bryce Harper better than Mickey Mantle? Good, great, grand — who gives a shit? Part of the fun is finding out, and the other part is just enjoying the ride. And that’s OK.