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"Unless you're leading the Dog, the view never changes." - sign just outside the Yankees spring training clubhouse, Legends Field, Tampa, Florida



by modernerabaseball.com

Only in 2001 can Pedro Martinez be given a warning for grazing a batter - WITH A FREAKING CURVE BALL! How did the game stoop to this utter mess? By licensing Barbie Doll, that's how! Learn more about this disgrace to our past time.

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It is one of baseball's most famous and enduring photographs. Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers' ornery star, is sliding into third base in 1909 against the New York Highlanders. The third baseman, Jimmy Austin, is lifting his leg out of the way of Cobb's undoubtedly sharpened spikes, which a moment before had surely been aimed square at his shins. Dirt is flying. Cobb is snarling. A rough-and-tumble game beginning its first full century, baseball is finding its soul, and it is Cobb.

Fast forward to two years ago, with another image symbolizing baseball as that century ends. During an on-field scuffle between the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners, the two teams' top stars, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, stand off to the side, chatting amiably. They are friends. Even crash at each other's pad when their teams play. Millionaires several times over with so much more on the way, they'd never consider jeopardizing that in some fight, let alone with each other.

Somewhere in heaven - further south, perhaps - ol' Ty must be cussing up a storm. The game he helped put on the map has become downright chummy. Tony Gwynn claps in right field when Mark McGwire hits his 500th home run.

Opposing players mill about before batting practice, glad-handing and yukking it up like this were all a Friars function. Heck, you knew something was haywire in June of 1999 when Jaret Wright, Cleveland's wild young pitcher, got called into the league office and was told to be more careful throwing inside - and among his civility teachers was none other than Bob Gibson, once the standard bearer for propriety-be-damned intimidation. Two days later, Major League Baseball sent out a press release, announcing its first officially licensed Barbie doll.

Barbie could probably dig in pretty good against today's major league pitchers, when you think about it. Because the purposeful inside fastball, once the embodiment of pitcher panache, the great equalizer of offense, has practically disappeared. Now, instead of good, old-fashioned high heat, you have batters flinching at strikes. They glare at the pitcher, even charge the mound, after anything close. Talk to many baseball lifers and they'll tell you that the sport has changed for the worse - and the worst indication, they say, is how pitching inside is all but extinct.

"It's like an event now when someone pitches inside," broadcaster Tim McCarver says. "The crowd goes crazy, oohing and aahing. The umpires go crazy. It's bull."

Adds Devil Rays Manager Hal McRae, whose hard roll-slide into Willie Randolph during the 1977 ALCS got quickly outlawed, "It's a safer game, but not a better game."

Naturally, no one advocates the barbaric act of intentionally hitting a batter in the head. Some players go so far as to say that drilling someone anywhere intentionally has little place in society, let alone one of its favorite sports. (After Anaheim's Troy Percival plunked David Justice on purpose in September 1999, Percival's own teammate, Mo Vaughn, criticized him by saying, "Be like a man.") And it's hard to revel in scary brawls like the one between then-Oriole Armando Benitez and the Yankees' Tino Martinez a few years ago, when Benitez, in retaliation for giving up a home run on the previous pitch, fired one between Martinez' shoulder blades.

But no matter where you stand on this spectrum, the tide has swung to the point where few pitchers know how to pitch inside at all. Sluggers hang over the plate - "There isn't a great deal of fear in hitters anymore," Roger Clemens says - and render pitchers mere batting-practice throwers, rid of the scariest weapon in their arsenal. That has contributed to the surge in offense and puts a whole new face on the sport. Says Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi, "It's a completely different style of game now. When I played, if you didn't get knocked down 10 times a year, you didn't think you were a very good hitter."

There are many explanations for this shift. The rise of the players union has fostered a fraternity among all players, because when you get right down to it, they're all on the same team. Free agency has shuffled guys among so many franchises that they all have friends everywhere. Moreover, a society pickled in political (and therefore societal) correctness considers almost any form of aggression inappropriate.

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Feb 27 2002, 07:47:53
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