Everyone loves to think the Golden Age of Baseball came during their childhoods, but Jesse Goldberg-Strassler argues that the best times for the National Pastime are happening right now, with the minor leagues in great shape and major leaguers at the top of their games in a very competitive environment.
In an article from the September/October issue from Moment magazine (“Is This the Golden Age of Jewish Baseball?”), writer David Elfin quotes Major League Baseball Official Historian John Thorn:
” ‘To me,’ sighs Thorn, ‘the golden age of baseball is whenever you were 12 years old.’ “
Unfortunately, the game of baseball went on strike when I was 12 years old, causing the first season without a World Series since 1904.
I’ll choose now as my golden age instead.
The numerous Minor Leagues, by and large, are thriving. Each league boasts teams with gorgeous state-of-the-art ballparks and vibrant fanbases. Every passing season brings new attendance records, brilliantly creative promotions, and far-ranging comfort in the nation’s great summer pastime. Rather than battle to create a nation of purists and fanatics against the pull of football’s raw emotion, baseball reinvented itself as the sport of the community, a perfect backdrop for a summer evening. There are remarkable Major League-caliber facilities rising up from coast to coast, and yet the game has remained accessible as ever. No one is getting priced out of attending a Minor League game.
The same fan connection is holding true at the Major League level. Certain towns have become historically associated with strong fandoms — St. Louis, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, New York — but surprisingly strong teams this past season produced the same electric ballpark atmosphere in Oakland, Washington, and Baltimore.
This is the best attribute of competitive parity, engaging as many fanbases as possible. The American League East, for instance, enters 2013 with each of its five teams realistically striving for a division crown. In the AL West, there are no signs that the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels are backing down from last year’s fierce three-way struggle for the top. In the National League, the situation is reversed: All five teams in the NL West have the opportunity to make a charge, while the NL East will feature a fight between the Nationals, Braves, and Phillies.
I doubt that there have been more than a few times in baseball’s history like this, when so many teams harbored World Series aspirations without a clear-cut favorite at the top.
Oh yes, there are powerful teams in today’s MLB — witness the potent lineup put forth by the Angels or the Nationals’ exceptional starting rotation — but there is no consensus Great Team to be feared. I count conservatively 22 teams out of 30, 11 in each league, with strong playoff arguments entering the upcoming season. Considering the surprising success enjoyed by Baltimore and Oakland a year ago, I may well be selling several of the remaining ballclubs short.
The last ingredient needed for a true golden age is an abundance of exciting talent. Today’s game has it in spades.
Pitchers are throwing faster than ever before (exhibit A: Aroldis Chapman) while still understanding the importance of command and changing speeds. As a result, the possibility of seeing a no-hitter, or even a perfect game, has become increasingly likely. Our top contemporary pitchers, from Justin Verlander to David Price to young Stephen Strasburg, are working their way toward historic comparisons, and it’s as great a joy to watch them dominate as it is to watch R.A. Dickey flutter in an unhittable knuckleball.
Beyond this, regardless of what you may believe about pitch counts, it is a far better thing to live in an age where a Strasburg-level talent can blow out his elbow, undergo surgery, and return to the game as good as ever, than it is to simply bid his career farewell and ponder what if.
As far as position players go, I could note that defense and baserunning are increasingly quantified as much as offense, leading to far more well-rounded players and a higher quality of competition — or I could simply list Triple Crown-winning Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano, Joey Votto, Yadier Molina, Giancarlo Stanton, and Bryce Harper. The point is the same. Major League Baseball does not lack for rising and established superstars of all types.
These are glory days for the national pastime: post-integration, post-steroids, post-labor troubles, and post-competitive imbalance. You don’t have to be 12 to relish it.
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