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Dan Bickley

MLB’s obsession with analytics is killing what’s great about baseball

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

A true confession you’ll never hear from Major League Baseball:

The Steroid Era was less damaging than Big Data, the information superhighway that spawned the analytics movement currently sucking the joy out of baseball.

The proof is in the aesthetics.

The proof is in how much you care.

Or don’t.

The Steroid Era was obviously reprehensible. It was also fun while it lasted. Our ignorance was bliss.

The home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa resuscitated a sport bleeding out on the gurney.

At his drug-fueled worst, Barry Bonds was impossible to ignore, a can’t-miss spectacle. He became an all-time villain, a breathtaking mass of muscle and malice.

A nation was captivated. The television ratings were tremendous. Like a piece of cheesecake, the guilt came later.

The Steroid Era was also a big reveal, an honest look inside the soulless universe of Major League Baseball, a warped dystopia full of jockstraps, adolescence, unwritten rules, clubhouse codes and rampant cheating.

The game’s lack of moral backbone and utter disregard for fair play was laid bare for the world to examine.

It wasn’t pretty.

But the righteous indignation surrounding the Steroid Era was also disingenuous. As our country gets older, we have begun to recognize our true nature, and how our self-aggrandizing is nothing but wild propaganda.

Same is true in baseball, and someday, we may even reconcile our blatant hypocrisies.

We are not always the shining light on the hill. Cheating to win is not always considered a sin.

It’s often considered shrewd and ruthless strategy. You get yours. I’ll get mine. That’s the American way.

If we’re being real.

We are also a nation committed to performance-enhancing drugs, from the drive-through line at Starbucks; to the little blue pills that are much cheaper in Mexico; to the prescriptions that’ll help you focus or put you to sleep at night; to the recreational marijuana shops that were once reserved for those with a special card and medical needs.

Yeah, right.

In retrospect, the Steroid Era certainly taxed Major League Baseball.

Commissioner Bud Selig had to pay $20 million for the Mitchell Report, a prop to show just how much he cared.

The record book was desecrated, but a record book is nothing but paper and numbers.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame voters inherited an ethical conundrum with candidates like Bonds and McGwire, but the Hall of Fame is but a museum, a building to house our most beloved entertainers.

The real damage from the Steroid Era occurred among young athletes who went searching for PED’s as a means to emulate Bonds, McGwire and Sosa; frantically searching for ways to compete with unseen opponents who were breaking rules to shorten their path.

But in the long run, Major League Baseball hardly suffered from the scandal.

Otherwise, they would never have employed McGwire and Bonds after they retired.

Analytics are different.

This movement is about math, not PED’s.

And it’s boring us to tears.

It’s killing the poetry, romance and action in baseball. Everything is now distilled, quantified and commodified.

Blue-blood Ivy Leaguers have taken over the sport, yielding a game full of shifts, strikeouts and long stretches where ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS, where the content value of baseball is less than zero.

It’s so bad that MLB must erect protective netting in stadiums across America to safeguard bored customers who are burying themselves in their cellphones.

Analytics seem like evolution.

It helps teams make better decisions on and off the field. It also makes the game look dramatically worse on television.

It’s a bigger problem than the Steroid Era ever presented, and now MLB must deal with this existential threat to its very existence.

Namely, how “The Show” is no longer a show. Anything but.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Bickley & Marotta

Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier