Book Review – Juicing the Game by Howard Bryant
While this book is fairly comprehensive in baseball’s offense explosion before the Mitchell Report it doesn’t read very well and jumps from idea to another in a chapter.
What I dig about the book is I agree with and have thought about the arguments and conclusions that Mr. Bryant comes to. His major argument is that baseball is prone to conspiracy and collusion and that the power burst in baseball is just another example. He claims that begining with the Oakland A’s Bash Brothers that MLB turned a blind eye to the wrestler physiques that McGuire and Canseco were sporting. Baseball had long been searching for its niche. The NFL had Montana, the NBA had Jordan the NHL had Gretzky and baseball hasn’t had a sexy poster boy since Mickey Mantle retired in 1968. Now baseball had the Bash Brothers and a new breed of player, exciting, dynamic fielders and power hitting. The likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds.
Bryant determines the 1994 strike and subseqent World Series cancellation as the turning point in baseball and few that know the game would argue. Baseball had fallen behind both the NFL and NBA in popularity and the fan base that had been loyal felt betrayed. The owners who had lots to lose after not having a salary cap in place and losing about 30 regular home games as well as the playoffs wanted to spice up the game, to attract new, younger fans. Baseball thought the stalwarts would come back but those turned off would have to be lured back. The home run was going to be to baseball what the slam dunk has been to basketball.
There are other sources that baseball has used to become more offense friendly. Bryant spends chapters talking about juiced balls, smaller parks and a small strike zone. Bryant spends a chapter talking about the umpire union and how it was dissolved. I found this to have limited importance to how dissolving the union and bringing the umpires under tight league control. With the strike zone determined by the league office and the umpires loyal to the league the powers that be can take the inside of the plate away from the pitchers giving the hitters protection from Bob Gibson style brushback pitches and putting more pitches in the strikezone. Bryant goes on and on about the features that defined the strikezone and the evolving technology that is available to determine what is a rule book strike and what isn’t. For all the words spent, he could have said that the strike zone was being interpreted in the hitters favour. Which again, few baseball fans would argue with.
The one character involved that Bryant exposes to readers, other than Selig, is Sandy Alderson. Alderson was the GM of the A’s in the late 1980s and into the 1990s and after he moved on he became one of the commissioner’s right hand men. It was Alderson who probably first knew and accepted the Bash Brothers and their muscley arms at the end of the 80s was redefining the strikezone in the late 90s.
Now into steroids. Bryant paints a broad, endemic steriod problem in baseball. All of the usual suspect came into play here, Selig, Fehr, Bonds, Canseco and Giambi. Right to the very top there is no consesus in baseball as to what is “performance enhancing” and what is “performance enabling”. Bryant more or less lists the official who are the War Against Drugs bleeding hearts to the more pragmatic minds such where Selig and Fehr are very similar. Both Selig and Fehr had a vested interest in allowing homers to go out of the park at record pace. Selig realised the attention that home run records get, which are the most storied records in sports. Home runs give the sport media attention and puts bums in the seats. Fehr sees a 15 homer guy hitting 40 homers and then demanding and getting slugger money.
Bryant plays this up also as sports writers folly. It is almost the story that was never broken it was just known by the public. He chastises players who “lie” to media such as Giambi did. Saying, “I never took steroids” to the press isn’t as shameful an act as Bryant plays it up. Sports press are idiots and are increasingly non journalists but just retired players. He, himself a newspaper sports writer, says it is professional suicide to break a story about a scandal or cheating or any illegal activity.
All in all a slow read but deeply investigates the people and forces that have made baseball in the last 15 years a Juiced Game.