By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Richie Sexson hit 45 homers last season.

Richie Sexson
Hey, who wouldn't want to see the major-league home-run leader?

I found this out while reading Sports Illustrated's baseball preview in the bathtub this weekend. First, I thought it was a typo. 45 homers? Richie Sexson? So I climbed out of the tub, cruised online and checked Richie's career stats on ESPN.com. Sure enough, it was true. Richie hit .271 with 45 homers and 125 RBI, which apparently makes him the modern-day Harmon Killebrew. I had no idea.

So I was thinking about it ... and thinking about it ... and it slowly dawned on me that I'm out of the loop. Me and Major League Baseball have officially jumped the shark.

Hey, I still follow the Red Sox -- diligently, actually -- and watch good-sized chunks of the vast majority of their games on television. I still operate two fantasy teams. I still visit Fenway 15-20 times a year. I'm definitely a baseball fan. But a hardcore fan? Not anymore. Maybe I've been denying it to myself for years, but the fact remains, I couldn't name three guys on Florida's pitching staff. I couldn't tell you who's batting cleanup for San Diego. I couldn't name the Cubs' closer. I have absolutely no idea who manages the Cincinnati Reds. You could give me 20 guesses to name Kansas City's catcher and I'd start making up Spanish first names that went with "Alomar."

Now I'm picking up the pieces. What happened? How could this happen to me, one of the undisputed fantasy visionaries of the 20th century? The guy who once played 162 games of MicroLeague Baseball between the '69 Mets and the '75 Sox with one other friend? The guy who could rattle off the stats of every relevant major-league hitter from 1974 to 1988 without even blinking? The guy who collected so many baseball cards that he even sorted them into quirky categories, like an "All-Ugly" pile devoted to people like Bill Stein, Andy Etcheberren and Walt "No-Neck" Williams?

This couldn't be my fault. Blame? You want blame? I'll pass out some blame.

In descending order ...

Problem No. 6: The Game

Pokey Reese
What team is Pokey Reese playing for this week?

Too many teams, too much expansion, juiced-up balls, bandbox stadiums, World Series games ending at 12:30 in the morning ... it's just a crummy product right now. Expansion has ruined every professional sport to a degree, but only baseball has been ravaged by it. When only one-third of your franchises have a realistic chance to win the world championship every season, that's beyond ludicrous. Surely there hasn't been another league that antagonized this many fans in this many cities.

To make matters worse, there doesn't seem to be any master plan in place. Have you ever seen a league with more bozos running it than Major League Baseball? They should just hire the guy from "Memento" to be in charge -- then absolutely nothing would make sense and we could have exchanges like this:

-- "Memento" Guy: "I'm disbanding the Pirates and the Royals, then pooling their players to a team we're stationing in Guam."
-- Assistant: "Um, you already did that."
-- "Memento" Guy: "I did? Well get me the Pirates' owner on the phone. I want to try to save baseball in Pittsburgh!"
-- Assistant: "Huh?"
-- "Memento" Guy: "You heard me! Do it!"

You get the idea. What happened with the Expos and Twins this winter was an absolute disgrace. I never thought baseball would top canceling the World Series in '94, but this came pretty damn close. Suddenly baseball has turned into the MLS. It's really, really bugging me. I'm ashamed to be a baseball fan sometimes.

Along those same lines ...

Problem No. 5: The Stats
I repeat: Richie Sexson slammed 45 homers last season, 11 more than Jose Cruz Jr., eight more than Rich Aurilia and Bret Boone, four more than Troy Glaus, four less than Jim Thome, 12 less than Luis Gonzalez and 28 less than Barry Bonds. It's totally out of control. What used to be the most fun thing about following baseball -- keeping track of the stats, understanding when someone or something deviated from the norm -- has been completely thrown out of whack, and all sense of historical perspective has been demolished.

The spin control really cracks me up. The players are much bigger now! Weight training is much better nowadays! The bats are better! People recover from injuries faster! The illegal drugs are better and harder to detect! Puh-leeeze. You're telling me that there hasn't been just as many advancements that helped pitchers and fielders?

Face the facts: They shortened fences, watered down pitching staffs and turned baseballs into oversized golf balls, just to cater to the Cheap Thrill Factor (a k a.: home runs galore). Most records are meaningless now. Sad but true.

Problem No. 4: The Sports Gal
She doesn't like baseball very much. Tolerates it. Doesn't like it. She allows Sox games from time to time, and I can even coerce her into watching Pedro when he's on his game ... but "Baseball Tonight" basically died for me three years ago. If she even sees Karl Ravech's face, she has some sort of "Exorcist"/Pavlovian reaction: "No, no, no! We're not watching this! I recognize that guy! Turn it! Turn it or I will rip your head off!"

That means I only catch "Baseball Tonight" if she somehow nods out early, which means I practically develop Karpal-Tunnel Syndrome during the baseball season rubbing her head so she passes out before 10:30. I have even resorted to watching chick flicks after 9 p.m., then getting the head rubs slowly going so she'll pass out, then switching channels on mute to baseball, then slowly increasing the volume while trying not to wake her up. It's pathetic. Honestly, somebody should just shoot me in the head.

And watching a non-Red Sox game? Forget it. She flips out. It's not even an option. Having cable on two televisions has helped, but you can't play that "I'll go upstairs, you stay down here" card more than two times a week or else they start holding a grudge and pulling the "We only get to see each other at nights and now you don't even want to hang out with me" routine, which is about as fun as a chemotherapy session.

(Wait a second ... am I using my out-loud voice again? Dammit!)

With all of that said, I can't really blame her for feeling so anti-baseball. You either have to follow the game or you can't follow it at all. There's no middle ground. Subjecting the Sports Gal to the rigors of a 162-game season just wouldn't be fair. At least until we get a dog.

Problem No. 3: Baseball Robo-Journalism
This deserves its own column at some point, but we might as well touch on it here. Bill James started Robo-Journalism with his superb "Baseball Abstracts" in the '80s, which worked because he knew his stuff and remained a fan at heart. He made the game more fun for me to watch, helped me understand things better. For instance, I always thought Andre Dawson had an MVP season in 1987... but the fact remains, his on-base percentage was only .322. Can you really be an MVP when you only get on base 32 percent of the time? James pointed this stuff out to me. I loved him for it. He seemed like the kind of guy with whom you could kick back and talk baseball, but not in a nerdy way. Those people are few and far between.

Unfortunately, James spawned a number of knockoff artists that took his work to the next level, only without the same feeling and spirit. You know these guys. You've read them. They're condescending, they're comprehensive and they could suck the fun out of an amusement park ride (not all of them, just some of them). When we're getting to the point where somebody's telling me that Derek Jeter really isn't a great player because his OPS and field range rating don't compare favorably with A-Rod and Nomar ... I mean, haven't we gone too far?

Here's what really bothers me: These guys make me feel inadequate as a baseball fan. Either you throw yourselves into this stuff and know everyone's OPS and EqA's and DT's, or you have to take a step back and say to them, "You know what? You win. You know more than me. I can't compete with this. If it's OK with you, I would still like to be a baseball fan, though. Good luck and God speed."

So that's what I'm saying. I'm happy so many fledgling writers carved a mini-cottage industry for themselves with this stuff ... it's just not for me, that's all. It makes me not like baseball as much.

Problem No. 2: Getting Old
Don't worry, I'm not going to pull a Steve Rushin and wax poetic about how great things were when I was 8. But when you reach your 30s, your Tolerance Level drops dramatically, your Responsibility Level increases, and it becomes much more difficult to subject yourself to the day-to-day grind of a professional sports season -- there simply isn't enough time in the day. I find I'm choosing sports over each other. The first one to go was college football (early '90s). The NHL quickly followed (mid-'90s). College hoops was next (late '90s). Now I'm down to the NBA (my favorite sport), the NFL (a close second) and baseball (a distant third), although I love the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics equally, if that makes sense.

And when you get older, you never care quite as much as you used to care. For instance, last year, for the first time in my life, I totally locked out the Red Sox season. I avoided them for the entire month of September. I hated last year's team. Really, I did. "Hate" is a strong word, but I hated that team. They were like a "Real World" episode gone to hell. And maybe 10 years ago, I would have watched all the games, anyway ... but now I have the attitude of "You know what? I have better things to do." Like watch "Dismissed."

Problem No. 1: The Length of the Games
No question about it ... here's the No. 1 problem. Baseball games take too damned long. Wayyyyyyyyy too long. I think Game 4 of the World Series took three days to play.

This all goes back to my 150-Minute Rule: Nothing should last for more than 150 minutes, unless there's a really good reason. Remember, the MTV Generation totally changed the way we watch TV; three-hour-plus baseball games aren't nearly as appealing as they were 25 years ago, when we only had six other TV channels. And sitting in the stands for that long ... forget it. It's like being trapped on a coach flight from Boston to Vegas.

Hey, baseball people know they have a problem. Believe me, they know. When fans are lapsing into comas, blacking out in the bleachers and trying to get intentionally hit in the head by foul balls, you have a problem. Last week's USA Today ran a feature entitled "BASEBALL PLANS TO PICK UP THE PACE," which was the "U.S. CLOSES IN ON BIN LADEN" of sports headlines this winter. Whatever. Some of MLB's plans to save seconds were so absurdly obvious, it was like reading one of those articles about allergies where Rule No. 1 for avoiding hay fever is "Stay inside."

When you think about it, baseball games possess the least amount of action of any sport. Why is baseball the only sport that allows players to intentionally delay the game? Why can't their players be more prepared to move things along? I didn't realize how bad things had gotten until I read the USA Today feature, which included some of these actual suggestions:

A. A batter won't get a timeout when he steps out of the box to disrupt the pitcher ... (he) can step out of the box if he's distracted by an insect or blowing dust.

B. A batter must have two bats ready (in case one breaks), and the batboy must have one in reasonable proximity to the on-deck circle.

(Isn't it amazing that we're even suggesting these things? Can you imagine if you were watching an NBA game and Chris Webber is about to shoot a free throw, but Shaq keeps stepping off the foul line to distract him? What about Paul Pierce getting ready to inbound the basketball, then suddenly deciding that he needs to re-adjust his jockstrap, headbands, wristbands and tie his sneakers? Or Steve Nash breaking a shoelace, then stopping the game for five minutes while he heads into the locker room for another shoe?)

C. On his second trip to the mound, a manager must signal for a right-hander or left-hander from the top of the dugout step before he steps onto the field. When a reliever hits the warning track, he has 2:30 to get to the mound and complete his warm-up times. Possible savings: 9-10½ minutes.

(Well, jeez ... it's always fun to watch an old guy with a potbelly amble out to the mound and huddle indefinitely with a bunch of younger players, especially when we can't hear anything that they're saying. Why would they want to get rid of this?)

D. Pitchers have 12 seconds to throw the ball, starting from the time the batter has stepped in the box and the pitcher has stepped on the rubber.

(I can't agree with this one. Pitchers should clearly get the 50 to 60 seconds to which they've grown accustomed, because I really enjoy sitting there and watching a guy grip a baseball, stare straight ahead and occasionally shake his head back and forth. Please, we need more of this. And if they can step off the rubber right before the pitch and start the whole process over again, that's even better.)

E. Some theme songs for players can last 25-30 seconds as the players comes to bat. Solution: Limit the special music to 5-8 seconds.

(Limit the special music? Limit the special music? But that's why we're there! We're there for the special music!)

F. When fans become so bored that they start hurling bags of urine onto the field, they will only be allowed to do so between innings.

(OK, I made that one up. Just wanted to see if you were still awake.)

G. With 25 seconds left in the (commercial break between innings, which last for two minutes and five seconds), the PA announcer should announce the next batter, who should be at the plate when the telecast comes out of commercial.

(Wait a second ... why would the batter want to be standing in the batter's box when the telecast comes out of commercial? Then we wouldn't be able to see him adjust his batting gloves and his protective cup. This is an outrage!)

H. All pre-game ceremonies must end five minutes before game time. Extracurricular activites, such as scoreboard quizzes and T-shirt throws, must be adjusted to guarantee the innings start on time.

All right, enough. I can't take it anymore.

Seeing this stuff in print, seeing how obvious everything is, knowing they could chop 35-40 minutes off every game just by enforcing the damned rules ... it kills me. Really, it kills me. And the USA Today story didn't even mention how The Return of the Bullpen Car could chop off a few more minutes every game. Come on, everyone loves the bullpen car! As a kid, I remember going to games just hoping for pitching changes, just so the bullpen car would come out. As an adult, I'd be sitting in the stands betting on things like "What's the bullpen car driver's blood-alcohol level right now?"

Would they ever bring the bullpen car back, much less make any of these other changes? Of course not. You and I both know that the Powers-That-Be are too stupid to pull these things off. You'd have a better chance of seeing Jack Osbourne named Peer Leader of his 10th grade class.

Would I watch more baseball games if they took 135 to 150 minutes to play, instead of 180 to 210? Absolutely. But it's not going to happen.

Same with the Sports Gal allowing me to watch "Baseball Tonight" ... or robo-baseball journalists not bugging me ... or the quality of play returning to a reasonable level ... or the league contracting to a more manageable 26 teams and instituting a salary cap ... or stats becoming relevant again because the fences have been moved back and/or baseballs can't pass for golf balls anymore ... or a commissioner who actually improved the quality of the game (the way David Stern made the NBA a better place over the past two decades) ... or not getting older ... or not getting distracted by quality TV like "Real World" and "G-String Divas"?

Would I watch more baseball if these things changed? Yeah, probably. In the mean time, I'm throwing myself into another Red Sox season, hitting Fenway as much as possible and following my fantasy guys. Maybe I'll even take Richie Sexson for one of my fantasy teams. Did you know he slammed 45 homers for the Indians last year?

Or was it the Brewers?

Maybe it was the Astros?

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.




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