Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball WHGB: Once more unto the breach

WHGB: Once more unto the breach

by Matt Smith

There’s nothing quite like the first week of Spring Training games.  From the players to the fans, everyone has a smile on their face as the sport comes out of hibernation once again. 

As the players are busy running through training drills to prepare for the season ahead, this also seems like a good time to start preparing for our season here at BaseballGB (not that we really have an off-season).  So treat this as a Spring Training edition of my feature column: ‘Weekly Hit Ground Ball’. 

This will be the third year of WHGB.  I’ve used two different formats during the first two years and I’ll be making a slight change yet again in ’09.  I plan to focus on two or three key stories every Sunday that have caught my interest from the previous seven days, in particular where this allows me to put across my own experiences of following baseball news and events. 

Baseball’s Olympic plans

Despite the natural pessimism that most baseball fans felt towards the sports’ bid to return to the Olympic programme, the International Baseball Federation’s (IBAF) approach up until this week had given me grounds for optimism. 

Dr Harvey Schiller, President of the IBAF, had made a favourable impression while capitalizing on the success of the 2008 Olympic Baseball tournament.  His dogged pursuit of Bud Selig had also made it seem more likely than ever before that at least some Major League players could be part of a 2016 Olympics.  Add in the high hopes for the Baseball World Cup in Europe later this year and Schiller’s plan was slowly gaining momentum.

Now, pessimism is firmly back on top again.

The IBAF President issued a statement on Wednesday revealing his hopes that softball would join forces with baseball as part of a joint bid for re-election.  Initially this sounds like a reasonable proposition.  The two sports have been close partners for years and, with just two Olympic spots up for grabs, a combined bid would allow them to pool resources.

The trouble with this plan is that there had been growing signs of softball, in some quarters at least, looking to disassociate itself from its more illustrious brother. 

The two main charges against baseball’s Olympic claims are that its best players do not take part in the event and its approach towards the use of drugs has been timid at best (although the latter has improved considerably over the last five years).  Neither of these factors applies to softball.  The International Olympic Committee has also shown a blatant disregard for baseball over the years and there’s little doubt that ingrained prejudice against the sport was another factor in its demotion. 

Quite simply, if you want to get into a party, you don’t turn up with someone who the host doesn’t particularly like. 

Just two days after Schiller’s public approach, the International Softball Federation (ISF) has said ‘thanks, but no thanks’.  In fact, President Don Porter’s rejection was pretty blunt: “we feel we’re a separate independent sport and we don’t want to show there’s any connection with us and baseball”.

Judging by reports, there are still plenty of national softball federations that do value their working relationship with baseball.  BaseballSoftballUK is a good example of how the two sports can come together successfully.  Just this week for example, BSUK helped to arrange a promotional visit from two famous Japanese softball coaches, Taeko Utsuki and Juri Takayama, to a local high school in my home county of Norfolk.

But these recent events do give me cause for worry as they strongly imply the following two statements are true.  Baseball feels it would have a better chance of reinstatement with softball.  Softball thinks that baseball is on to a loser and they’ll be better off on their own.

Now that the ISF have publicly distanced themselves from baseball, I hope both statements turn out to be wrong.

However, I fear that they may be accurate.

When Britain feels like Arizona/Florida

Okay, perhaps we’re not quite getting the suntan lotion out, but the Spring Training coverage provided by MLB.com certainly gives you a sense of the atmosphere over in the States.  The majority of the games are being covered by at least one radio feed (sometimes two: home and away) and a number of games have been available via MLB.tv as well.

We haven’t seen the much-hyped new Flash-based media player so far, but it will be used for “select Spring Training games”, according to the promotional banner on MLB.com.  When it does materialize, don’t forget that some of the features demoed in the Silverlight player last March ultimately disappeared once the regular season came around.  Of course, now the whole Silverlight player has disappeared, with few tears being shed as a result.  A lot of expectations have been placed on the new media player and MLB.com will try to ensure that we are not disappointed again.

The full range of Premium features will not be available until the regular season begins and I won’t be able to pass comment on them in any case.  After much deliberation, I decided to cancel the auto-renewal on my MLB.TV Premium subscription and signed up for the basic MLB.tv package instead.  I rarely used the Premium extras last year so I’ll stick to the standard features and spend the twenty quid I saved on a few baseball books. 

That’s unless I have to spend the money on international phone calls after MLB bills me twice.

The state of the press

I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to bits of the A’s first few Spring Training games via the MLB.com commentary.  However there was a depressing moment during the opener on Wednesday when A’s beat writer Susan Slusser joined the broadcasting crew for an inning or two.  Slusser provides fantastic coverage of Oakland’s finest in the San Francisco Chronicle, yet this may change in the near future.  The newspaper’s owners have announced plans for significant job cuts and have threatened that the paper could be closed down if a buyer is not found.  It’s the latest story in what is being described as a “crisis in the US newspaper industry”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel strongly that blogs and internet sites like this one can make a great contribution to the enjoyment of sports; however the value of talented journalists should never be taken for granted.  They are the ones who have access to the players, who can bring us stories and insights into the human element of the game that the rest of us can’t hope to provide.  The likes of Slusser deserve our support as they play an invaluable role in helping us to follow the baseball season.

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