"You'll like baseball. It's a civilized pastime."
--From the Broadway musical, "Ragtime"
Fifty years ago this month the Detroit Tigers won the 1968 World Series 4 games to 3 over the exceptionally talented St. Louis Cardinals (Curt Flood, Mike Shannon, Orlando Cepeda). Detroit (Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Jim Northrup) was down 3 games to 1 and Tigers fans, including me, thought there was little chance the Motor City team could win a seemingly insurmountable three straight. Especially with Game 7 being played under the Arch in St. Louis against future Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Gibson.
Detroit pitcher Mickey Lolich won three complete-game victories and was named World Series MVP. The improbable comeback was due in large part to Lolich's left arm--and Willie Horton's perfect throw in Game 5 to catcher Bill Freehan who tagged out Lou Brock as Brock decided to stand up and not slide into home plate.
A baseball era ended Thursday, October 10th at 3:07 p.m., Central Time, with the final out at Busch Memorial Stadium. The Tigers winning 4-1 before a sellout crowd of 54,692.
There are several historical observations about the '68 World Series in which the Tigers were managed by Mayo Smith and the Cardinals by another future Hall of Famer, Red Schoendienst. Most notably is that was the last World Series where American and National League champions would enter a Fall Classic without going through a playoff process. In succeeding years TV money, seven figure contracts, best of five and best of seven series, plus team expansions, would launch baseball into a totally different era.
That was then
If the business model of professional baseball was about to change in significant ways so was the nature and development of its future talent.
Five decades later what is the status of baseball pipelines such as Little League, high schools, college, farm systems, and minor leagues?
"They can't play catch," says Jack Thompson, a 40-year high school baseball coach from California who spoke with The New York Times. While Thompson says young players can scorch line drives, hit 400-foot homers, and hurl blazing fastballs, these future major leaguers have to be taught how to play catch.
The story makes clear that the new "holy grail" is a college athletic scholarship. However, in pursuit of that goal "the fundamentals are falling by the wayside in favor of flashier skills like big-league-style hitting and pitching," according to sportswriter, Bill Pennington.
The report adds that private coaching, specialized camps, and travel teams, all have the same objective--to place youth players in college recruiting showcases.
As a result of these new values, Pennington concludes, "a generation of top ballplayers has, in most cases, spent little time learning how to accurately throw across the diamond; catch a fly ball; field a ground ball and turn a double play; run the bases effectively; make a tag at a base, or, God forbid, bunt."
Where are the parents?
I shared a Southwest flight from Kansas City to Chicago with a sports consultant who specializes in identifying young talent for major colleges and professional sports. What I learned is that the driving force for these kinds of changes in player development and recruiting is often the parent.
My seatmate said that even the advent of newly designed uniforms by traditional football programs (Notre Dame; University of Miami; Iowa State; Arizona State; Army and Navy; Texas A & M) is an enticement to high school athletes and their families to come and be part of something new.
Let's take this idea of specialization and move it into the marketplace.
What are employers looking for?
They want employees who are talented but can also work as a team. Who know how to play catch, and maybe hit an occasional home run. They're after personalities that are more fully developed in all aspects of life. Those who are composed and balanced in their dealings with colleagues and customers.
There's no going back in time and the past was never as good as we remember it to be. Nonetheless, hard work, proficiency, and maturity are traits as desirable in people today as they were fifty years ago. For inspiration, look at the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals whose 1968 rosters were filled with players of that kind.
(C) Bredholt & Co.