Earlier this week, ESPN's Tim Kurkjian wrote a long piece speculating about what baseball might look like in the year 2037. The column is smart, illuminating and infused with the profound love of baseball that we've gotten used to from Kurkjian over the years. Agree or disagree with him, it's undeniable that he traditionally has baseball's best interests at heart.
Some of the ideas are logical and seem inevitable (the universal DH; more protective netting around the field). Some of them are tied in directly to things that seem to be in the works already (pitch clocks; increased replay). Some of them will be irritating for the purists among us, though sometimes I wonder if "purist" simply means "stop screwing around and let the game be baseball" (ads on uniforms; runners put on second base to start the 12th inning). And some of them just seem flat-out blasphemous (no American League or National League; oh, Kurkjian also thinks the league will contract two teams, the remaining 28 clubs playing each other six times with the top 10 teams making the playoffs).
The thing they all have in common, whether they're logical or part of the current conversation or not, is that they're all difficult to wrap your mind around. Ads on uniforms! No leagues! Goodbye Oakland and Tampa Bay! They seem like mammoth changes that would be difficult for MLB to implement.
But 20 years is a loooong time. The world will change a lot more than baseball will in 20 years, and baseball can't help but evolve. If you look at an MLB game from 1997 -- 20 years ago -- it barely looks like the same game.
While some of Kurkjian's predictions might seem outlandish now, 20 years can bring all sorts of wild changes no one could have anticipated. If I took a time machine back to 1997 and wrote a column predicting all the things that would happen, I would be laughed out of the room or burned at the stake as a heretic. (Were they burning people at the stake in 1997? I was in college then -- that year is a bit of a blur.)
So let's imagine what things have happened in the past 20 years of baseball, and how absurd they would have seemed in 1997.
- There will not be a single work stoppage.
- On particularly close calls, umpires will call a special operations center in New York City where replay specialists and an umpire watch the play in frame-by-frame slow motion to determine the correct call.
- This center in New York City is actually part of a much larger operation that is primarily dedicated to allowing fans to watch every single baseball game live, as it happens, on their computers and their phones.
- They can watch any game, with access to every score, at any time anywhere in the country. It's awesome.
- You no longer will have to wait for your weekly faxed stats for your fantasy baseball league. You don't have to get the box scores from USA Today either.
- Oh, we should probably talk about newspapers.
- Players have access to a program called Twitter that allows them to express their thoughts instantaneously for the entire world to read.
Does Cher not have a right nipple...confused by the pastie situation- Brett Anderson (@BAnderson3737) May 22, 2017
- Oh, thanks to something called "Statcast™" -- it involves cameras and computers and all sorts of things -- you will be able to tell how far a ball is hit, how fast it came off the bat, how fast the pitch was, how fast the fielder was running … pretty much anything you want.
- Nobody will care about RBIs anymore, except people in fantasy leagues.
- Runners will no longer be able to bowl over the catcher at home plate or take out the shortstop on double plays.
- Hitters will wear protective gear everywhere including, in some cases, masks.
- There will be two Wild Card spots in each league, with a single one-game playoff to determine who goes to the Division Series.
- The highest-paid baseball player will make more than $30 million.
- The highest total payroll will be more than $300 million.
- The Tampa Bay franchise that debuts in 1998 will not, in fact, be an overwhelming financial success.
- The Florida Marlins are called the Miami Marlins, and they play in a stadium with a massive art-deco sculpture in center field.
- The Houston Astros will play in the American League, in a stadium that will have, for many years, a hill in center field and a flagpole.
- Actually, there will be 17 new ballparks built and opened in the next 20 years.
- The Expos will leave Montreal and play in Washington, D.C.
- Otherwise, no teams will move.
- Teams will average nearly a strikeout an inning.
- Not only do pitchers almost never win 20 games anymore, it's not really considered a big deal that they don't.
- You will no longer have to throw four balls for an intentional walk. Managers can just signal what they want to do to the umpire and the batter takes first base.
- Fielders will move around on the diamond depending on where they believe players will hit the ball rather than standing in their traditional positions.
- That guy who's taking over for Sandy Alderson in Oakland next October? He'll end up being played in a movie by the young cop from "Se7en," who will turn into a massive star, get married to Rachel from "Friends," leave her for the woman with short hair from the movie "Hackers" (Jon Voight's daughter), then get divorced again.
- The Red Sox will win the World Series. Three times!
- And the Cubs will win it too!
- Not the Indians, though, don't get crazy.
- Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are not in the Hall of Fame by the year 2017.
- Roger Maris' home run record will be broken in 1998!
- That new record will be broken by 2001.
- Bud Selig will have just recently retired and become Commissioner Emeritus.
- I know, that's the hardest one to believe.
* * *
What ones did I miss? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org what things would most surprise 1997 baseball fans.