One of the best baseball books ever written is Roger Angell's "The Five Seasons." In it, he chronicles what he considers the most pivotal set of seasons in baseball history. Spanning from 1972-1976, he highlights seismic changes to the game of baseball like the introduction of free agency and the designated hitter.
Angell has brilliant things to say about both of those particular changes, but I won't spoil them here. If you're a fan of baseball or just a fan of good writing, this book has plenty of appeal.
What I like is that thinking about these two shifts in baseball specifically is a good reminder that some changes are good (free agency) and some not quite (the designated hitter).
Baseball has had other periods when the sport changed in some major way -- ending the "dead ball" era, integration, to name a couple -- and it undoubtedly will undergo another sizable shift in the coming years. Angell highlights those two in particular, but the reality is the baseball has been slowly evolving pretty constantly since it became a professional sport in the late 19th century.
In just the past few years, think about things like teams using an opener -- a relief pitcher who comes in and pitches just the first inning to start a game -- or the emphasis on launch angle that seems already to be fading out of the discussion, or this season's brief fixation on foreign substances and spot checks on pitchers between innings. There's always something that's changing, at least a little.
When this season ends, players and owners will negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, and it could include the designated hitter in the National League. By the time my grandkids are watching games, the idea of a pitcher batting will seem quaint and strange (and their grandfather will gather them around to tell them why that's still wrong, gosh darn it).
And like the 1970s, some of the changes of the past few years have stuck around and are ultimately good, and some have faded away because they weren't. Teams don't really use openers anymore, effectively ending what was a brief experiment. Some changes stick around even though their benefit to the game is questionable. The defensive shift, for example, has led even former players to declare that modern baseball is too boring to watch.
It's felt to me over the past couple of years like we're experiencing some seismic shifts in our culture. It's hard to think about how they will play out over the long term because we're in the midst of it, but that's the sense I get. In the microcosm of baseball, I don't think fans in 1973 could tell immediately how much the designated hitter was going to change the game, or on a larger scale, how much free agency would. We don't have the benefit of hindsight yet, and we won't for a long time, to know whether the ways our culture is changing now are good or not or whether they will stand the test of time.
But even as baseball has evolved significantly over the years, it has remained a constant. Its popularity and place in the American zeitgeist has changed a lot, but it's still there. Angell could probably have written a sequel or two to his book in the decades since, but despite all the ways the sport has changed, Angell -- at the spry age of 101 -- still follows each season closely.
That's the thing I have my eye on in the bigger picture though: What are we seeing now that seems so important but won't have staying power? What will prove to be a landscape-shifter? And what will remain constant?
Jared is a freelance baseball writer who lives in suburban Chicago with his wife and four young children who share his love of baseball. When he's not doing that, he teaches and reads baseball history.