Did Big Mac Really Save Baseball?

>> Thursday

What I’m embarking on is admittedly a flawed science, but it was spawned by an ESPN Page 2 Article on whether or not Mark McGwire should make the Hall of Fame. Certainly his career statistics are impressive (16 seasons, 583 HR, 1414 RBI, .982 OPS) enough to warrant consideration.

For some, the spectre of steroids overhangs McGwire’s bid for the Hall of Fame. I’m not going to argue in favor of denying McGwire the Hall of Fame on this front because of three reasons. First, McGwire always had high HR totals, and in any season where he was healthy, he almost always managed to hit 30-40 HRs a season. So a “juiced period” where his stats picked up, doesn’t appear evident. Secondly, in a country where people are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty, and McGwire has never been proven guilty of any steroid charges, you can’t deny someone the Hall based on suspicions. Thirdly, steroids were not specifically banned by Major League Baseball when McGwire is alleged to have used them.

I'd like to disclose that I do think McGwire took illegal steroids, but at the time, it was not specifically against the rules. His refusal to testify about his own use or lack thereof of illegal performance-enhancing drugs has convicted him in the court of public opinion for many people, including myself. However, I will not let steroids enter into this discussion, because it is off-topic to my central point.

The argument that I hear most often in response to the steroid controversy (even more than, "they weren't illegal at the time"!) is that steroids or not, McGwire “saved baseball” with his home run chase with Sammy Sosa in 1998. That intangible seems to be the overriding sentiment to let bygones be bygones on a now-taboo issue, and certainly makes for a more glowing history, adding the fate of baseball hanging int he balance to a now-epic duel. But did McGwire really "save" baseball?

This is such a nebulous question of causation, so any statistics used are going to be imperfect ("What is defined by "saved"?). However, the question can be rephrased as "Is Mark McGwire one of the central reasons why Major League Baseball has rebounded from ill will caused by the 1994 strike to the state of success it is in today?" I don't believe this to be the case.

One of the figures you can use to compute baseball's well-being is its attendance. With a 162-game schedule both before and after McGwire, did the home run chase inject energy back into baseball, drawing more people to ballparks than before? Conventional wisdom says yes, and in support of this, it is worth noting that 20 of the 30 MLB teams have set their respective season-total attendance records after 1998. However, upon closer examination, you can see that this may not be related to McGwire, but to baseball’s stadium construction boom or just a good product on the field.

Looking closely at those 20 teams that hit record total attendances after the McGwire-Sosa Chase (1999-Present), we find that 6 franchises had either a new stadium that season, or a new city (Washington). 13 of the 20 teams that hit records either went to the playoffs that season or had gone the year before. In addition, since 1991, 20 of 30 teams have either sprung into existence, moved to a new city, or built a new stadium. An additional 6 teams have seen their old stadiums renovated or expanded (CHC, BOS, KC, LAA, OAK, LAD). It should also not be overlooked that the ownership of no fewer than 8 stadiums changed hands from local government authorities to the ballclubs themselves, keeping gameday revenues inside MLB instead of in rent payments to local governments. It appears that successful teams and the novelty/curiosity of new teams/stadiums bring in people. Likewise, control over revenue streams brings wealth.

The data seen above also holds up in similar circumstances for the remaining 10 teams who hit their yearly attendance record in 1998 or before. Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Florida had their all-time high attendances in their inaugural years. Texas, Toronto, Oakland, Minnesota, Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Cincinnati had all been to the playoffs either the season of or season before their all-time records.

But individual teams' record attendance is by its nature a flawed statistic since it is wholly concerns a statistical outlier. What about total regular season attendance? According to Major League Baseball, more people walked through the turnstiles of all MLB stadiums this summer than in any previous summer, besting the previous record year of 1993. (Of course, in 1993, there were two fewer teams.) In 2006 though, Mark McGwire had been retired for five seasons. OK, maybe he "kickstarted" the process, but with McGwire giving us all hope again, a bevy of new stadia, two new teams (and their respective 162 extra home dates) and more on-field parity than before, wouldn't this have happened sooner than 8 years after the Chase?

So what caused the increase in attendance? The most common theory is that the 1994 introduction of the Wild Card and the 2002 CBA which increased revenue sharing has enabled more teams to compete for more playoff spots and be competitive later into the season. Given what we've already found out about winning teams drawing more, having more teams competitive late in the year would seemingly naturally lead to increased attendance. After all, everybody loves a winner.

What about TV ratings? If baseball is more popular at the box office, it would follow that the fans who couldn't get in would be watching the game on TV, right? Regular season ratings are difficult to track, due to the variety of broadcast outlets, gametimes, and teams playing. So I've decided to use ratings for the World Series as a measuring stick due to similarity in caliber of play, gametime, and collective consciousness (More people know the Cardinals are playing the Tigers tonight than knew the Cubs were playing the Rockies 3 1/2 weeks ago).

The 2005 World Series drew a rating of 11.1. This represented the lowest rating for a World Series since ratings started being tracked back in 1968. Outlier aside, it still represents a 21% decrease since 1998 (The Mac-Sammy Chase), and a 36% drop from 1993 (Last year before the strike). Admittedly, using Nielsen ratings is at best, an imperfect science, since it only tracks the number of TVs, not the number of people watching (like in sports bars), however, this can't account for all of the ratings drop, since I'd imagine people watched baseball in sports bars before Big Mac as well. Sure, you can bring up how since MLB started broadcasting games on the internet, more people can watch, but honestly, can you name 5 people you know who have paid for that service? Even then, if McGwire saved baseball, shouldn't TV viewership be if not soaring, at least not an all-time low?

This post should not be construed as my not wanting Mark McGwire in the Hall of Fame, or even to say that the Sosa-McGwire Chase didn't help baseball, I mean, it couldn't have hurt it.

But to say that McGwire "saved baseball" seems ridiculous. Major League Baseball is in the position it is in today because of more parity on the field and the replacement of outdated facilites like Jack Murphy Stadium and Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field.

6 comments:

Vinnie 8:19 PM  

Did you actually just use the plural of stadium, "stadia"? Who does that?? You pretentious, pseudointellectual shit. (And I'm not even gonna touch "nebulous question of causation.")

That aside, you are retarded.

"First, McGwire always had high HR totals, and in any season where he was healthy, he almost always managed to hit 30-40 HRs a season. So a “juiced period” where his stats picked up, doesn’t appear evident."

What?? Can you read stats? Obviously you can, as the rest of this post indicates, but I'm not so sure you can interpret them very judiciously. (And you're gonna be a lawyer...Jesus.)

Here's a hint: 1995. Here's another hint: 1996. Do you not see the obvious jump in ABs/HR from his '88-'92 rate? Do you also not see that he did this despite coming off two seasons lost to injury? Do you also not see that he boosted his HR rate while hitting for significantly better BAs from '96-'00? You have got to be kidding me.

Also, do you have eyes? If so, would you mind digging through your baseball card shoebox and finding a Mark McGwire baseball card from, say, the late 80s or early 90s? Tell me that's the same guy you saw in a Cardinals uniform.

As far as your central issue, I agree that baseball interest and attendance were on the rebound regardless of the Sammy-McGwire crap. I also agree that it shouldn't keep him out of the HOF because performance enhancing drugs have been, and from now on always will be, a lasting part of any sport.

But come on; no evidence of an unusual jump in production? You crazy, brotha.

Mike 8:42 PM  

When I brought up his stats, I didn't break it down per at bat. I just wanted to see was if he went from hitting 20 home runs one year to 70 the next, and didn't really see that. I'll admit, I didn't pore over his statbook, and like I said, I think he used steroids, so I'm not defending the man, or claiming that it was all clean. All I'm saying with regards to his production was that nothing was ever PROVEN (at least to my knowledge), and as such, you couldn't condemn him on the appearance of guilt. (I might have played a little fast with the stats, but like I said, whether he juiced or not wasn't my central point.)

The main point was to counteract the claim that he "Saved baseball," which I find utterly ridiculous, but many people in the general public and sports media accept as fact.

Nathan 2:52 AM  

Did McGwire and Sosa "save baseball?"

No.

Did they speed up the process?

Yes.

Did the general concept of Sosa/McGwire (i.e. STEROIDS) save baseball?

Yes!

There is a reason that baseball is the National Pastime. It will most likely be popular for at least another thousand years or so.

But the McGwire/Sosa Race to the Record sped up the process of fan re-acceptance.

Stats and all that shit is just ridiculous for a situation like this. Anyone who lived through 1998 as a baseball fan knows that interest in the game was given a shot in the arm, so to speak.

For the first time since the strike, people had a REASON to tune in. They had a reason to cheer. They had a reason to watch.

Would baseball have come back eventually? Probably, but not to the extent that it has.
Unfortunately we have to accept that the majority of consumers are not as into the actual games as we at YCS are. Consumers as a whole want home runs, feel-good stories and record chases.

The old euphemism that no publicity is bad publicity applies perfectly here. Steroids saved baseball. However you want to define that, whatever. But steroids saved baseball.

And if you say any differently, fuck you. Seriously, fuck you. Because you know in your heart of hearts that steroids saved baseball.

Nathan 3:07 AM  

I guess I should qualify all that by adding this...

Baseball would be a better, purer sport without steroids. But without steroids, there would not be enough interest in MLB for it to be a success. In short: all things considered, baseball would have suffered from the absence of steroids.

Matt 7:31 AM  

Slow down, Nate. I think you're overreaching by saying that baseball is still the national pasttime. I think by just about every metric you use, the NFL has taken over as the single most dominant sport in the country.

For probably the most ridiculous evidence of this, look how much attention is given during the week to a normal NFL game compared to the damn World Series. Seriously, Chad Johnson asking to be called "ochenta y cinco" (which was awesome, by the way) probably got as much coverage on ESPN as did Game 4.

So what I'm sayin' is, baseball's a dead scene, man. Sooo played.

Vinnie 12:46 PM  

Speaking of Chad Johnson (way off topic now), this week's SI cover may be the best since that one from 1994 showing a pouty Derrick Coleman above the headline "Whaaaa."

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