Spring 2022 Issue

Inside Baseball


By Noah Robertson '19
Illustrations By Jude Buffam

Spring 2022 Issue

When Brendan Harris ’02 arrived in New York City for opening day in April 2007, he was too afraid to use the gym.

At that time, Yankee Stadium had one facility for use by both the home and visiting teams, and Harris — in his first season starting in the majors for the Tampa Bay Rays — felt, well, out of his league. The entire stadium was designed to intimidate, with memorabilia of Yankee greats displayed on the path to the visitor clubhouse. Harris could handle posters of Babe Ruth, less so standing next to Derek Jeter on the bench press.

“I was so wired,” he says. “I couldn’t calm myself down.”

He almost felt lucky he didn’t have to play. The series ended early with a late April snowstorm, and Harris spent the plane ride home reflecting. Even his idols in Yankee Stadium were one day in his shoes, he thought, and they found a way to face the pressure. If he was serious about staying in the major leagues, he had to behave like a major leaguer.

“We go back there two more times this season,” he thought. “I’m going to have to get it together and be able to calm myself down and play on that field.”

He did.

By the time Harris returned, he had earned the Rays’ starting spot at shortstop and felt confident. He knew his process in batting practice, in the outfield and at the plate. He didn’t worry about the results. He wasn’t afraid to use the gym.

Harris learned how to adapt, in part, at William & Mary. There too, in his freshman year, he traveled far from home to make a career in baseball. There too, the season started under slight duress. The paint was still drying on the brand-new Plumeri Park by opening day, and the team had to start the season on the old field by Walter J. Zable Stadium. Change helped him manage adversity.

More than 20 years later, the question now is whether baseball itself can do the same. Harris’ two decades in the sport have straddled two eras, following the rapid shift toward gameplay based on advanced statistics. Many don’t enjoy the slower pace of play and strike-or-bust style that the “Moneyball” revolution has brought. In the last two decades, ratings have fallen in favor of other American sports like football and basketball. The 2022 season began with a contract dispute between Major League Baseball and the players’ union that led to the first lockout and canceled games since 1995.

In short, baseball is reinventing itself to find a more stable home in the wide world of sports. William & Mary alumni — from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, from owner to director of player development — are helping lead that process and rediscover what makes baseball baseball.

America’s pastime can’t take its popularity as a given anymore, but there are still signs of hope for the sport. MLB’s bases are loaded with a generation of young stars. In baseball and softball, youth involvement rose by almost 3 million from 2013 to 2018, according to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Almost two-thirds of those kids play consistently.

Meanwhile, the major and minor leagues are experimenting with rule changes — things like pitch clocks, automated “robot umpires” and larger bases — that executives hope will improve the on-field product. These experiments are important, but so are the fundamentals, says Joe Plumeri ’66, D.P.S. ’11, senior advisor to Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P. (KKR); co-owner of the Trenton Thunder and former co-owner of the Jersey Shore BlueClaws, both minor league baseball teams; and the leading force behind Plumeri Park. Baseball’s future, in his view, requires reconnecting with its foundation: the relationship between the team and the fans. Building on that, says Plumeri, doesn’t just give people a reason to tune in to games and travel to ballparks. It also gives them a sense for how baseball is a part of their identity, even if they don’t know it.

“Anytime somebody talks, they talk baseball,” he says. “You have ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ You’re not going to get anything done unless ‘you take a swing.’ You do a good job and ‘you hit a home run.’”

“It’s very difficult to separate a discussion about life from a discussion about baseball,” Plumeri says. “And I don’t think that that should be lost on us.”

“It’s very difficult to separate a discussion about life from a discussion about baseball, And I don’t think that that should be lost on us.”

The Game, Old and New

When baseball started, people didn’t know it would have a bigger meaning. They didn’t even know how to measure it.

The sport first blossomed in the 1840s, and by the Civil War both the North and South played it in between battles. As with any new sport, the way people understood it slowly evolved. Everyone knew that making it on base was better than making an out. But they didn’t have a system to separate good players or plays from the bad ones. With all that goes on in a game — pitching, fielding, hitting, catching — how do you measure and communicate performance?

Henry Chadwick, a British journalist, had an answer. Chadwick grew up playing cricket, but after moving to New York, he fell for its informal American cousin. He began writing regular baseball columns and in 1859 developed his first box score, a table of runs, hits, outs, assists, strikeouts and errors. Years later, he added earned-run and batting averages to the list.

In a pre-photography world, the box score became the tool of record to communicate what happened in a game. Fans suddenly didn’t have to go to the ballpark to understand how players performed. Having stats on paper allowed them to follow more games and develop broader opinions about players, backed up with data. After only a couple of decades, baseball and statistics had begun a relationship.

But from the National League’s founding in 1876 to the late 1990s, that relationship barely passed first base. Players and staff developed formal baseball wisdom based on the sport’s famous superstitions — things like not shaving before a start, naming bats, never (and I mean never) talking about a no-hitter while it’s happening. Scouts, too, developed standard but relatively subjective ways of measuring talent: in particular, observing prospects’ “five tools” of running, throwing, fielding, hitting and hitting for power. Along with box score stats and near-universal strategies like bunting with a runner on third, this was how teams searched for an advantage. Baseball, many believed, was a mix of luck and money.

Except they were wrong.

Around the 1970s, some of baseball’s most devoted but least influential fans started questioning these doctrines. Was a walk a pitcher’s error or a hitter’s discipline? Did it help a team to try and steal bases? Did good players really need all five tools?

These fans-turned-analysts scoured baseball datasets for their answers, treating the sport like a dynamic math problem. That yielded more efficient ways to win, and eventually general managers became acolytes — beginning in practice with General Manager Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics teams in the early 2000s, a movement dubbed “Moneyball” by author Michael Lewis. The more Beane’s teams won, the more other general managers with small payrolls converted to his methods.

In 2004, GM Theo Epstein used those tactics to help the Boston Red Sox, still mired in the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” for trading Babe Ruth, win a title. Then, years later, he did it again with the Chicago Cubs, ending a 108-year World Series drought. Analytics, it seemed, could expel even the sport’s worst demons. After almost two centuries, baseball had finally found its truth.

A Pastime Past Its Time?

But many in the baseball faithful haven’t been fans of the new style.

Plumeri came to William & Mary with baseball in his family and an instinctive love for the game’s traditions. His grandfather emigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s and wanted to integrate into American culture. And in 1927, the best way to do that was through baseball. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would hit over 50 home runs each that year en route to a World Series, and Plumeri’s grandfather waited outside Yankee Stadium one day to convince them to host a barnstorming tour — or set of small-town exhibition games — around the state. There’s a picture of the three of them standing together at a train station.

“Baseball’s part of my family legacy,” says Plumeri, a longtime friend of Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and director of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a scholarship program for minority college students.

Plumeri took that legacy with him to Williamsburg, playing second base for a team that had little more than the fundamentals. Their field was then squeezed behind Zable Stadium, with stands that held only about 50 people and had no fence around the outfield. If the ball rolled down the hill, it rolled down the hill.

When he donated the money to build Plumeri Park in the late 1990s, he wanted it to embody the cultural power of baseball so important to his family. They could’ve called it a “stadium,” but he chose “park” because it made games feel like an event, a day for hot dogs, pretzels, summer weather and people you love. Plumeri Park is named for his father, Samuel Plumeri Sr., who originally founded the Trenton Thunder in 1994. There’s a memorial to him outside, and when Plumeri visits campus, he tries to tell the team why that memorial matters.

“When you are on this field it’s expected that you’re going to do your best because the person this park was named after was special,” Plumeri says.

Hence, to him, gameplay based on big data feels robotic. Efficient baseball isn’t necessarily entertaining baseball. “If you remove the passion and you remove the commitment and you remove the drama from the game, you remove a lot of life,” Plumeri says. “Human error is supposed to be part of the game.”

Many viewers agree. In 2000, the World Series attracted 18 million viewers. In 2019, that number fell to 13.9 million, with ratings down by almost a third. Last season, MLB set a record for the longest average game time, at 3 hours and 11 minutes, and the league batting average sank to a 53-year low. There were more strikeouts (April 2021 was the first month ever with over 1,000), more pitchers slowly entering and exiting games, and more empty minutes between balls in play.

“It’s just harder to engage fans on a broad scale than it was years ago as America’s pastime,” says Harris, the former Tampa Bay shortstop and now director of MLB athlete development at X10 Capital.

It’s not like baseball doesn’t have talent, he adds. There’s a generation of young stars — from the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. — playing at historically high levels. But great players don’t always make a great product, particularly when pitchers are better than ever. More strikeouts mean fewer runs scored.

Even more, MLB isn’t marketing its talent effectively, Harris says — a disconnect clear in the lockout this season. The league and the players’ association couldn’t agree to a new set of collective bargaining rules in time, the season started late, missed games cost everyone revenue, and fans lost time to watch the sport they love.

“Baseball has changed,” Plumeri says. “I don’t think it’s authentic like it used to be.”

"Moneyball changed a lot of things, where you realized that if you didn't have a baseball playing background but were analytically inclined, you could still make a career."

Baseball's Rocket Science

This crisis of authenticity has created a league-wide search for identity. Perhaps more than ever, baseball contains multitudes — from the purists who prioritize tradition to the Moneyballers snooping for the next competitive inefficiency.

It’s easy to see that incongruence in practice. Over the last 20 years, an enormous amount of baseball’s gameplay has changed, but the way people experience it hasn’t. Ballparks, telecasts and traditions like the allstar game are almost all the same. What happens behind the scenes, though, is radically different, down to the pitches batters learn to chase and the metrics taught to define success.

Will Rhymes ’05, director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, spends his entire year operating backstage. After four years as an infielder for William & Mary, he began a 10-year career in the major and minor leagues, later retiring, joining the Dodgers as a scout and working his way up the front office.

“The amount of data and information that our players now have, it just dwarfs what we had when I was playing,” Rhymes says. “I think we were somewhat aware that the game was changing, but I don’t think it hit warp speed until a little later in my career.”

Moving at warp speed doesn’t permit much free time. Beside data analysis and watching games, Rhymes spends another eight hours on his phone alone each day. When the off-season comes, he trades game tapes for research. Constantly experimenting with new tools and then hiring staff to teach those to their top prospects can feel like rocket science.

And rocket science approaches players almost like machines. Rhymes and other baseball front offices use the new field of biomechanics to analyze and adapt the smallest nuts and bolts of player movements. The difference between a strike and a home run can be less than a second, less than an inch. So players analyze “heat maps” that illustrate pitchers’ favorite spots, where they swing well and poorly, and how to close those gaps. Mounds of data have helped the Dodgers build one of baseball’s best farm — or player development — systems and grow stars that won them a World Series in 2020.

“Player development is just nothing like it was before,” Rhymes says. “Not to minimize what anyone did back then, but it was a little more survival of the fittest, a little less precise.”

Precision has its benefits. Statistical baseball has in some ways made the sport more inclusive, disproving some of the dogmas that once made the sport so insular.

Thirty years ago, Philadelphia Phillies Assistant General Manager Ned Rice ’05 was not the kind of person to make a career in baseball. He loved the sport, measuring his childhood in trips to watch the Baltimore Orioles. But Rice wasn’t a great player. Instead, he preferred reading wonky, analytical blogs like Baseball Prospectus.

His time at William & Mary — particularly his experience with math, statistics and student government — helped him turn an internship with the Orioles into a longer career.

“Moneyball changed a lot of things, where you realized that if you didn’t have a baseball playing background but were analytically inclined, you could still make a career,” Rice says. “A lot of teams at that time were not as sophisticated in operations. It felt like, OK, maybe there’s something here.”

Pitching Baseball

Both Rhymes and Rice understand the larger questions about baseball’s future, even if those questions rarely impact their daily work.

“Our job is just to try to win as many baseball games as we can,” Rice says.

Finding the big answers is up to other people — sometimes including William & Mary students. In 2017, Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly ’96 sponsored a group of students at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business to write and present a proposal on the league’s media rights. The students studied the Dodgers’ media valuation, and the league’s more broadly, based on viewership numbers and contract information. The aim was to find out what teams were undervalued.

Aaron Fernandez ’16, M.S. ’17, a former William & Mary pitcher, was one of those students. After finishing their research, he and two other students flew to New York to present it to Boehly, who shared it with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The process helped Fernandez understand how the business end of the game impacts each team’s performance. Some wanted to make a profit and some wanted to win a championship. And to that end, each team had a different plan. The Kansas City Royals, for example, had the biggest minor league footprint in MLB for years, in an attempt to increase their chance at developing a superstar at the cheapest level.

“Understanding the economics of the game really helps you understand why certain teams make certain moves,” Fernandez says.

And understanding baseball economics will be crucial to the game’s future. Younger sports fans increasingly prefer highlights to full games and find the regular season boring compared to the playoffs, especially in baseball. Part of that is the long 162-game season; part of that is the sport’s gameplay itself.

“I could show you highlights of guys hitting home runs, but it becomes the same play: He hit the ball over the fence,” Fernandez says. “The product is difficult to sell in the modern market.”

To make it easier to sell, MLB has started a series of experiments to speed up the pace of play in the minor leagues. They’ve added pitch clocks to shorten time between throws. They’ve been developing an Automated Ball-Strike system, or a “robo-ump,” that minimizes human error from the strike zone, similar to what tennis has done with its professional courts. In overtime, they’ve added runners waiting on third base to help limit extra innings. They’ve even tried making bases bigger so more people end up safe.

“I think we all want the best version of this game,” says Rhymes, the Dodgers’ farm director. “We all understand the importance of continuing to make it marketable.”

‘Stories About People’

Alex Coffey ’16, the Phillies beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, earns her paycheck by making baseball interesting, a kind of marketing of its own. But even if it’s her favorite sport, she cares more about the stories than the gameplay. It’s not even her background. At William & Mary, she studied Civil War history.

What matters to Coffey is storytelling, and baseball is rich in it. “You can tie baseball players from 100 years ago to Juan Soto, and I love that aspect of the game,” she says. “Tradition is so important.”

During the long season, she spends a lot of time with the team, and on the road she sees players more than they see their families. That time lets her get to know them personally, which helps her tell better stories — like a profile of Oakland Athletics’ all-star first baseman Matt Olson’s friendship with someone from his hometown who couldn’t speak because of a disability. To Coffey, that’s a gift only baseball can give.

“I don’t really care about the sport half as much as I care about stories about people, and that will always matter,” she says.

To Brian Shallcross ’98, people have to matter. They keep him in business.

Shallcross is the general manager of the Bowie Baysox, a minor league team in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He started there in 2004 after another job in baseball, and he’s stayed ever since. It’s not many people’s dream to stay in the minors forever, and Shallcross takes that as an honor.

“I tell all my William & Mary friends that I’m the only guy that I know in our peer group that hasn’t been fired or promoted all these years,” Shallcross says. “But I love it.”

The minor leagues, after all, are in some ways the future of baseball. They develop MLB’s next stars. They conduct the experiments that could energize major league gameplay. They can’t take fans for granted, because most of their fans aren’t baseball fanatics inheriting a hometown team like a birthright. “The best of what we can produce oftentimes makes it to the major leagues,” Shallcross says.

One of the best things the Baysox are producing right now is a connection with their audience. They’ve had to learn how over time, too. When Shallcross started, the industry focused on discretionary money, or the extra few dollars people had to spend at the end of the month. That’s since shifted. Now they focus on discretionary time. People have almost endless options to entertain themselves in the internet age, Shallcross says. His job is to convince people that they should spend their day at a Baysox game, even if Netflix is easier.

Different fans need different approaches. In their internal polls, only about 15% of the crowd lists themselves as dedicated followers of baseball. These are the people who show up to every game and pay close attention — so they need tools that help them follow along, like stats available at the scan of a QR code near their seat.

‘A Good View’

Most everyone else needs more convincing. “There really is a young generation that’s lost on baseball that we need to reintroduce,” Shallcross says, “whether that’s through playing or the interaction with the game.” Recently the Baysox have tried school programs that take students on field trips to early morning baseball games and concerts that bring a different crowd to the diamond. “When you ask your fans, the key to the minor league baseball experience is about intimacy,” Shallcross says. COVID-19 challenged that. In 2020, they missed a season. In 2021, they could only hold a restricted one, without the usual autograph signings or access to players that fans enjoy. This season, Shallcross says, “any view’s a good view.”

He’s just happy to be back, watching games as usual from the walkway above the right field wall, so he can see inside a right-handed batter’s stance. If the team wins, he hustles down to the clubhouse to shake the manager’s hand. If they lose, Shallcross lets him be.

Shallcross himself almost played for William & Mary, before switching to football by the time he arrived on campus. But baseball’s his first love. He grew up around his minor league baseball park, then the Reading Phillies in Pennsylvania. He took that love of place to the university, and there, he learned how to teach it to others.

“My heart will always be in Williamsburg,” Shallcross says, hoping people start to feel the same way about the Baysox’s ballpark, Prince George’s Stadium.

Some, like fellow alumnus Ryan Foran ’95, do.

"When you ask your fans, the key to the minor league baseball experience is about intimacy."

Foran and his family, who live just 15 minutes away in Edgewater, have been going to Baysox games for 12 years. They first went when one of their kids’ little league teams hosted an end-of-season party at the stadium. They kept going because the park had something for everyone. Where else, says Foran, could they find one place with a moonbounce, a carousel, a beer garden, and a pitching station that measures how fast you throw?

“It’s just a great family atmosphere,” Foran says.

He and his family usually find a seat that gives them a chance to catch fly balls (one of his kids has and displays it on a bedroom dresser). But each trip has a shade of their favorite memory at the ballpark, a trip to celebrate a birthday years ago.

That day, the Foran family reserved a box at the stadium and all watched the game. The kids ran around the stadium while the adults stayed upstairs and enjoyed a glass of wine. The group included 10-year-olds and 65-year-olds, but they all spent time together, they all followed the game and they all had something to enjoy. It was about baseball, and that night, baseball was about each other.

“We’re not hardcore fans, but it’s something that we all really have fun with,” Foran says. “The best that baseball can be, I think, depends on who you are and what you’re looking for. That night, that’s what we were looking for, and it was awesome.”