It was only 25 years ago. It just feels like 2,500.
In 1981, America still considered NBC's old Saturday afternoon "Game of the Week" a must-see TV event. There was still a Sunday afternoon two-for-the-price-of-one doubleheader being played somewhere or other almost every weekend. The world's idea of a cerebral sort of statistic was -- well, what? -- ERA? Many sane human beings still thought those round, generic mounds of concrete known as "multipurpose stadiums" were kind of cool. And our concept of watching highlights was pretty much confined to making sure we caught the last five minutes of "This Week in Baseball" -- once a week.
Needless to say, then, folks thought stuff like wild cards, interleague play and $6-million draft picks was some kind of cross between sacrilege and science fiction. So clearly, 1981 on the old baseball calendar was longer ago than we think.
We've seen this sport revolutionized by roughly 2 trillion innovations since then. Which meant narrowing them down to the top 25 was tougher than hitting a Nolan Ryan fastball. But we've done it. Somehow. So here they are -- the 25 biggest Innovations of the last 25 years.
THE POSTSEASON PANORAMA BACK THEN: Just having a postseason event not known as "the World Series" still seemed blasphemous to some folks 25 years ago. Heck, that newfangled LCS had only been around 12 years.
THE POSTSEASON PANORAMA NOW: OK, raise your hands if you once thought wild cards in baseball were a worse idea than AstroCement. Yeah, thought so. Us, too. But the intent was to add more hope and intrigue in September. And you can't say that hasn't worked. Thirteen teams rolled into September last year within four games of a playoff spot. Know how many teams would have been in that position if Bud Selig and his pals hadn't busted up the old division setup and added that heinous wild-card invention? How 'bout six? Not to mention that without wild cards, that Curse of the Bambino mess would still be going strong.
(NOT JUST FOR OCTOBER ANYMORE)
INTERLEAGUE INTRIGUE BACK THEN: There was a better chance of Elvis and Abe Lincoln showing up at the same ballpark in 1981 than there was of the Red Sox and Cubs ever doing that on a Tuesday in June.
INTERLEAGUE INTRIGUE NOW: All right, we'll admit it. The All-Star Game isn't what it used to be, thanks to interleague play.
And nobody needs goose-bump medication when the schedule-makers force the Devil Rays to visit the Brewers. But if you're still whining about interleague play, get over it. For the ninth straight year, many more people attended interleague games last season than intraleague games. For the fourth straight year, the World Series did not feature teams that had met during the season. And wasn't interleague worth it just to see Kenny Rogers hit a triple?
STATS, STATS AND MORE STATS
STATS BACK THEN: Hits. Runs. Errors. If you needed to know more than that, you were a subversive or something.
STATS NOW: It isn't just that you can find league-leader lists for stuff like OPS and pitches per plate appearance. It's that you have GMs out there putting together their entire teams based on data like that. Twenty-five years ago, it seemed as if the entire stats universe consisted of the Elias Sports Bureau and a few hundred people who had heard of Bill James. Now we can find actual, reasonably sane humans debating which is more revealing -- VORP or Win Shares. We have people being paid, by professional baseball teams, to analyze college players' OPS. And we have sites like ours which give you the chance to instantly sort pitchers' stats in 64 different categories. So it's true. Numbers really have taken over our entire civilization.
NBC GAME OF THE WEEK OUT/1,000 CABLE GAMES IN
TV BACK THEN: Before 1981, your panorama of baseball-watching options mostly consisted of: 1) Your local team's game du jour (if it was even on TV), 2) the Braves' game du jour (if you lived someplace with one of those futuristic cable packages) or 3) Saturday afternoon with Joe (Garagiola) and Tony (Kubek). So if you came from St. Louis, you saw an American League team play _ what? _ 11 times all year?
TV NOW: Want to watch Barry Zito duel Bartolo Colon at midnight, even if you live 2,300 miles away? Just hit that clicker (oh, and write that cable check). Because we now live in a world where you can watch just about any game, any time, any zip code. Now try to imagine a world where not only did we not take that for granted _ but we thought of Saturday afternoons as a major baseball event. Yup, that was our planet 25 years ago.
CAMDEN YARDS (RISE OF THE RETRO PARKS)
BALLPARKS BACK THEN: Baseball's newest, most modern stadium in 1981 was Montreal's ghastly Stade Olympique -- a place built for Alberto Juantorena, not Andre Dawson.
BALLPARKS NOW: How did we exist before every park: (A) served Caesar salad; (B) evoked memories of Ebbets Field (even if you never saw Ebbets Field); (C) installed a Jumbotron the size of Idaho; (D) featured concourses wider than the Grand Canyon; (E) provided more than four bathrooms; (F) contained at least one angle apparently designed by Salvador Dali; and (G) made luxury-suite customers the most important revenue-generating consumers of our time? When Camden Yards arrived in Baltimore in 1992, it showed us how retro parks could change everything. Ballpark life hasn't been the same since.