NOMO-MANIA (THE ASIAN INFLUX)
ASIAN BASEBALL BACK THEN: We could sum up the state of this topic in those days with the two burning questions of the moment: (1) Who was better -- Hank Aaron or Sadaharu Oh? And (2) Whatever happened to Masanori Murakami?
ASIAN BASEBALL NOW: Hideki Matsui signs for $52 million. Tampa Bay wins a bidding war for Japanese reliever Shinji Mori. Hee-Seop Choi has his own personal Korean press corps. Even China-Taipei has brought us Chien-Ming Wang, Chin-hui Tsao and 17 Little League World Series titles. And the man who started all this, Hideo Nomo, can't find a job.
THE MIRACLE OF RETROSHEET
WHAT YOU COULD LOOK UP BACK THEN: If you lifted weights for six months, you could lift a Baseball Encyclopedia. Which enabled you to research how many games Firpo Marberry won in 1926. But not much more.
WHAT YOU CAN LOOK UP NOW: In 12 seconds, you can find out what right-handed hitters batted against Phil Niekro in 1976. Or who has the highest on-base percentage in baseball since May 29, 1994. Or what happened in the seventh inning of your basic Brewers-Royals game on July 9, 1973. Or even the league leaders in VORP (not a big 1981 stat favorite). And it's all thanks to sites like baseball-reference.com, baseballmusings.com, baseballprospectus.com, hardballtimes.com and the amazing retrosheet.org (pieced together, one scorebook page at a time, by professor Dave Smith and his devoted pals). Everything's only a mouse-click away.
(ROTISSERIE CHANGES THE WORLD)
FANTASY BACK THEN: Outside of 11 guys in Manhattan who were playing in something called a Rotisserie League, it's safe to say that just about no men in America in 1981 had a fantasy that had anything to do with Al Oliver or Gorman Thomas.
FANTASY NOW: When there is actually a lawsuit raging, in real life, about whether MLB can get away with selling a common staple like batting averages to fantasy leaguers, as if they were replica jerseys or DVDs, you know this craze is officially out of control. Something like 20 million otherwise sane people now play fantasy sports. Which is great for ratings, Web sites like ours, buddy camaraderie and massive nationwide nonproductivity in offices everywhere. But there's still something unsettling about people going to games and rooting not for their team, but for "their guys." Isn't there?
TOMMY JOHN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY!
MODERN MEDICINE BACK THEN: Precisely one pitcher in the big leagues had ever made it back from Tommy John Surgery -- (ta-daaa) Tommy John.
MODERN MEDICINE NOW: Name three pitchers who haven't had Tommy John surgery. OK, it's not that common. But pitchers still joke it's their "20,000-slider checkup." In an era when the medical miracle workers can fix, replace or rehab just about anything, nothing is more amazing than the fact that Tommy John surgery now seems as routine as going to the dentist.
SPLITTER FEVER (THANK YOU, BRUCE SUTTER)
PITCHING REPERTOIRES BACK THEN: The definition of a freak pitch back in the late 1970s or early '80s was, uh, what? A knuckleball? Then Bruce Sutter learned how to split his fingers, prompting 900 hitters to mutter (in unison), "What the heck was that pitch?" For some reason, other pitchers noticed.
PITCHING REPERTOIRES NOW: In a world of two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, circle changes, knuckle-curves, palmballs, scuffballs and slurves, no pitch has changed the landscape more than the splitter. Roger Craig taught it to World Series staffs in Detroit and San Diego. Roger Clemens has ridden it to 342 wins. And it might have been responsible for 192 of Adam Dunn's record 195 punchouts in 2004.