When we talk about how baseball has changed over the past 30 or 40 years, we’re usually referring to how players are bigger, stronger and more athletic than they used to be, or maybe how certain nuances have been lost amid a desire for more homers or a faster pace. But it’s changed in other ways, too — ways that aren’t so obvious.
While working my way through a YouTube baseball rabbit hole, I found a video from NBC’s broadcast of the 1984 Pizza Hut All-Star Softball Game. If you have no idea what that is, it’s because things like this haven’t really happened for three decades. Though the event’s name makes it easy to decipher its meaning, it’s still a foreign concept in 2020: active MLB players taking time before spring training to play a competitive charity softball game.
Back in the ’80s, things like this were common. The Pizza Hut game, later sponsored by Pepsi, was played each year from 1982 through at least 1991, with many of baseball’s top stars coming out to have fun and raise money for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, sickle cell research, or whatever the cause might’ve been. For one hour on one weekend afternoon a year, you could watch future Hall of Famers such as Andre Dawson, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. wear generic “American” and “National” softball uniforms and swing aluminum bats for the nation’s entertainment. And all this happened on a generic-looking softball field in front of a few thousand people, with fans and players separated only by grass and some chain-link fencing.
Though similar events have been held sporadically through the years, they have long since fallen out of favor as an annual thing. Maybe there’s no real reason why, or no good reason, but I’m pretty sure that suggesting something like this in modern baseball would be a non-starter, based on what we know about current baseball thoughts and methods. For example:
— Agents and teams would likely take issue with top (expensive) players doing any sort of competitive, public on-field activity in the weeks right before spring training. Wouldn’t want to risk anyone getting hurt doing something that doesn’t really matter.
— Players might be leery to hit a softball so close to spring training, perhaps concerned that the softball approach would somehow inadvertently affect their normal approach at the plate.
— Softballs are larger and heavier than baseballs, so there could be concern that throwing a softball around for a couple of days after training with baseballs during offseason workouts might hurt players’ arms or otherwise cause throwing issues.
— The brief softball break could interfere with players’ offseason workout regimens, throwing a wrench into the lives of people who are well-known as creatures of routine and habit, and in theory causing dominos to fall that would negatively affect their seasons.
— Players might not want to leave home for Florida any earlier than they need to. These games were often played in January or early February, then aired weeks later. For players who value every bit of their offseason and personal time — time with families, time to prepare mentally for a season — even losing a few days of that could be a deal-breaker.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t image this happening with any regularity ever again, barring a change in teams viewing players as investments, or players staying laser-focused on their craft nearly year-round. But it would be fun to watch, as it would offer a mild break during the final long days of winter and provide a brief and broad approximation of what the upcoming season holds.
Plus, maybe we’d get fabulous visuals, like this one of Bob Costas wearing an amazing NBC Sports hat while talking to Brooks Robinson.
In any case, several of these old games are on YouTube. Here’s the one from 1984 that I found in that rabbit hole. And if you don’t think the players play hard enough to get hurt, skip to the 8:48 mark to watch Lonnie Smith do what he often did: threaten destruction of life and limb while rounding the bases.
And, if you find yourself entertained, go ahead and watch the games from 1985, 1986 and 1987. If nothing else, these will each kill about an hour of your day, which, in these times, is about the best gift an isolated sports fan can receive.
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