The Future According to Baseball

Edited by Marty Resnick & Cecilia M. Tan



108pp/$14.95/July 2021

The National Pastime

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Over the past few decades, I'm maintained a bibliography of science fiction novels and short stories that are about baseball. The list currently has nearly 160 entries on it, including four stories including in SABR's The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball, a collection of essays, fiction, and brief "press releases" from twenty years in the future and edited by Marty Resnick and Cecilia M. Tan, who, in addition to working for SABR has published a variety of science fiction. This issue of The National Pastime addresses the question of what baseball will look like two decades in the future.

The first article is Gary Sarnoff's "Baseball Uniforms in the Future: What Might They Look Like Two Decades from Now?" which has little to offer on the purported topic aside from mere speculation, but at the same time does an excellent job of looking back at the evolution of baseball uniforms. While it is easy to think that in the past the uniform's evolution has been mostly cosmetic, Sarnoff discusses the technological changes in uniforms that are less apparent as well as the culture changes which have driven the way uniforms are designed. This knowledge of the history of baseball uniforms means he can point to the fact that uniforms will continue to change in the future in ways which can only be imagined.

Katie Krall provides an excellent interview with Janet Marie Smith and Bianca Smith in "The Future of Women in Baseball: An interview with Janet Marie Smith and Bianca Smith." Bianca Smith is working as a minor league coach for the Boston Red Sox organization and Janet Marie Smith is the Executive Vice President of Planning and Development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. These three women discuss the importance of role-models, their own ground-breaking positions, and the importance for baseball to open more roles for women. However, one of the issues with writing about anything in the near future is that the world has a tendency to catch up quickly. Only weeks before the book was published, Baseball saw the ground-breaking first all-women reporting team broadcast a major league game between the Orioles and the Rays, a development with underscores the importance of visibility of women in the sport.

Cecilia M. Tan's "Signs of the Times" is vaguely reminiscent of Louise Marley's "Diamond Girls" insofar as both stories explore a milestone in baseball and women's sports. However, while Marley looked at the first major league faceoff between a female pitcher and batter, and looks at Sal, the first woman to pitch in the American League, and having to face an egotistical player, Kip Janssen, at the plate with the misogynistic press and jeers in the background. The two characters have a brief history, although not what Kip would have people believe on either a personal or professional level, but it is enough to give Sal the added impetus to embarrass him on the field. Although she believes she can count on the rest of her team to support her, especially catcher Jerry, she can't help but notice the camaraderie between Kip and the other players. A short story, Tan ties it up neatly and very satisfactorily.

As he points out, Rick Wilber is uniquely qualified to talk about "Baseball and Some Media Futures." The son of a major leaguer with a mother who worked in the front office, Wilber is also a journalist who has an abiding interest in technological advances. Wilber talks about existing technology and extrapolates where it might go and how it might be of use to enhance fans' enjoyment of the sport. Even now, cell phone apps provide a new way of watching the game, and even participating, while in the ballpark and Wilber looks at the way augmented reality and virtual reality can be used to bring new dimensions to the fans' experiences.

Stephen R. Keeney offers an intriguing possible future in "Democracy at the Ballpark: Looking Towards a Fan-Owned Future," which talks about the ways baseball and individual teams could benefit from a fan-ownership structure similar to that used by the Green Bay Packers or some European football teams. This idea will appeal to anyone who loves their team but hates their team's management. Whether or not teams will make the transitions that Keeney discusses, he offers not only a roadmap to fan ownership, but also discusses successful case studies of fan owned clubs. Unfortunately, for many owners, the money and prestige of owning a baseball team are too great to consider the sort of divestiture that would be required.

"Under Coogan's Bluff" is a time travel story by Harry Turtledove which doesn't explain the mechanism of time travel nor the negotiations that went into having a team from 2040 play the 1905 Giants. What the story does do, however is highlight how far our society has come on social issues (while hinting at how far it still has to go) and how baseball, a game of constants, has changed over the years, with the players from 2040 having to get accustomed to the equipment and playing styles from 135 years in their past. Turtledove's description of the gameplay, and the taunts that accompany it from both sides, provide a feeling of the baseball at the time and place the time travelers at a distinct, and intriguing disadvantage.

Dr. Lawrence Rocks discusses "How Climate Change Will Affect Baseball" referring to both natural climate change, which he believes will mean windier baseball games, and human accelerated climate change, which means hotter temperatures. At the same time, he notes that there are numerous complexities in the field of climate change that sometimes work against each other and sometime compound the changes and that the near term effects and long term effects may be opposites, but both must be acknowledged, with the near term effects used for planning over the next two decades. After defining his terms, Rocks enumerates the changes, many of which are architectural for future stadiums, but others deal with scheduling to focus on regional play with longer series to minimize travel. For SABR, he notes that player statistics may be impacted, which means that comparisons between eras will be even more difficult than they currently are. Finally, Rocks makes a note of policies which he believes can be implemented now in order to mitigate the already ongoing climate change.

Marty Resnick takes the life stories of Monty Stratton and Jim Abbott, as well as the parody character Kirby Kyle from Radio Days and pairs them with the title of one of the most famous baseball novels/movies for "The 'Natural'," which looks at a ballplayer who suffered the loss of an eye and an arm in a car accident. While Stratton, Abbott, and Kyle all had to play with the most basic low-tech prosthetics, Logan is blessed with high tech bionic replacements for his eye and arm. Although Resnick alludes to the legal wrangling and rules adjudication that allowed Logan to return to the field, the story's focus is on the duel between the pitcher and the batter, the most primal part of a baseball game. The story could easily be expanded to a greater length to more fully explore the rhubarbs that would have gotten Logan to the batter's box.

Harrie Kevill-Davies offers an odd article with "The Astrofuturism of Baseball," which, despite its title, is mostly nostalgia and backwards looking. Kevill-Davies discusses the past merging of baseball with ideas of space travel and the future, specifically discussing trading cards and television series while ignoring the vast literature about baseball in the future and in outer space. While this nostalgia may be assumed to be background for a look at the future of astrofuturism, Kevill-Davies doesn't follow up with anything predictive or attempt to establish a trend for the next twenty years expect to note that we may eventually live to see some modified form of baseball played on Mars, even as she discusses a mimicry of baseball that took place on the ISS in 2019.

Allison R. Levin picks up on Rick Wilber's theme in "Baseball in 2040: The Digital Viewer," looking at how virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and 4D effects can be used to enhance to viewing experience for fans. Although Levin focuses on the at-home viewing experience, there is nothing to stop someone from using the techniques and technology at a ballpark. Her view of how to put a fan into the game while allowing them to make options on the way the game is perceived is an exciting look at the future of the game that views current technology and trends and extrapolates from them. As Levin points out, her starting point is the way millennials currently have integrated technology into their viewing experience and looking to see how it might expand in the future.

While baseball at its most simple is about the physical act of hitting a ball and running the bases, Brian Hall provides the astonishing statistic that more than seven terabytes of data are collected in each game in "Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and the Bright Future of Baseball," which explores the statistical analysis that not only surrounds every game, but goes into helping improve the way the game is played. Perhaps the most SABR article in the entire volume, Hall explains how these numbers are used by players, coaches, and managers to predict the course of a player's career as well as figure out the best way to face an opposing team. Hall offers quite a bit of food for thought in his exploration of the way AI is currently used and may be used in the future and more than any other article begs for multiple readings.

Alan Cohen is as nostalgic as Harrie Kevill-Davies, but his article "At the Intersection of Hope and Worry: How Baseball and Society Learn from History" gives a sense of hope for the future of baseball. In this article, which is primarily historic in nature, Cohen looks at various organizations and teams that were set up in baseball's past and how they came to pay dividends, some foreseen, some a surprise, as individuals moved through the programs, noting that Joe Torre, for instance, participated in the Sandlot Alliance before moving on to the major leagues. He uses these examples to create a sense of hope that even as baseball's present was up in the air during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport would eventually emerge stronger. In his optimism, Cohen points out that often changes in baseball were indicative of larger changes in society, even if baseball wasn't always predictive.

Cecilia M. Tan makes an excellent point at the beginning of her article "The Rules They Are A-Changin'." Baseball is a game steeped in tradition and its fans are therefore averse to change. Unfortunately from that point of view, current Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred is a firm believer that the only way to save the game he loves is to inflict change on it from above. Tan notes that many changes will filter up from the minor leagues which, in addition to providing new talent for the majors, can serve as a sandbox for testing changes to the game. The changes Tan discusses are based, in large part, on the changes and actions Manfred's office has taken since his appointment in 2015. She also notes that many rule changes undertaken to speed up the game inevitably fail in that goal, even as they change the nature of the game. Finally, Tan postulates that eventually fans will accept rule changes as long as they feel natural and don't come across as a gimmick, noting the new rules regarding extra innings or forthcoming changes to tiebreakers that would do away with extra innings entirely.

While baseball cards may seem immune to too much change, Steven M. Glassman considers changes to them in "The Future of Baseball Cards." The most basic changes have already begun with the updating of the types of statistics that appear on the back of cards, although in addition to statistics, some cards include visual representations to help understand the player's abilities. As Glassman points out, the real estate on the back of a baseball card is limited, so companies will have to come up with innovations to allow them to include all the information they might want to, as well as train the collectors to understand the changing acronyms and what the numbers represent. He also points out that Topps has been in the business of e-cards for more than twenty years (and Panini for several years at this point), but the introduction of non fungible tokens opens the e-card industry up in new ways so the physical card may only be an entry to a whole new amount of data and ways of interacting with the ecards.

In "Cooperstown 2040: Where the Baseball Hall of Fame Might Be in Roughly 20 Years," Graham Womack points out that there will be a Hall of Fame in twenty years, but the biggest variance will be the rules that govern how players are considered and elected. Much of the article talks about the changes that have taken place over the past several years. He also notes the areas that are likely to have the biggest impact are the inclusion of Negro League statistics as part of the major league.

James Breaux appears to be writing two stories in "The Game is Afoot." One is the story of a baseball game on Mars that has adapted virtual technology to make the game playable. The other is a stakeout of a criminal by two police. While the stakeout provides the impetus for the story, it doesn't really resolve, serving more as a maguffin for Breaux's take on the baseball game. Because the two halves of the story never really come together and there is no real resolution to the stakeout, the story feels more like a vignette that a complete narrative. Breaux offers interesting ideas for the Martian baseball game, which seems to draw on some of the essays that appeared in the volume, but the game needed to tie in better to the case the detectives were working on to be completely satisfying.

Baseball simulations have been around for years, whether in the form of card games, ball and hole games, or various computer games. Gordon Gattie explores where those may go in "The Future of Baseball Gaming Simulations," which takes the features of modern computer games and extrapolates them to include augmented and virtual reality, as well as 4D units, much as Hall discussed with regard to enhancing game play or Levin looked at with regard to the fan experience. Gaming has come a long way since the early Pong and Atari units and modern technology is on the cusp of allowing gamers to fully immerse themselves in the interactive world with no sign that it won't happen well before the year 2040. All that will limit gamers is their access to the technology, which is constantly becoming more accessible.

While Rick Wilber discussed how virtual reality could enhance the fans' experience with baseball, Cathy Hackl and Nate Nelson explore how virtual reality is already changing the way players are preparing for the game in "The Future of Baseball Training Starts with VR but Leads to the Metaverse." While in the past players had to watch training tapes, they can now augment that practice by using virtual reality to actually put themselves into the position of facing computerized versions of the players they will face and play out an actual game using the same muscles and motions that they would use in a real game. Hackl and Nelson are able to point to specific cases (anecdotal, but supported by data) of players whose game has improved using VR training, with the indication that it will become more widespread and useful in the future.

Throughout the book, several future press releases are included by David Krell, Dusty Baker, Gordon Gattie, and Audrey Reinert. Although these short pieces tend to be light-hearted, in some cases, such as noting that the Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Commodores in 2022, the world has already surpassed them. In other cases, like the announcement of the first transgender player to sign with a major league team, the press releases focus attention on an issue that is looming for organized sports in a way that leaves the reader wanting a further exploration of the issues.

Overall, The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball presents a dynamic view of baseball over the next twenty years. Although some of the articles are a bit repetitive in scope, that also means that Resnick and Tan are able to present multiple points of view regarding the way VR and AR will be used to enhance the sport over the next tewo decades. For fans of baseball, it will certainly be interesting to see which predictions come true and what other changes occur that are totally outside the predictive ability of the authors in this anthology.

Marty Resnick The Future According to Baseball
Gary Sarnoff Baseball Uniforms in the Future: What Might They Look Like Two Decades from Now?
David Krell MLB Commissioner 2041 Season Looks Back to the Past and Ahead to the Future
Katie Krall The Future of Women in Baseball: An interview with Janet Marie Smith and Bianca Smith
Cecilia M. Tan
Signs of the Times
Dusty Baker Transgender Player Signs With Oakland
Rick Wilber Baseball and Some Media Futures
Stephen R. Keeney Democracy at the Ballpark: Looking Towards a Fan-Owned Future
Harry Turtledove
Under Coogan's Bluff
Dr. Lawrence Rocks How Climate Change Will Affect Baseball
Dusty Baker Nashville Stars Join Mexico City as 32nd Team in MLB
Marty Resnick
The "Natural"
Harrie Kevill-Davies The Astrofuturism of Baseball
Allison R. Levin Baseball in 2040: The Digital Viewer
Brian Hall Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and the Bright Future of Baseball
Alan Cohen At the Intersection of Hope and Worry: How Baseball and Society Learn from History
Cecilia M. Tan The Rules They Are A-Changin’
Dusty Baker London Rounders Accused of Hacking Stadium Robot Umpire
Gordon Gattie Intercontinental Baseball League Scheduled to Start League Play in 2039
Steven M. Glassman The Future of Baseball Cards
Audrey Reinert Stevens Nomination to Hall of Fame to Proceed
Graham Womack Cooperstown 2040: Where the Baseball Hall of Fame Might Be in Roughly 20 Years
James Breaux, MSF
The Game is Afoot
Gordon Gattie The Future of Baseball Gaming Simulations
Dusty Baker Fan Experience to Include Virtual Reality Betting in Real Time
Cathy Hackl and Nate Nelson The Future of Baseball Training Starts with VR but Leads to the Metaverse

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