I’ll never forget the stretch run between Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont Stakes back in 1978. It was just a few days before my 10th birthday, and the sight of two horses trading strides with each other was far more thrilling than American Pharoah’s rather comfortable win on Saturday. But the significance of the win comes from the fact that it was 37 years in the making.
Many of the people who watched the Belmont on TV and cheered the newest triple crown winner have no idea about life back in 1978. They either weren’t born yet, or they were too young to know what was going on in the world around them. I was just barely old enough, myself, but I have fond memories of eating a Reggie! bar that year. And anytime I got my little hands on enough pocket change to buy a pack of baseball cards, that’s exactly what I did.
Baseball Digest came to my house every month, because my grandma knew of my interest in the game and nurtured it by getting a subscription for me. A day when the latest issue arrived in the mailbox of my family’s home in Springfield, Illinois, was a cause for celebration. How many kids today know what that feels like? I doubt that any do.
Baseball games on TV were a rare treat in those days. There was the Saturday Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, and a Monday night game on ABC, and that was about it. My team allegiance shifted from the St. Louis Cardinals — the team that all my friends rooted for — to the Chicago Cubs, because all of their games were broadcast on WGN in Chicago. There are Cubs fans far and wide who are exactly like me, too. That could be baseball in a nutshell, back in those days.
Sunday newspapers were a big deal in those days, much more than they are today. And the paper printed a list of all the stats for big league players, both in terms of team stats and individual batters and pitchers. Today the internet does all that, and it’s available all the time. But in 1978, the only way to know who was up and who was down was to scrutinize the stats in the Sunday papers.
But the biggest change in the game itself — other than the fact that a majority of the stadia from 1978 are no more — is the role of pitching in the game. If you want to know what made baseball different in 1978 from the game we follow today, consider that there were six complete games tossed by big league pitchers on June 10, 1978, the day that Affirmed won the Triple Crown:
- Tom Seaver went the distance for the Reds in a 6-4 win over Pittsburgh
- Mark Lemongello threw a complete game in a 12-5 win over the Cardinals
- The late Dock Ellis went the distance for Texas in a 4-3 win over the White Sox
- Jim Palmer threw a three-hit shutout at Oakland in a 1-0 win
- Bill Travers threw a five-hit shutout at Toronto in a 5-0 win
- Dennis Leonard went the distance for Kansas City in a 6-3 win over Detroit
And I’ll throw in two near-misses as well: Nolan Ryan went nine innings for the California Angels that day, but their game against the Yankees went 12 innings, and Steve Renko went 8.2 innings for the A’s against Palmer and the Orioles. Consider that there were 13 games played on that day, as well.
On Saturday, June 6, 2015, only one complete game was tossed as David Price went the distance in a 7-1 win over the Chicago White Sox. Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner — the modern equivalents of Seaver and Palmer — each threw eight innings, and Jason Hammel also went eight innings on Saturday. But this decline from six complete games (out of 13) to one (out of 15) is statistically important, in anybody’s book.
Big league pitchers are an expensive commodity, and the wear and tear that a complete game puts on a pitcher’s arm makes it an increasingly rare feat in the modern game. Six innings is now enough to earn a pitcher a Quality Start, a stat that would have been laughed at back in 1978. And a pitch count? What was that? I promise you nobody was recording any such thing back in the late 1970s. But on Saturday, it’s why Felix Hernandez came out of the game after seven innings and 106 pitches thrown. Such is the modern game.
Is baseball better today than it was back in those days? I suppose that depends on one’s point of view. But nobody can deny that it’s a different game today than it was when we last had a Triple Crown winner.