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Rushin: Old Reliable

Live long enough and you’ll see a thousand visions of baseball’s future consigned to the past. Colored bases, short pants, bubble-topped stadiums, artificial turf, automated pitchers and orange baseballs were all once avant-garde ideas that smacked of space-age innovation, right down to the names AstroTurf and SkyDome. At one time, the future was so bright, you had to wear flip-shades.

But predicting baseball’s future is a fool’s errand, and it always has been. In a famous photograph, Casey Stengel gazed into a glowing baseball as if it were a crystal ball, after which he predicted greatness for the Yankees in 1949. They won the World Series that year—and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that—but no one ever went broke predicting success for the Yankees.

More often, baseball has failed to divine its next best thing. Yes, a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover predicted that the abysmal Astros would win the 2017 World Series. But the magazine also predicted, in another cover story, that the Indians would win the 1987 World Series. Cleveland lost 101 games that year.

In predictions, as in baseball itself, you need 600 at-bats to get 200 hits. As manager of the Tigers, Sparky Anderson famously called many prospects—Torey Lovullo and Chris Pittaro come to mind—can’t-miss kids. Most of them fell short of legendary. Some of them—Kirk Gibson—did not. Yes, Cal Ripken Jr. is on a 1982 Topps card that calls him one of the game’s “Future Stars.” But he is flanked on that same card by Orioles prospects Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider. To paraphrase Meat Loaf, one out of three ain’t bad.

Despite the technological advances of the 36 years since Topps prophesied greatness for Ripken, we’re hardly any better at divining the future. When the Mariners hosted Turn Ahead the Clock Night this summer, their vision of a distant tomorrow saw Dee Gordon in a backwards cap and muscle shirt—Sleeveless in Seattle. I have seen the future and it is Ted Kluszewski, who divested himself of sleeves in . . . 1957.

Dust them off with an umpire’s whisk and you’ll find many of these futures are in fact ancient archaeological relics. Other futures have arrived too soon. The world just wasn’t ready for that sculpture in center field at Marlins Park.

Some innovations are forever just around the bend, in a permanent future that never arrives. The DH in the National League, pitch clocks in the majors, an electronic strike zone immune to the vagaries of human umpires, a latter-day World Series title for the Indians. The baseball fan can just about reach out and touch these things with his or her oversized foam index finger before they disappear, a shimmering mirage.

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But the game is also famously resistant to progress. It is hidebound, which is defined as “unable or unwilling to change because of tradition or convention.” (It doesn’t help that baseballs are literally bound in hide.) The game’s future is forever in front of it, as Yogi Berra might have said, but didn’t.

Even so, we have a duty to keep predicting, no matter how doomed most of those forecasts will turn out to be. If human beings knew what was coming tomorrow, never mind next century, there would be no weathermen, no Powerball, no stock market and no fun. Such a world would mean not just the death of Punxsutawney Phil, the weather-predicting groundhog. It would mean the death of hope itself. In our largely un-domed, mostly turf-free, entirely shorts-bereft baseball present, extinguishing the flickering light of possibility would be unbearable. Life would be one long spoiler.

And every once in a while, like the proverbial stopped clock that’s right twice a day, one of our forecasts will be right. The clock is a good example. Baseball never had one, and now—if only at Double-A and Triple-A, if only for pitchers—it does.

And so we shall continue to imagine the future. We’ll label uncertain prospects as “Future Stars” and pine for inventions that will improve the game for the same reason we play the lottery and leave the house on an overcast day without an umbrella: because we are hopeful, and baseball is ultimately an optimist’s game. “Wait till next year” is another way of saying your suffering will be rewarded. Just hang in there a little longer. It is the very concept of heaven.

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