CHARLOTTE, NC. For a century or more, Major League Baseball (MLB) rarely tampered with its rules. For some reason, the game did just fine. Now, like computer geeks at a technology convention, the powers that be are not happy. That is, unless they are tweaking the game with rule changes that might make America’s one time National Pastime utterly unrecognizable.
This month, as MLB teams near the opening day of professional baseball’s Spring Training season, baseball fans eagerly await this annual tribute to summer days and extended hours of daylight. But do MLB owners and officials really intend to start needlessly messing with baseball’s rules once again? Do we really need more useless rule changes?
USA Today recently published a story about MLB’s proposed rules changes for the future. Some have an ounce of merit while others are downright stupid.
Debating the DH
First of the rule changes under discussion: The concept of a Universal Designated Hitter. If this means what it sounds like, it was only a matter of time before it was adopted.
The designated hitter rule became part of the American League (AL) format back in 1973. It was a significant effort to add more offense to the game by simply eliminating those nearly always weak-hitting pitchers from the batting rotation. It also helped speed up play – a constant obsession among media savvy owners eager to increase ticket sales and TV ratings.
When it was adopted, AL Designated Hitter rule substituted what amounted to a permanent pinch hitter in the pitcher’s place. The DH didn’t play a position in the field. He was simply a reliable hitter who, subbed for the pitcher in the batting rotation, the better to add more artillery to the offense.
But the National League (NL) didn’t like the idea. So, for the past 45 years, the the AL and the NL have played under separate rules during the regular season. That wasn’t an ideal solution. But it was ultimately accepted as routine, save for interleague play.
The MLB is all for unity
Any true baseball fan will tell you the game is far better when played under the traditional NL system. which requires the pitcher to get his at-bats no matter how lousy a hitter he might be. For fans of this earlier tradition, the strategy here is like the difference between checkers and chess.
Unifying the procedure in both leagues, however, was never going to involve a return to the NL format. Rule changes like this one would eliminate a job for many players who can still hit in their declining years but are unable to play sterling defense every day. That’s why the DH will eventually win the war in the NL as well.
A newer plan for speeding up the game
A second rule, which is purely an attempt to speed up play, would force pitchers to face at least three batters before a reliever comes in from the bullpen to takes over the pitching chores. That move makes a mockery of “platooning.” That’s another hallowed baseball tradition, in which a left-handed pitcher is brought in for one batter to face a left-handed hitter and vice-versa.
Granted: a pitcher who only pitches to one batter before he gets replaced does slow the game pace considerably. But making a pitcher face an arbitrary minimum of three hitters will ultimately ruin the integrity of the game. Put this idea in the stupidity column.
Clocking the pitcher. But not in the way you’d expect…
Next in our cavalcade of upcoming and / or proposed rule changes comes the idea of adding a 20-second time clock between pitches, vaguely similar to the NBA shot clock. This one might have merit if it’s monitored carefully. But that’s a tough nut to crack.
Minor league baseball has actually experimented with a baseball “shot clock” for several years. On average, the clock has only trimmed about ten minutes from the length of an average game during that time.
More problematic, any potential baseball “shot clock” for pitchers runs into a buzz-saw of thorny questions. First of all, exactly when does the clock begin to run? When the pitcher gets the ball back from the catcher? When he toes the rubber? When he gets his sign?
Indeed, pitchers who get the ball back promptly and throw the next pitch quickly frequently drive faster game ties. The also have the advantage of greater defensive efficiency in the field behind them than pitchers who can’t seem to find the plate and / or give up too many walks. Players themselves will readily tell you they perform better when efficient pitchers are in control of the game pace. Such pitchers always keep the offense on their toes and never back on their heels.
Ultimately, a 20-second clock is nothing more than a gimmick. Unless it actually speeds up pitchers who are habitually slow in their delivery.
A rule straight out of the Theater of the Absurd, and other weirdness
One other idea that belongs completely in the theater of the absurd is putting an automatic runner at second base at the start of each extra inning. This weirdest of all possible rule changes would eliminate ultra-long tie games. But it would also alter the sport so radically that it may keep more fans from the ballparks than it attracts.
Other changes have to do with trade deadlines and off-the-field minutiae. These tend to remain invisible to most fans and, therefore, don’t infringe upon their enjoyment of the game.
All of this frantic reimagination of the game is triggered by professional baseball’s insecurity. Club owners know their sport plays second fiddle to football. Speeding MLB play has been a bugaboo for diamond lovers for decades. But there has yet to be a legitimate proposal that might accomplish the job without destroying the dignity of the game.
Sure, we could go to 7-inning games or make a walk become three balls and a strikeout two. We could also say a batter is out if he fouls off three pitches. Or we could force hitters to remain in the batter’s box without stepping out.
On the other hand, the game has survived for more than a hundred years just as it is. So why can’t we simply say “It is what it is”?
MLB vs the NFL and beyond
MLB plays ten times more games than the NFL. If pro football games occurred as often baseball games, the NFL, too, would see a decline in attendance. In fact, on numerous occasions in 2018, sportscasters duly noted that NFL attendance steeply decline overall anyway. The same held true for the ratings of this year’s Super Bowl LIII.
Is the game of baseball inherently slow? Yes. But that’s the nature of the game. Let owners make all the changes they want. But let them make those changes for the betterment of the game, rather than gearing such efforts toward putting more butts in the seats.
On the flip side of this sports LP, some people say that the game of NHL ice hockey is too fast. But the NHL clearly isn’t making an effort to pepper its game with rule changes intended to slow down its sport. So likewise, Major League Baseball should forget about making obscenely crude rules adjustments. Instead, the organization and its owners might consider doing something about fixing the asinine prices they charge for their concessions and for nearby parking. That might be a better way to attract more fans. By making the price of admission far more reasonable. Like it used to be.
Now there’s an idea.
— Headline image: Cincinnati Reds second baseman Todd Walker slides to the base
as Seattle Mariners second baseman Bret Boone turns a double play at Cincinnati’s Cinergy Field on June 19, 2002.
(Via Wikipedia entry on “Double play,” CC 0.0 license)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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