Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a guy who believes changing any rule in baseball is akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Or, turning the Great Pyramids into a hotel complex. But some of the ideas Rob Manfred has suggested are blasphemy.
The “forward-thinking” Commissioner of Major League Baseball, target firmly planted on the younger generations, has tossed out several of the most game-altering, half-baked plans ever offered to quicken the pace of our national pastime and add excitement. And while I hold nothing against either motivation, the notion of changing basic rules of the sport to achieve any goal translates into a bastardization of an American institution.
First of all, it’s not like baseball is in trouble. Overall attendance last year held steady at 73 million. The average crowd has remained around 30,000 every year since 2004. Not bad in an age when most fans struggle with a limited entertainment budget.
Yet Manfred is reacting like the sport is going down the drain. Yes, it’s clear that its pace must continue to be addressed. The average length of games was shortened to 2:56 last year—thanks to mandated decreased time between innings—after peaking at over three hours in 2015. Postseason games averaged 3:30 while the clinching nine-inning clash in the National League Division Series between Los Angeles and Washington went an excruciating 4 hours 32 minutes.
Still, MLB must attack the issue with logic, not absurdity.
Manfred suggested placing a runner at second base to start extra innings. Absurd? Let us count the ways. First of all, it would only shorten extended games. That would not solve the problem of pace. Secondly, it’s not baseball. Throughout the history of the game, every player had to earn his way on base. Such a drastic rule change is an insult to that history. And also, the sanctity of baseball.
Yet, stupidly, the commissioner, in his blinding desire to increase scoring, has also proposed two alterations that would lengthen games. One would be shrinking the strike zone, raising it from the bottom, thereby handcuffing pitchers with the talent to maintain consistent control at the knees.
The obvious intent is to lure young fans to the ballpark with softball scores that hearken one back to the ugly, not-too-distant past of the steroid era. If batters want to discourage pitchers from throwing split-finger fastballs and change-ups that drop to the dirt, they should do a better job laying off them.
Manfred apparently recalls with a smile the home run heaven competitions between the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that broke hallowed marks and should now be accompanied in the record books with asterisks. Manfred seemingly seeks a return to those dark days, sans steroids.
And, in the process, the hell with sanity. The commissioner has, for example, suggested that shifts should be banned by enforcing a rule in which two infielders must remain on both sides of second base. No more strategic maneuvering in which pull-happy left-handed hitters face three infielders on the right side.
This is a moral issue for baseball. And it’s simple, really. Teams must be allowed to position their players wherever they feel best serves them defensively. The problem with the shift in recent years is not the shift itself. It’s the inability or, in many cases, the refusal of hitters to adjust. They see 25 feet of open space between the third baseman and third base line, yet make no attempt to send a pitch in that direction that would result in a sure single or even double.
The mindset of today’s player is to swing for the fences. That is not only a primary reason for alarming strikeout totals, but it also serves to lengthen games because strikeouts take time to complete. Players of a now bygone era took far more pride in making contact. The philosophy today is that a strikeout carries with it the same negative consequence as any other out. That is inaccurate. Insuring that bat meets ball gives the batter at least a chance to reach base.
Manfred will likely prove unsuccessful in ramming through the most outrageous of his ideas. After all, they would require approval from players and owners. The very real issue of pace must be addressed with logic. The sport long ago understood that the most workable change was limiting time between pitches. A 20-second clock now seems inevitable, but it must be enforced. And hitters should be forced to stay in or near the batter’s box rather than migrate and take their sweet time getting ready.
The average game takes about a half-hour longer than it did in the 1970s. Most ardent baseball fans revel in the fact that the game itself has no clock. The charge, however, that it simply takes too long, that there is too much down time, is warranted. The four-pitch intentional walk has already been eliminated. Fine. All logical changes to quicken the pace should be embraced.
But Manfred is all over the place on this issue, particularly in regard to his desire to market the game to youth. The sport holds a special and dear place in the hearts and minds of millions. And Major League Baseball must do everything in its power to keep it that way.