Improving the games

In romantic myth, the institution of Baseball is considered perfect. Flawed mortals who mess with it may bring tarnish, even corruption. But the concept itself, being divinely inspired, is beyond the perfecting. It’s what you often hear about precious institutions that grow mossy and beloved and are deemed imperishable. And it’s nonsense.

To be sure, Baseball’s raw essentials remain inviolate. There is something beyond the uncanny that sets the distance from the rubber on the pitcher’s mound to the center of home plate at 60 feet six inches and the mandate that the baselines had to be exactly 90 feet long could only have come from the gods. Three strikes, three outs, four balls, four bases, nine positions, nine innings; the symmetry remains gorgeous.

No one disputes the genius of the game’s geometrics, nor would anyone trifle with them. Alexander Cartwright had to have been the favored son of Euclid.

But the trimming, the packaging, endless adornment and selling of the thing is strictly the work of the intensely flawed with mere salesmen, promoters, and assorted infidels chief among them. Most of the game’s incidental detail was born of whim and therefore subject to change. If the dynamics of Baseball remain perfect the presentation could dearly use reformation, although one suspects it might be easier -- as well as less controversial -- to stage another Constitutional Convention to revamp the country’s entire governing order.

For the rigidity of Baseball is proper legend. Other games much less resist refinement. Key revisions in its fundamental laws saved pro basketball. Much the same thing happened in tennis. Hockey, for better or worse, tinkers constantly with its canons. A century and a half into its existence, football still struggles with the elementary issue of how to get a winner when a game ends in a tie.

It’s easier for other games because they are not held to the same rarefied standard of perfection that Baseball has imposed upon itself. Can you imagine the outrage if baseball proposed settling games tied after nine innings with a home run hitting contest? In the National Hockey League they call it “a shootout.” Baseball could never allow a team to advance to its championship round on the wings of a coin toss. But that’s effectively what happened just this past season in the National Football League.

In the NFL, the rulebook is constantly revised. A convention to manage the matter is held every year. In MLB, proposing minor modifications of arcane regulations buried deep in the fine print is regarded as an invitation to chaos. It’s true that changes in baseball’s merchandising are tolerated. We now have, for better or worse, expansion and divisions and wild-cards and inter-league play and even the beginnings of international competition. But all that concerns economics. What happens when the players cavort between the lines looks the same as it did when William McKinley was president.

Roughly a half century ago it was suggested that when a pitcher wants to issue an intentional walk he should be allowed to merely inform the umpire who would then send the batter to first base. It was reasoned that it would help move the game along just a tad, which was even then a concern. The hue and cry was huge. You would have thought proponents had suggested changing the size of the ball or width of the bat. The idea got shouted down.

A somewhat similar circus around the same time attended the suggestion that batters should not be credited with a time at bat when they delivered a fly-ball that scored a run. Talk of your minutiae and yet that brouhaha went on about three years before the change instituting the “sacrifice fly” was begrudgingly approved even though it was only a scoring issue affecting batting averages having nothing to do with how the game is actually played. The current debate about using TV cameras to affirm home runs promises to be comparably endless.

Thus it’s no surprise that since the dawning of the lively-ball era nearly a century ago there’s been only one substantial rules change and that would obviously be the American League’s adoption of the designated hitter which the National League bitterly refused to do. Some four decades later it remains a matter of considerable tension between the leagues which is, of course, patently ludicrous. Either both leagues should have the DH or no league should have the DH. But try selling that indisputable logic to MLB’s Pooh-Bahs. Historically, when you push “change” in baseball you run the risk of being immediately branded some sort of “Bolshevik.”

Nonetheless, “Change” is coming and on all fronts so they’d better brace for it. Structural changes are inevitable. Restructuring the divisions and perhaps even both leagues is likely. Expansion to bring the number of teams to a more workable total of 32 is likely (and necessary). A push further into international competition is probable. A drive for even more revenue sharing and maybe even the dreaded salary cap may be unavoidable. Formerly, the players association was a threat to either impede or control any such bold moves but the MLBPA lost much authority in the steroid/PED scandal. Formerly, reactionary owners could restrain initiatives with the promise of vetoes but they no longer hold the balance of power. There’s a new mood that’s gathering.

It’s never easy to calculate where the Commissioner stands at such moments. Those czars who’ve wanted to keep their jobs have always been lackeys of the owners. Few more so than the current Boy, Bud Selig. But in his bag of tricks old Bud numbers a pragmatic bent. He may even be sincere in his expressed yearnings for new thinking, new directions.

And so he’s formed a committee consisting of 14 substantial and serious chaps. Granted it’s a committee composed of the old guard and well established, largely representing owners, general managers, savants and other friends of the family. But if there are no mavericks aboard neither are there any lightweights. Committee members include Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, John Schuerholtz, Mark Shapiro, Frank Robinson and George Will, etc. Issues on the table allegedly include; realignment, umpiring, instant replay, playoff structure, wildcards, length of season, length of games, international competition, salary caps, drugs, race, player etiquette, fan relations, even the price of seats, beer and hotdogs, and the wisdom of the $328 ticket, Fenway Park’s top price and baseball’s highest. Could there be anything else?

One recognizes committees are committees, although this one doesn’t look easy to sucker. And talk’s cheap, although there seems more disposition to actually do something than usual. At a minimum might it be a start toward something useful?

Although they don’t need no stinkin committee to deal with this growing issue of interminable ballgames. Maybe it wasn’t politic, but when Umps Joe West and Angel Hernandez whacked the Red Sox and Yankees for their pathetic prolonging of the games in their season-opening series they were not only within their rights but did us all a service by raising an issue that bugs everyone.

Because those games in that series were ridiculously long and truly lapsed into boring stretches totally unnecessary. Umps are vulnerable. Nobody wants to listen to them. But West was right-on when he declared the Red Sox and Yankees to be the worst offenders and at their worst when they play each other. Subsequent pious protestations of players rang hollow. They’d have been wiser to shut up.

Eliminate the dithering of the players stepping out and fussing with their batting gloves. Jeter of New York and Pedroia of Boston are the most aggravating examples. Restrict the number of visits a pitching coach makes to the mound. Boston’s Farrell is a major offender. Restrict the visits a catcher can make to his pitcher. New York’s Posada is a major offender. Restrict the number of warm-ups relievers can take; no more than four. No more time-outs for base-runners to dust themselves off. Clock the time it takes a pitcher between pitches. Refuse to grant time-outs to batters save for exceptional circumstances, like attacks by swarms of insects. Let the umps call “strikes” on batters and “balls” on pitchers who don’t get the message.

That will quicken the pace of these games. Pronto! And they could start doing it tomorrow.