If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: And Major League Baseball doesn’t need fixin’

baseball

(© Sean Gladwell – stock.adobe.com)

They say that one of the reasons for the decline in attendance and viewership of Major League Baseball is the length of games.

They say the game is slow, boring and mundane.

Whomever they are, they have certainly gotten the attention of the suits at MLB headquarters in New York.

Over the past few years, MLB has struggled with ideas to increase the pace of play during the course of a game. The skinny: find ways to shorten the game.

MLB reached out to members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for suggestions, and the results ranged from reasonable to absurd.

Ideas like decreasing the strikes required for a strikeout from three to two. Reducing the length of games from nine innings to seven. Allowing a hitter to step out of the batter’s box to once per at bat.

To understand the history of baseball is to realize its history is that of rule changes.

As examples: the pitching mound was lowered in the late ’60s to offset what was rapidly becoming a pitching-dominated game. For a time, 2-1, 1-0 games were commonplace.

In 1964, Dean Chance, pitching for the Los Angeles Angels, had 11 complete game shutouts. In 1968 and 1969, Luis Tiant of Cleveland and Denny McClain of Detroit each recorded league-leading nine complete game shutouts.

Earlier in the 20th century, an opposite-effect rule was implemented to derail a hitting barrage, making the first two foul balls in an at bat count as strikes.

So while these rule changes are often necessary evils implemented to offset apparent trends in the sport, it makes it extremely difficult to compare and equate player accomplishments from different generations of players.

So moving to 2020, the current dilemma and possible rule changes facing MLB aren’t necessarily being considered for improving the game, but for improving the overall commodity of the sport.

That commodity? What is being presented to the fans that purchase tickets and to the television networks that pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year for television rights.

So I guess that answers the question of who exactly is they.

What I know is that personally: I am not a part of the they mentality.

Baseball is different from other sports. And for me it’s these differences that make baseball the joy it is.

Baseball is complex. It takes a combination of experience and patience to fully understand what’s happening at any given moment during a game.

To many, it’s just a bunch of players standing around spitting, scratching, and fidgeting between pitches. To the true baseball connoisseur, the battle, the showdown between the pitcher and hitter, is a psychological game of strategy played out on stage.

At any moment, the game comes to a divide: what’s the best pitch to throw the hitter? Where are the fielders positioned?

These questions have multiple answers, based on multiple circumstances. Who’s on base? What base or bases? What inning? What’s the score? What’s the count? And on and on.

To appreciate baseball is to understand that current circumstances always take precedence in even guessing the right answer.

For me, the game’s not too slow; it’s too fast.

As a young boy I was fortunate to spend many summers visiting relatives in Baltimore. It was in Charm City that I developed my lifelong passion for the game and for my Baltimore Orioles.

I, along with my cousins, went to countless games in venerable Memorial Stadium, which was located in the same neighborhood that my cousins resided.

We arrived hours early, and I dreaded the late innings of games because of the ultimate fact that the game was soon ending.

It takes time to develop a deep interest in the game, and it takes time to play the game.

Hitters, pitchers, fielders and managers have plenty to think about: between pitches, between hitters, between innings. For a game that to some appears to have come to a complete standstill, for others it’s a game moving at warp speed.

For example, the pitcher-batter confrontation.

The pitcher stands on the mound, and all eyes are focused on his next move. The challenge for the pitcher is to deliver the best pitch that is either impossible to hit, or even more challenging is hit in the exact location as the aligned fielders.

The pitcher is using every possible means to slow down the game, to gather his thoughts before delivering the pitch.

The hitter has the daunting task of deciding in a mere split-second whether to swing or not, based upon the fact of correctly guessing what pitch is coming his way. (Unless the hitter knows in advance, which is a different story in itself)

Oh, and the hitter is facing this sobering fact: even the best hitters fail seven out of every 10 at bats. It’s no wonder hitters are constantly stepping out of the box between pitches, buying some time to collect themselves and slow the game down in their minds as well.

In the early ’90s, I had the privilege of gaining a press credential to cover an Orioles spring training game in St. Petersburg, Fla.

While in the press box of Al Lang Stadium, the spring training home of the Orioles, I had perhaps one of the highlights of my life in meeting legendary Orioles baseball announcer Chuck Thompson.

Thompson, a few years later, was voted into the Broadcasters Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Not only did I meet Thompson (he insisted I call him Chuck, but I did not out of respect and awe), but was invited to sit alongside him during the broadcast.

What an incredible two and a half hours for me. The absolute fastest two and a half hours of my life so far.

To listen to Thompson broadcast that game between the Orioles and whoever was like a renowned artist painting on a canvas. His words just came alive.

As I mentioned, time passed away quickly.

After the game I asked Thompson, what was his most memorable moment covering baseball?

His reply was surprising. It wasn’t about anything that occured during one of three World Series he had broadcast covering the Orioles. Or about any of the Orioles legendary (at least to us O’s fans) games against New York or Boston.

It was about an at bat in a very early April game in freezing Memorial Stadium between Hall of Famer Al Kaline and Orioles pitcher Dave McNally.

An almost insignificant game, probably only a few weeks into the regular season, in front of “maybe a couple thousand hearty Oriole fans,” said Thompson.

Kaline on his way to a Hall of Fame career was known around the league for having one of the sharpest eyes for the strike zone, and the uncanny ability to simply reach out and slap the ball foul if the pitch were not to his liking.

For the record, Kaline’s lifetime batting average was .297, with nine seasons of hitting over .300. Thus Hall of Fame status.

McNally, while not in the MLB Hall of Fame, was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame. He was no slouch. He was an anchor in a great dynasty of Orioles pitching.

McNally was known as “The Nibbler.” Always throwing around the plate, never or seldom ever serving up a sweet pitch. He studied hitters, knew their weaknesses and tendencies. McNally would seldom give in and just throw a pitch in hopes it would be hit at someone.

This particular at bat was grueling, said Thompson. There was no one on base, early in the game so you knew that this at bat could “drag on out a bit,” said Thompson.

And did it ever.

The count (as expected) went full, three balls, two strikes, and it stayed that way for “quite a spell,” I vividly recall Thompson said.

It took 19 pitches before Kaline routinely flew out to centerfield. Very anticlimactic. It took 19 pitches for that to happen?

Thompson said that Kaline, on his way returning to the Tiger dugout, retrieved the bat from the bat boy and took a couple of steps and snapped the bat in two over his knee and proceeded to hand the broken bat back to the belwidlered bat boy.

What I recall most about that story and how it relates to this article was interesting.

When I asked Thompson how long that at bat was his reply: “I told you, 19 pitches”.

Baseball doesn’t need speeding up. It needs to be appreciated for what it is.

One of the game’s greatest spokesmen, Yogi Berra, had this to say about the game of baseball and how long it took to play a game. “If you’re in a hurry, don’t go.”

The only thing I’m in a hurry about when it comes to baseball is I’m in a hurry to have it back.

Story by Scott German


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