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The Baseball Blogs: Part 1

In celebration of a long anticipated Opening Day, I've confined this month's blog topics to the subject of baseball.

“I love baseball,” said Woody Allen. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just beautiful to watch.”

Thomas Boswell went a bit deeper and wrote of, “… adapting the spirit to baseball’s deliberate speed and its demand for heightened awareness of detail.” He added that there is, “a coexistence of total relaxation and keen anticipation”; which I regard as the closest anyone has ever come to defining the essence of the true baseball fan.

Baseball is like no other game. It is unique in its symmetry and in its artistry. The game is so flawlessly designed that a ball hit in the hole, fielded cleanly and thrown accurately by the shortstop will result in a one-step call at first base – regardless of whether the players are 9-year-olds on 45 foot sandlot bases or major leaguers in the seventh game of the World Series.

The game is also unique in the maddening skills required to excel. It’s been said that if you give a football coach 20 big, strong, fast boys he will give you back 20 football players. If you give a basketball coach 20 big, strong, fast boys he will likely give you back 15 basketball players. But, if you give a baseball coach 20 big, strong, fast boys he may give you back 20 big, strong, fast boys. The oft-repeated challenge of taking a round bat to a round ball and hitting it squarely cannot be overcome by simple athleticism. Neither can a curveball; the greatest equalizer in all of sports.

In his brilliant book, The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak described football as a byproduct of corporate America with its well defined on-field hierarchy and de facto committee meeting before each play. He goes on to describe basketball as a city game; using jazz as a metaphor. But he most accurately cites baseball as the personification of the uniquely American ideal of rugged individualism. Our forefathers believed in a free society marked by self reliance and open competition. Novak reminds us that we still share those values for the glorious duration of each 162 game season.

Baseball has also bridged its eras more gracefully than other sports. If you watch footage from the 1950s, players in the NBA and NFL seem to be playing a different game; slower, less aggressive, less imaginative. Take away the baggy, flannel uniforms and primitive fielder’s gloves, however, and baseball has changed very little from its postwar brand. The rhythm of the game remains; only the trappings have evolved. Perhaps that is why it is often defined by its numerous traditions; many of which are so faithfully observed they border on heredity.

I am an unapologetic baseball traditionalist. I cringe at the sight of a dome and the notion of a Designated Hitter. I can think of no better way to spend a summer evening than at the ballpark – any ballpark. While I have been disappointed by dozens of games and hundreds of results, baseball itself has never once let me down. If one were to call the game “perfect”, I would not argue.

And I can fix it.

The sad, but inescapable truth is that while I may love a pitcher’s duel and a slugfest equally, the numbers of those like me are dwindling. Too many sports fans find the game too slow and too lengthy to hold their attention. I hate to think that they will become the majority and my golden years will be spent choosing between MMA and the X-Games for my sports fix.

I believe there are two changes that will serve to prevent that athletic Armageddon while also improving the game for purists like me.

The first has to do with pitch count; a statistic that was not routinely kept in the last century and today is too often monitored as closely as the score. Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who passed away a few months back, offered the best argument against the pitch count’s exalted place in the modern game. Feller pointed out that other sports judge greatness by what a star player does at “crunch time” … John Elway running a two minute drill or Michael Jordan hitting the last shot. However, he noted that baseball’s highest paid players – top-of-the-rotation pitchers – are not generally in a game at crunch time. They reach their pitch limit and hit the showers after six or seven innings.

Today’s best hitters strategically take pitches early in the count hoping to force the other team’s starters to reach their 100-115 pitch limit as early in the game as possible. By doing so, they know they will get to bat – and the fans will be forced to watch – a parade of less talented relievers over the last third of most games. Whether one believes baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright or some other sports visionary, it’s not likely that anyone believes the game’s creators intended the outcome to be determined by which team has the most serviceable bullpen.

But that is the reality – a reality so blatant that most sabermetricians no longer regard Wins and Losses as a meaningful stat to measure a starting pitcher’s performance. That is not good for the future of the game.

I’d like to see a new “First Pitch Rule”. In each at bat, the first pitch would be treated differently than the others. A ball thrown on the first pitch results in a 2-0 count. Conversely, a called strike results in an 0-2 count. A swinging strike or foul ball remains the traditional 0-1. The rest of the at bat remains as is.
The desired result is simple. Pitchers will pitch. Hitters will hit. There will be shorter games and lower pitch counts. More starting pitchers will pitch deep into games. When fans pay to watch Johan Santana pitch against Tim Lincecum, they stand a good chance of seeing those two stars start and finish the game – which will likely take at least 45 minutes less time than it currently takes; a pretty solid fringe benefit.

Too radical? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the precedent is already there. We traditionalists just have to remember the institution of the 24-second clock in basketball. Purists screamed it would diminish strategy. But the powers-that-be knew that stall tactics – while often good strategy – were not in the best interest of the game’s future and they held their ground. The game took off from that moment on and became a global phenomenon.

Pitch count is baseball’s version of a stall tactic. The “First Pitch Rule” is its 24-second clock. The time is now.

While I’m at it, I’d also suggest that, in the 20 or so weekends between the second week of May and the end of August, each team plays 15 day-night doubleheaders. The two admissions protect the owner’s revenue stream. The adoption of Rule 1 ensures that each team should be able to carry at least one “swing man” pitcher to make weekend starts when needed. But, as added protection, teams should be allowed to add an extra pitcher to the roster for one game each weekend without using a player’s finite options (which limit the number of times a player can be shuttled between the minor leagues and the big club; a concession they’d need to get from the union).

That change will shorten the season by at least two full weeks. The regular season will wrap up in mid-September. The World Series will end in mid-October and we will be spared the inevitable Minnesota-Chicago Fall Classic played in a snowy November.

I know my proposal doesn’t stand much of a chance of being implemented. Too many baseball people passionately align behind their desire not to mess with tradition. But when we’re all sitting in senior housing wondering what the hell they’re talking about on Sports Center, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Casey Stengel once said, “Good pitching will beat good hitting every time … and vice versa.”

Despite that colorful paradox, Stengel is universally regarded as a baseball genius. I hold no illusions that I am his equal, but I will repeat a paradox of my own: Baseball is our only perfect game and I can fix it.


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