Baseball is Losing Its Soul

There have been a lot of changes in baseball since the golden years when a typical game (especially in daylight) went two and a half hours max and electronic scoreboards didn’t explode every time the home team hit a dinger. I can’t stand the names on the backs of uniforms, mascots, and skyboxes for corporate execs who should just go to the local saloon to catch a game and do business (they’re just watching a flat screen TV, anyway).

I can live with all these changes. I understand the need for commerce. I understand why utility players make $3 million a year. I know we have to entertain young fans who have low attention spans.

But the recent announcement by Major League baseball to allow an automatic intentional walk is perhaps the worst rule change since 1973’s decision to install the designated hitter in the American League. (I died a little the day that Ron Blomberg first stood up to the plate and didn’t take the field.)

Baseball fans — not just purists — will be wincing when this goes into effect in ball parks beginning with the 2017 season. When a manager wants his pitcher to issue a free pass, he’ll simply indicate it to the umpire, and the batter will take first base. This is a feeble attempt to speed up the game because Commissioner Rob Manfred has been unable to get an agreement on the real time suck culprits — two minutes between innings (because of TV advertising), batters stepping out of the box after every pitch to adjust their gloves and scratch their balls, and too many trips to the mound by coaches and managers. Maybe we do need to require batters to stay in the box unless he hits a foul ball; maybe we need to limit the number of discussions on the hill; maybe we need to sanction pitchers who waste too much time. The umpires should be able to enforce any new time-saving rules with real penalties. Step out of the box and it’s an automatic strike. Okay, none of this is likely to happen.

But back to this new rule. Last year there were 932 intentional walks (roughly three times in five games). My guess (and this isn’t scientific) is that throwing the ball to the plate outside the strike zone four times takes anywhere from 30 seconds to one minute. You do the math. I don’t think we’ve increased pace of play here by eliminating this ritual.

I can hear the progressives and reformers. The number of times something goes wrong (the catcher misses the ball, it rolls to the back stop, and a runner advances), or the ball drifts near the plate and the batter swats it over shortstop or second base for a single, is admittedly minimal. But so is a kicker missing the extra point in football. Rare, yes. But it does happen. It’s part of the game. Pitchers who like the idea have actually had the nerve to say that four tosses to the plate needlessly increases their pitch count and destroys their rhythm. Wow. Tom Glavine, please check in on this complaint. (I can already hear Whitey Ford laughing.)

There is an experiment scheduled to take place in the Rookie League this season whereby extra innings will start with a runner automatically on second base. This is also a ridiculous idea. For one, it’s an instant invitation to have your lead off man (a pinch hitter who knows how to bunt) to immediately sacrifice the runner to third. One out and all you need is a sac fly. I get it. But I don’t think dads and moms and kids will mind a longer game because baseball has always been timeless and tieless. The occasional 18-inning marathon is something that families who stuck it out will always remember. And, yeah, if it’s a school night, you can leave early and nobody will rag you for not being a real fan.

Baseball is still our national pastime, and it’s filled with nuance. That’s what makes it special. Anything can happen on any pitch. Why take away four pitches every game and a half?

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