Spring has sprung at least here in the south…as I write this I watch a thundercloud passing by to the north, see flowers up in gardens around me and , and most importantly, the Blue Jays have taken the field again, even if only in rather insignificant spring training games. With opening day now only a tad over a month away, I’ll soon be looking at my prognosis for Toronto’s ’17 season, and the coming year in baseball in general. First though let’s start by looking a bit at what’s transpired since the Cubbies proved anything really is possible last fall.
There’s a new CBA in place, which is good news all around whether or not all the terms are ideal. At very least it means no strikes or lockouts this decade and suggests those who matter in the game, on the field and in the offices, have learned from the debacle that was 1994. A standing ovation for that!
Not so though for Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent blustering. He’s still all about games being too long and obsessed with changing the sport to put a Fast Forward button on the games. Now, at a little over 3 hours for an average 9 inning game, Manfred’s not absolutely wrong. There are times when games can drag a little and speeding up the pace in places would be widely appreciated. For the last decade the sport has been trying to encourage pitchers to deliver more quickly and batters not to step out of the box so frequently, and the results have made a minor, but positive impact on speeding up at bats. thankfully we see far fewer Nomar Garciaparra-style rituals at the plate with batters taking off then putting back on their gloves between every pitch these days.
Still, it’s hard to see long games really harming the sport when attendance has been at alltime highs in the past decade and last fall’s World Series ratings were up on TV. some of the very appeal of the game is its bucolic nature and lack of a clock. It offers a little piece of a time gone by and of where one can sit back and relax a little while living in the moment. And no one’s moaning about the almost identical length of an NFL game – about 3 hours, 12 minutes (of which the ball is actually in motion an average of 11 minutes!). Even that “fastest game on ice”, hockey, averages a shade over 2 and a half hours to play its 60-minute game, thanks to intermissions and an average of 81 stoppages per game! Personally I’ve not met many fans who complain they hate how long 9 innings take and the youth that Manfred covets, the video game generation, typically have the attention span of ferrets and find the whole concept of baseball old-fashioned. Knocking ten minutes off the length of the game isn’t going to win over fans who find a 6-minute long song too tedious.
So I find it mildly irksome Manfred is spending so much time and energy and is posturing like an MMA fighter in order to speed up pitches and change the nature of the game. Slowly working toward implementing a pitch clock, now in use in the minors, may make sense once old-timers used to working on their own timetable have been phased out (which is to say, like when or if Bartolo Colon ever retires) but isn’t going to pack an extra 10 000 butts into the stadium in Tampa or Oakland each night. Worse yet his proposal to have teams start extra innings start with a phantom runner on second base for no reason. Where the hell did that idea come from and what is it going to achieve? One worries next he’ll be proposing a soccer-style kick off (or perhaps bat-off with hitters knocking balls off tees) to decide the game instead of playing til it’s over.
Almost as odd and unwarranted is his ramming through a change to make intentional walks happen without pitches, something the players’ association has apparently disagreed with but accepted anyway, knowing when to pick your battles. It really won’t make a huge difference after all, which is the argument both for and against it. On the one hand, certainly having the pitcher not need to lob 4 balloons up there when wanting to avoid the batter will save 45 seconds, maybe a minute. On the other hand, only 932 of them were issued all last season, in over 2400 games. Thus, the majority of games don’t ever have an intentional walk anyway, so the overall time saving will be microscopic. And the change eliminates the chance of a wild pitch getting away from the bored catcher, which of course can alter the game entirely should there be a runner on 2nd or 3rd at the time. One might suggest that if Manfred is eager to push this through and change this element of the game, he should compensate by having all runners move along a base when an IBB is issued, not just a runner on first. This would add to the strategy involved and create a spot more offense, which is something he’s apparently determined to do anyway.
There’s an even better way to make the game more exciting and limit the “dull” intentional walks. HAve the NL join the 21st Century and use a DH like other pro leagues have for years. After all, twice as many IBBs were issued in the National as American, largely due to situations where a walk will bring up a pitcher with two outs. Having a DH in the lineup will eliminate that, and add offense. Not to mention save jobs for 15 aging hitters, ala David Ortiz or Edwin Encarnacion who are usually fan faves. the player’s union would be all for that and how many fans would be upset to see, an Ortiz or Encarnacion, or their peers, come up in a pressure situation rather than a Julio teheran or Jeremy hellickson? Owners would like it too, benefitting from ending the base-running injury risk to prize investments like Clayton Kershaw or Jake Arrieta.
There are things to address in baseball. Manfred could take a hard look at why two rising superstars – Alex Fernandez and Yordano Ventura- have died in the last 6 months off the field in accidents seemingly caused through reckless behaviour. How do the young players with infinite funds but less-than-fully-developed-maturity get the guidance they need off the diamond? While at it, rather than obsess over the Cleveland Indians popular but likely-racist logo, why not look at the ridiculous rants of their pitcher Trevor Bauer (who lately was in the news for blaming Apple and Twitter for anti-Trump news he didn’t like and has at various times wished a short, miserable life to fans he’s interacted with while declaring he’s widely known as intelligent) and other players who bring disrespect on the sport and insult, if not bite, the hand that feeds them, namely the fans’.
Baseball isn’t broken, but methinks helping its stars act in more civil and responsible fashion would go further in winning over new fans than knocking 45 seconds off every other game will ever do.
Looking ahead to the season ahead next ….