From deep left field
As I mentioned in my last column, Major League Baseball has changed its intentional walk rule. Why? Baseball executives say games drag on too long. Here’s what the president of the Florida Marlins had to say. “Pace of game is critical. We know that from our fans and TV partners. We have to recognize the reality of life today, which is that attention spans are going down and choices are going up. Whatever business you’re in, you have to adjust.”
Traditionalists, of course, don’t like the move. But what do traditionalists know about the breakneck pace of contemporary life and the short attention spans of the Instagram generation? Of course, baseball needs to be speeded up, big time! Cricket changed; so can baseball.
The problem is that, as one commentator calculated, an intentional walk is only issued once in every four or five games; so this one change is not going to make much of a difference. More has to be done. And while it’s true that the commissioner of baseball has said he is investigating the curtailment of trips to the mound and the introduction of a pitch clock, the time is ripe for a few suggestions from, shall we say, deep left field.
It seems to me that one broad brush approach to take is to cut off the possibility of an infinitely long game—perhaps the very thing that traditionalists worship most. For instance, it’s theoretically possible that a player could spend the rest of his natural life (and ours) fouling off twostrike ptiches. How come a foul ball is a strike one or strike two, but not a strike three? Why not limit the number of pitches a batter can foul off with two strikes against him, so that the next time he fouls off, he is out? It would not only shorten a game but add to its drama. Pitchers could count on throwing a finite number of times. Fielders would have to worry less about crashing into the stands to catch foul balls. And therefore, spectators would have to worry less about being doused with beer and popcorn. Only dry-cleaners would shed tears.
Would you like to have been around on August 12, 1894 to watch Boston beat Cincinnati by a score of 43- 11? Or would you have preferred to watch the Chicago White Sox beat the Milwaukee Brewers 7-6 in a 1984 game that lasted eight hours and six minutes?
What’s wrong with limiting each batter to one plate appearance per inning, or limiting the number of runs a team can score per inning? Or how about just doing away with extra innings? What is more frustrating than seeing the shortstop for the team you are not rooting for hit a solo homer off a full count with two out in the top of the 15th and then watching your team strand a man at third in the bottom of the inning? You lose both the game and your full night’s sleep. (The answer, I guess is discovering, once the visitors have scored six runs in the top of the 15th and you have made the bold decision to go to bed with the game’s outcome almost certain, that your team rallied with seven runs in the bottom of the inning and you missed out on the excitement because you were not a true fan).
Wouldn’t it have been better to know that the game ended after nine innings, and the result went down as an honorable tie? What’s wrong with a tie? Ask English soccer fans why they watch all those ‘nil-nil’ ties with such fervour (and let me know if you find out). And if a tie result is a non-starter, then come up with a tie-breaker rule. Let the pitchers compete in a home run derby, or have fans vote on which team got their uniforms the dirtier—anything to get it over with.
There are plenty of other speed-up possibilities apart from the infinity issues. The infield fly rule, for instance, could be supplemented by an ‘outfield fly’ rule that states if a fair pop up takes longer than three seconds to travel between bat and glove, the batter is automatically out. Another big time-waster is the throw to first base to hold the runner. Why doesn’t it simply count as a ball? That would teach pitchers to be more selective in their pickoff moves. And why do batters always ask for and receive permission to step out of the box to regroup? It’s technically impossible for one individual to regroup, and if the hitter needs a respite from the pressure of the at-bat, maybe he should be playing little league ball. And, perhaps worst of all, pitchers should not be allowed time just to glare at batters; they should get on with the job of pitching, which is what they are paid to do.