Major League Baseball must think we’re stupid.
No other way to explain the game’s headlong rush to dumb down the sport for those of us evidently too bored by strategy, the intrinsic beauty of the game, and its lifelong traditions.
It is utterly ominous, these recent proposals to add the designated hitter to the National League, imposition of a 20-second pitch clock, and a rule requiring relievers to pitch to a minimum of three hitters.
Oh, and there is always this: The incessant bombardment of advertisements, Kiss Cams, Cardinal Hat Dances and other ephemera that take up every second of between-innings action at the ballpark.
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Heaven forbid we are allowed a moment of quiet to think about the game unfolding before us, to think along with the manager in the dugout, to ponder what might come next in a game that is distinguished by player moves and other stratagems unique to American professional sports.
Which is what is so wrong-headed with ideas advancing the NL DH, the pitch clock and hitter minimums for relievers.
Don’t take my word for it; I grant you I’m a dinosaur who spent his youth watching baseball’s Greatest Generation, the likes of Musial and Mays and Aaron and Gibson and Koufax.
Back in the day, many games took two hours or so, many of them played crisply, well pitched and well managed. The 13-8 game was a rare thing, as were 4-hour-58-marathons marked by offenses that are now artificially embellished by a ninth hitter in the lineup.
Old fogey alert: I have too many fond memories of the game the way it was played back in the day.
So, it was all the more telling to hear this week from St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, in his first spring training as the Redbirds skipper. Asked about the idea to add the DH in all NL games as soon as this year, he turned the notion on its head.
“I’m looking forward to the American League adopting the National League rules,” Shildt said before a Cardinals’ exhibition game this week. “That would be so fun. I’m going to start a petition for that … Just a better game – plus our hitters can hit.”
Shildt is right: The DH takes every ounce of strategy out of the game, leaving players, the coaches and fans alike to sit there and watch, unblinking, as a game divorced from strategy unfolds in front of them.
Every night in the NL, the manager must decide (among many other decisions) how long to keep his starting pitcher in the game, a choice complicated by the game situation, the score, the batting order and so on.
Example: Say your starter is pitching well, deep into the game, but is losing 2-1 in the seventh inning. And he’s scheduled to bat second in the bottom of the seventh. Do you keep him in the game, trying to keep the score close? Or do you choose from your handful of bench players to pinch-hit for him, hoping to push across the tying and go-ahead runs?
What options do you have on the bench? How rested is your bullpen? Which part of the other team’s lineup will you face in the top of the eighth? What’s the pitch count for your starter? How many times has he been through the lineup, and does he have a history of faltering once the hitters have seen him a couple times that day?
On top of it all, which pinch-hitter do you use? How does he match up against the pitcher on the other side, or a reliever that might come in? How does that move affect your bench the rest of the way, when even more crucial at-bats may be arise?
In the American League, none of this happens. The starter pitches until he tires and is replaced by a reliever. Pinch-hitters languish on the bench, unneeded and unheeded. Double-switches – to get a hitter up to the plate sooner if the pitcher’s spot in the batting order is imminent – are non-existent.
And the manager sits there, lineup card in his hip pocket, no more than a spectator with a really good seat in the ballpark.
There’s no mystery here: The players association wants the DH in the NL because it would add 15 higher-paid payroll spots. The DH is often occupied by a veteran slugger who is a defensive liability or has lost a step or two in the field (read: Albert Pujols, for just one example).
And it appears some owners may be complicit in this, thinking the modern fan – the so-called drive-thru, PlayStation generation – is bored if something dramatic doesn’t happen every 15 seconds.
If I want to watch a ball get slapped around, I head to the pinball arcade. If I want to think along with the manager or wonder how the game might turn out, I watch a game played in the National League.
Yes, 13-8 games can be dramatic, for the moment. But I’ll take a taut 2-1 game any day, a game where every batter and every baserunner – indeed every pitch – may be crucial.
Among the other changes baseball is considering, similarly flawed: The pitch clock, a notion that sometimes might force a pitcher to deliver a throw before he’s ready, even as hitters are allowed to fiddle with the Velcro on their batting gloves, their belt buckles, their batting hat brims and the manicured dirt in the batter’s box.
So what’s the issue? Simply this:
Baseball is the only sport that isn’t governed by the tyranny of a ticking clock – someone far wiser than me noted a long time ago that the players even circle the bases in a counter-clockwise direction – and the pitch clock should be anathema in a game that has always been able to unfold without artificial external pressures.
The same is true for a proposal that relief pitchers be forced to face at least three hitters after entering the game, a concept that is antithetical to the game’s unique standing among American sports – the rule that lets any manager opt to use any pitcher or hitter in any matchup.
With a catch, of course: Once a player is used and removed from the game, he can’t return. That is unique to baseball; in any other major sport, players can come and go at will.
But that baseball rule means a manager must choose his spots carefully, choosing for instance when to use a left-handed reliever to face the other team’s best left-handed hitter. A rule that would require the pitcher to face at least two more hitters strikes at the heart of one of the manager’s principle responsibilities – to manage the bullpen or late-game plate appearances effectively.
Erode those duties, and what will we have to complain about after the move backfires? Baseball gives us 162 chances a year to think our manager is a dunce, and who wants to see that diminish?
Imagine an NFL coach forced to keep a running back in the lineup for three consecutive plays, no matter what. Or a college basketball coach barred from substituting defensive players after a change in possession with seconds left on the clock.
No. No. No. A rule that takes even a little of the game out of the manager’s hands is just wrong.
We all know why this is under consideration: The often-wrongheaded scheme to speed up the game.
We started down that road a couple years ago, when intentional walks were signaled from the bench. Now, a player takes first base without many of the fans even noticing, instead of providing them a span of four intentional pitches to realize one of their better hitters is being deliberated bypassed in favor of another batsman.
I don’t know about you, but I miss the booing before the hitter is waved to first base.
And – sadly – I’m worried there will be more to miss if baseball makes these ill-considered changes.