MLB has taken several steps to improve the pace of the game. While we’ve discussed those rule changes, there’s an area yet to be explored.
MLB is engineering a process by which baseball is facing inevitable change.
The changes are inevitable, and they exist as a mirror of our society as we know it today. Microwave cooking, faster broadband, faster cars, faster times in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics, robot vacuums – it surrounds us, and for the most part, we look for even more ways to squeeze activity and ease into a 24-hour day.
However, irrespective of those accepted cultural innovations (i.e., changes), MLB is meeting substantial resistance to the rule changes they have introduced.
We should not be surprised, though, because baseball holds a unique place in the American culture and way of life.
Unlike other professional sports, MLB holds a spot in our lives reserved exclusively for entertainment, an area outside the realm of driving, cooking, vacuuming the floor, etc.
MLB And Our National “Pastime”
Consider, for example, the tag put on baseball long ago as our National Pastime.
In the dictionary, the word pastime has synonyms like diversion, hobby, recreation, and relaxation attached to it.
If I could, I’d “relax” all day and every day. Lest we should wonder at the line in Take Me Out To The Ballgame – “I don’t care if I ever get back.”
It follows, then, that resistance to anything affecting the one thing in our lives (baseball) that is not connected to speed is “hands-off” for many fans.
So, it is only natural the two contrasting elements, faster-paced lives versus the pastoral nature of MLB, result in tension between the two when MLB introduces rule changes to baseball.
Baseball, Football, And Basketball
And yet, we also know that professional baseball is being outpaced by football and basketball, two sports now with a reputation for “action,” fast breaks, long bombs, and the speed of gifted athletes.
I use the word reputation, though, with purpose and the understanding that perception is the better part of reality.
Because for the life of me, I can’t figure out how it is that it takes three hours (TV time slot) to play a sixty-minute game of football.
Or, why it takes thirty minutes to play the final two minutes of an NBA game that is replete with ten-second, 20-second, and “full” timeouts, plus the increase of commercials from sponsors who know that many basketball fans tune in for the end of the game when a contest is almost always decided.
Look with wonderment, too, at the poor soul who enjoys watching a golf tournament. Talk about the pace of play…
Baseball And The Inevitability Of Change
Still, as we know, MLB is committed to finding ways to increase the pace of play in baseball, and despite what many see as an intrusion on our National Pastime, those changes are culturally inevitable.
Today, let’s look at an area that hasn’t been but should be explored – the foul ball.
First, however, let’s look at the penalties associated with an “out of bounds” play in football and basketball.
In football, a ball thrown out of bounds results in the loss of a down. Do it again, and a team loses another down, which is a rather severe penalty when you consider a team gets only four downs to make a first down.
In basketball, the penalty is even more severe, with a ball thrown out of bounds resulting in the team losing possession of the ball altogether.
MLB: The Unique History Of The Foul Ball
MLB has grappled with the issue of the foul (out of bounds) ball since the inception of baseball in the 19th Century.
Thus, we find that the history of the foul ball has an interesting evolution in baseball and one that is fraught with trouble and sheer joy.
The significant point in foul ball history occurred when, in the early 1900s, the “Foul Strike Rule” became official in each league.
This rule was/is intended to limit the number of foul balls that can be hit during a plate appearance by making the first two fouls in an at-bat count as strikes.
Before the rule, players were known to force a walk because they became adept at fouling off pitches when the first two fouls weren’t called strikes. The rule sped up the game and made it, so the first two fouls counted against the batter.
The rule is still in effect, and there is no penalty assigned after two strikes on a batter, regardless of the number of foul balls hit after that mark.
While there have been several epic at-bats in MLB history, I’ll highlight this one for purposes of illustration – a 21-pitch endurance test at the hands of Brandon Belt (Giants) from April 2018.
Fortunately, the video “speeds up” the at-bat showing only the pitches and not the space in-between, but even at that, the video reaches 1:41 in length.
Nevertheless, as we watch the video, an interesting phenomenon occurs as the crowd gets into Belt’s at-bat, and the oohs and ahs get louder with each foul ball until he eventually flies out to the right field. He is met with cheers and congratulations from his teammates when he reaches the dugout.
This presents an interesting dichotomy, though, when contrasted to the question – should there be a penalty attached to an at-bat in which X number of foul balls have been hit after two strikes?
Should, for example, a rule be in place saying that Belt is declared out after the fifth, the eighth, the tenth foul ball?
Or, does the entertainment value of an extended at-bat outweigh the time it takes, along with the obvious delay of game and the pace of play?
For myself, this is an area I say – leave the game alone. But having said that, I know there are the suits at MLB, along with a portion of fans, who adamantly feel otherwise, some even suggesting Belt should have been out the first time he failed to put the ball in play after two strikes.
MLB: Solving The Tension Surrounding Rule Changes
More than anything, however, this case study illustrates the tension between the two sides, which should pause any changes to the existing rule.
In other words, when in doubt, do nothing.
The trouble with the existing rule changes that MLB has adopted is they appear to lack the foresight to consider the potential impact on the game, as we have done here with the foul ball issue.
Instead, with the pre-established notion that “we will change the game with new rules,” MLB and, in particular, Commissioner Rob Manfred has rushed in willy-nilly looking for anything that will stick to the wall.
Notwithstanding the idea that we should be looking for ways to improve the pace of a ballgame, the volume of the changes alone, coming in a short span of time, has created a haze of confusion and complexity to digest.
This is why MLB needs to change its path to a more deliberate one that has widespread participation.
Therefore, to repeat from yesterday, MLB should move toward forming a committee dedicated solely to an evaluation of the rules already in place, together with new rules, with the singular goal of improving the pace of the game in MLB.
Most importantly, the committee must include the wide spectrum of interested parties, meaning Manfred and his MLB contingent, players, umpires, TV networks, and most significantly, fans of baseball selected in a lottery.
Furthermore, the committee needs to be given wide authority and, if necessary, even subpoena powers to secure MLB and the MLBPA documents relevant to their deliberations.
And finally, similar to our familiarity with the appointment of a special prosecutor to deal with a touchy subject matter, the findings of this committee must be binding and subject to the rubber-stamp approval by MLB and the MLBPA.
For many of us, baseball is an important element in our lives, and some even phrase it as a “religion.”
As such, we want the best for the game of baseball, and if we assume MLB has the same goal, Manfred and his cohorts should at least begin to act like it.