We are living in truly dark times.
Our institutions and traditions, handed down in America through the generations, are now under assault and seem unsteady, not able to withstand the shock of a new authority sweeping away what once we held as inviolable.
I’m speaking, of course, about Major League Baseball’s seemingly endless rule changes. Last year the vulgarians in power scrapped the requirement that an intentional walk must consist of four balls thrown outside the strike zone. A manager now has only to indicate to the home plate umpire that his team wants to put the opposing batter on first base.
The intentional walk, part of the chess match played by heavily tattooed men chewing tobacco, is employed if a team doesn’t want to face a hot hitter or to set up a double play.
Question: Why change a quirky and fascinating moment in a game that true fans relish?
Answer: The baseball powers-that-be believe it will quicken the pace of the game.
Somewhere: Abner Doubleday is weeping.
Baseball is a game requiring great skill. It’s been said that consistently hitting a ball thrown at 90-plus mph that is not moving in a straight line is the hardest feat in all of sports. (If you can do that only three out of 10 times you will be paid many millions.) It’s also the slowest of our games, and the most beautiful, because of the leisurely procession of its moments.
The pace of the summer game has always been a respite from the manic rush of American life. Baseball says, “Slow down. Really watch. There’s more here than meets the eye. Learn something.” It’s not for nothing that the political world has co-opted the expression “inside baseball” to describe intricate maneuvering.
These days, with human attention spans on par with squirrels because of touch-screen tyrants in everyone’s fist (Americans on average check their phones every four minutes), baseball is the closest thing to Zen you can have while eating and drinking stuff that’s bad for you.
The need for speed is to get younger people to watch the sport. Team owners want more folks to watch the games and make more money. I get it. It’s just how you go about it.
New rules for 2023 include putting a timer on a pitcher, giving him 15 seconds to deliver to the plate when he gets the ball with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with a man on. Also, infield shifts are banned, and two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base when the pitch is thrown, and all four infielders have to have both feet on the infield dirt. The size of the bases will be increased from 15 inches square to 18 inches.
Wonders never cease — I agree with the baseball barons on eliminating shifts and making the bases bigger. But the pitch clock? No way. In a tight game, in the late innings, with runners on base, it’s a delight to take time to anticipate the next pitch, and not have to watch an electronic indicator counting down the seconds. Take your time!
But it’s not just a matter of time. It’s also allowing the fans to see something unexpected, such as that old-time intentional walk. It used to be that the catcher looks for a sign from his manager in the dugout, who tucks his thumb under and holds up four fingers.
The catcher relays the info to the pitcher and stands behind the plate, rather than crouching. The pitcher delivers a pitch that is two or three feet off the plate, and the catcher makes a graceful, two-step sideways move to catch the ball. Four times and the batter heads to first.
Don Drysdale, the great Dodger ace (or borderline psychopath) of long ago, didn’t like the intentional walk. A pitcher known for occasionally throwing at a batter’s skull, Big D was said to hit an opponent on his first pitch after he got the signal to issue the free pass, which automatically awarded first base to the batter. His irrefutable logic was why waste three perfectly good pitches to put a man on?
Making the intentional walk automatic robs the fan of seeing once-in-a-blue-moon screwups. There have been occasions when the pitcher has thrown wildly, missing his moving target, and a runner has scored from third, and also on occasion a pitcher has thrown a little too closely to the plate and a batter has reached out and stroked a base hit. Not often, but it’s happened.
As Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up.”
The abomination known as the designated hitter is now entering its second year in the National League. This means there are 10 players to a side, and not the mystical number of nine players, corresponding in perfect harmony with nine innings, which relates to three, an unbreakable relationship with nine, as in three strikes, three outs.
But four balls, you say? Never contradict a person when he’s being mystical.
It’s probably best to leave the final word to someone who actually played the game. Asked about rule changes, former Major League catcher Russell Martin told Sportsnet: “My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should a guy, just like in softball, when he hits it, should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker. I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game?”
Amen, brother Martin.