Saturday, February 25, 2017

International Editor: Change For Change's Sake No Good

by Mark Lawrence, FN International Editor

Sydney, Australia. In the wake of recent proposed changes to the National Pastime, I’m left wondering if Commissioner Manfred bumped his head climbing out of the limo on Park Avenue and had some kind of misguided epiphany:  “I know! I’ll Make Baseball Great Again.”

I don’t have any idea why this painful Pace-of-Play initiative seems to have taken on the same level of importance as defeating ISIS – for as long as this scribe can remember, baseball games have averaged around three hours in length and that’s been the way (uh huh, uh huh) I liked it.  So, how in the world can shaving off a quarter of a minute from an Intentional Walk have any real, significant effect on reducing game time?

Don’t misunderstand me, sportsfans – there are very definitely aspects of the game that could benefit from a little judicial tightening.  For example, I’m delighted about the two minute rule on Instant Replay umpiring calls –  time spent standing around waiting for a faceless final verdict from New York is time better spent actually playing baseball, dontcha think? Oh yes, I hear you say, but the same could be said about eliminating the Intentional Walk.  Well, actually, it can’t, leastways not in my greenhorn opinion. Oh sure, the the Intentional Walk can induce some sighs, but it’s a managerial stratagem that one team can impose on the other at will, and it’s never come free of charge – the cost was those four pitches, slow and easy as they are, that still forced the pitcher to use up some precious energy. That was the price of the Intentional Walk – and now it costs nothing.  And with its demise, we will never again see things like the Intentional Walk That Became a Strike Out or The Intentional Walk That Became a Base Hit. Those were wonderful sit-up-straight moments that made us turn to the person next to us and ask man, did you see that?  These were Capital M Moments that went beyond The Game, those one-of-a-kind gems that we’d try to describe to our non-baseball colleagues the next day at work.  All Gone.

Now, that was bad enough, but there’s something else I’ve heard about that has left me shaking my head and muttering to myself that there is no way on God’s Green Diamond that it could ever happen: Starting Extra Innings with A Man on Second Base. Great Caesar’s Ghost! Tied at the bottom of the ninth?  You may as well just get both managers out to the mound and toss a coin. Are you playing Major League Baseball here or are you just screwing around?

When you look back, there’s not been a Commissioner who hasn’t generated at least a few swirls of controversy during his tenure.  Back then, though, those controversies were mostly important and were eventually resolved to the betterment of the game.  In recent years, however, one can’t help but question the motives behind such odd initiatives as Pace-of-Play.  I myself can’t help but be entirely cynical when I try to fathom the machinations behind the idea. Are modern era commissioners so hell bent on beating their personal mark onto the game that they’re resorting to this level of nonsense?  I wonder perhaps if W. might’ve been a less controversial choice.

Changing the game to adapt it to the modern tastes of a contemporary audience who grew up with instant gratification?  Those people aren’t watching the game in the first place.  The only sensible reason I can ascribe to Pace-of-Play initiatives is money.  The air-time block for a baseball game is not likely to shrink concurrent to any time savings that Pace-of-Play may generate.  And the cynic in me says that this can only mean one thing: increased ad revenue for MLB.  According to my pals at Forbes Magazine, more than half of all MLB teams can today be valued in the billions, so the question must be asked: How much is enough?

Perhaps a more sensible approach would be to listen to those who actually pay the Commissioner’s salary. Are the fans whining and moaning about Pace-of-Play? Not so as you’d notice. Will the fans take it personally when their boys are tied in the ninth and the opposition’s speediest runner is limbering up to steal the win with a two base advantage that didn’t cost ‘em anything? Oh, you bet they will. Remember this, Commish: it’s the fans who generate all those billions of dollars, and no one else. There’s no gummint subsidees in baseball, it all comes out of the wallets and pocketbooks of the hapless fans. When they stop shelling out their hard-earned, then you can tinker with the game. And those starry-eyed knuckleheads with the dollar bill spreadsheets down at MLB HQ would do well to remember that and forget these silly ideas.