Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Coronavirus and Other Rule Changes

The Coronavirus and Other Rule Changes
Commentary by Sanford Horn
May 6, 2020

Should Major League Baseball enact any or all of the myriad rule changes recommended by Mike Axisa, a CBS sportswriter, Commissioner Rob Manfred should adopt Who Are You? as the sport’s walk-up music throughout whatever will remain of the undoubtedly disjointed 2020 season.

Of the 10 suggested changes, some just for this virus-addled season, and some permanently, only one seems remotely reasonable. Most of the others are insane, while others are simply inane.

Leading off in this menagerie of mayhem is a Universal DH. I have long despised the Designated Hitter rule, even before Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees stepped into the batter’s box at Fenway Park on that fateful April 6, 1973. In January, the American League approved a three year experiment with the evil designated hitter. Blomberg drove in the first run as a DH with a bases loaded walk in the first inning, and in the third, he delivered a single for the first hit by a DH. The only good thing about that game is that the Boston Red Sox beat the hell out of the Yankees 15-5 that afternoon.

As a Mets fan for nearly, G-d help me, 50 years, that would be a solid NEVER for me on the question of the designated hitter. It eliminates a certain degree of strategy. The pitcher is a part of the team and lineup, let him take his cuts at the plate and try to help himself. Also, a pitcher can’t hide behind the DH if he intentionally plunks a batter knowing there is no retaliation coming. No doubt one of the pitcher’s teammates will suffer the slings and arrows of the opposing pitcher. As it is used in college baseball (aluminum  bats are the work of the devil and will kill someone someday), there is a call from non-purists to have the DH in both the American and National leagues. It is already employed during interleague games played in American League stadiums.

Eliminate instant replay. I became a supporter of instant replay on June 2, 2010. That was the date of Armando Galarraga’s 28 out “perfect” game. Here’s the full story:  I would agree to modify the instant replay concept to move the proceedings along. A team would have 30 seconds to decide whether or not to use one of its two instant replay calls per game. The umpires then have one minute to either uphold or overturn the initial call. Can’t do it in one minute, call upheld.

Axisa next calls for an Automated Strike Zone. Time to bring in the robots. Absolutely not. This is a people’s game and should remain as such. While the replay is helpful once or twice a game in getting the calls on the field correct, an automated strike zone would remove any sense of the human element to the game. Will a home plate robot-umpire be able to determine if a player is safe or out at the plate? A robot still requires programming. Let the umpires do their jobs, keep the robots at bay, and see the above regarding instant replay.

The pitch clock, which is already in use in the minor leagues, is not a bad idea. It takes nothing away from the game, and is rarely enforced unless the pitcher is egregiously slow. Attending Indianapolis Indians AAA games where the clock is employed, it is hardly noticeable. In 2018, the average pitch was clocked at 22.7 seconds, while it rose in 2019 to 24.9 seconds. A 20 second clock could trim five seconds per pitch and shave roughly 20 minutes of game time, assuming each team throws 120 pitches per game. No objection.

Ties. Unless this is an addition to the uniform, NEVER! That is sacrilegious. Is this the National Hockey League? Oh, wait, even the NHL doesn’t have ties any longer. Extra innings are greeted with “free baseball!” Anyone who says “can we please just get this over with already?” is not a fan of baseball. That is not the attitude of a fan. Extra innings are exciting. As people head for the exits before the ninth inning, as they pass my row, I say, “they play nine here.” The suggestion of a point system for wins and ties is not baseball. Hockey or soccer, but most definitely  not baseball.

Because of the discussion to play this 2020 season only in the spring training states of Arizona and Florida, there is some concern of players tiring faster or getting heat exhaustion. If professional baseball players can’t stand around in the field or can’t run 90 feet every two or three innings, he is probably too out of shape to play in the first place - yet another reason people support the DH - lengthening the careers of some players who have lost a step or 10. The players’ union already is calling for a return to the 154 game season and a reduced work load for the players. Some have suggested calling the game after 10 or 11 innings. Still no. For the money these players make, and I don’t begrudge them their paychecks if someone is willing to pay them, they can suck it up and hustle.

Another ridiculous suggestion is the “mercy rule.” Is this Sunday beer league softball? This isn’t the “California Penal League.” If you don’t get the reference, you are not a true baseball fan. If a team doesn’t like getting blown out, there’s a simple solution - play better. Sadly, the International Baseball Federation uses a mercy rule. A team leading by 15 runs after five innings or ahead by 10 runs after seven innings is declared the winner. During the World Baseball Classic, a game is declared over if the winning team is leading by 10 runs or more after seven innings. “Anything that potentially prevents injuries has to be considered,” wrote Axisa. Hey, Axisa, virtually anything could cause an injury blowout or no blowout, pinhead.

If the mercy rule isn’t dumb enough, here’s one aimed at the Coronavirus era - Ghost Runners. This is insanely stupid. There would be no tag plays or holding runners on base. Runners would only advance one base ahead of the batter. No stolen bases? Again, is this Sunday beer league softball? No. If the concern is the health of the players, and their health should be a consideration, don’t play. Don’t open the season.

Then there’s the suggestion of seven inning games. No, sorry, this is not a minor league doubleheader. Again, if the concern is player health, safety, wear and tear, don’t play. Don’t open the season if the players can’t go the distance. Anyone complaining that nine innings is too long, are not baseball fans.

Going from bad to worse is the concept of the Quick Counts. This is some ridiculous mishegas created from a video game where random pitch counts on the batter would be spit out of the video. The only upside, and there really isn’t, would be the increased pace of the game, which seems to be the recurring complaint of so-called fans. Perhaps it’s the fans. Baseball is a leisurely game played for 150 years sans clock. Axisa didn’t actually endorse this nonsense, to be fair. Such a rule wouldn’t even fly in Sunday beer league softball. Although some leagues start every batter with a two ball, one strike count in order to get more batters up and more innings played as those games are usually timed in order to avail the field to more teams and games on a given day. That’s just a matter of logistics.

The last of Axisa’s rule changes would be to let the one-two-three hitters in the lineup bat in every inning. Imagine a batter getting nine plate appearances a game. Should someone play the entire 162 game season, he is looking at 1,458 plate appearances. The record for plate appearances in a season is 778 by Jimmy Rollins in 2007 with the Philadelphia Phillies. If the Players Association is worried about player fatigue, this would be laughed out of the room in an instant. Players would burn out not just in a season, but for a career. The seven-eight-nine hitters could conceivably never come to bat in game after game. They already bat at the bottom of the lineup for a reason. This idiotic plan would further deteriorate players’ skills. A compromise was suggested. Once a game, each team could send any player up to bat - even if he had already been removed from the game. Absolutely not.

There are also other proposals being considered much more seriously that would also be deleterious to the game. Throwing out the leagues and divisions and creating three larger conglomerate divisions, just for the shortened 2020 season, but still wrong.

Blue Jays, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Orioles, Phillies, Pirates, Rays, Red Sox, Yankees

Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Indians, Reds, Royals, Tigers, Twins, White Sox

Angels, A’s, Astros, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, Rockies

While on the subject of rule changes, end the automatic intentional walk. Make the pitcher toss those four pitches. What is that, 30 seconds? How many intentional walks are there in an average game? Stranger things have been known to happen - a wild pitch or a batter poking his bat out to make contact with the ball. When that rule change went into effect in 2017, a solid majority of fans opposed the plan. A nonscientific Twitter poll of over 11,000 respondents showed 74 percent against the plan. In 2018, an intentional base on balls was granted 0.38 times per game, saving about 35 seconds per game. For that 35 seconds, return to the traditional intentional walk rule.

One idea that has been floated is almost reasonable - having the season played in Arizona and Florida exclusively. Those teams whose spring training home is Arizona would play the regular season there, and the Florida teams likewise in the Sunshine State. Not a fan there either, but if modified, it could work. The better idea is to put one league in Arizona and the other in Florida, while eliminating the interleague games from the schedule - that’s about 20-22 games. Major League Baseball will likely play no more than 120 games if the season commences June 1. If the season runs June through October, during those five months, a 140 game season is possible. Teams would play 28 games per month, giving teams two to three days off per month - typical in July and August during a traditional schedule. To give the teams four additional days off per month, play one doubleheader per week. Postseason could comfortably be played in November sticking with the Arizona-Florida plan.

That plan works for me, especially as I am not a fan of interleague play. Fans or no fans should be determined on a week to week basis, as well as how many fans would be appropriate to allow into the stadium.

Another recently discussed plan on ESPN has the season starting by Independence Day. If the season will run through October, MLB could get in 120 games, followed by November postseason. That would be acceptable. If the regular season does not include playing through October, or starting the season August first, neither of those notions would be acceptable. A season of fewer than 100 games is barely more than a half season (81 games) and is not worth the aggravation, especially if the Arizona-Florida scenario is in place. Postseason in November in Arizona and Florida will work.

The game is for the real fans. Rule changes this drastic would destroy the integrity of the game. If the plan is to attract new fans to the game of baseball, it would backfire miserably as the loyal fans the game currently has would create empty stadiums - Coronavirus or no Coronavirus. Given a choice between some bastardized version of the game or no baseball for 2020, painful as it may be, no baseball would be better in order to maintain the integrity of our national pastime.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, Indiana. Growing up in New Jersey, he is a lifelong New York Mets fan.