As the world turns

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

On the PosCast this week, I am joined by dear friends Alexa Datt and Dani Wexelman of the podcast “Datt’s What She Said with Dani,” and it was a blast, and at some point there we started talking about the rules changes in baseball — the zombie runner in extra innings, the DH in the National League, the seven-inning doubleheaders, the three batter minimum.

And something occurred to me: I have not talked AT ALL about the rule changes in baseball. I don’t mean I haven’t written about it — I have not. But I haven’t even TALKED about it. It hasn’t come up in a conversation or text thread I’ve had with friends, and I have had a lot of those. Maybe someone texted me about the extra-inning thing the first time it happened, I can’t really remember. Life in the pandemic is a blur, as you know.

But the point is: I just don’t spend any time at all thinking about the rule changes.

And I think there’s a lesson baseball can take from that.

A few years ago, when baseball first started talking about adding a pitcher’s clock, I wrote a pretty highfalutin column about how bad that was, how the whole point of baseball is that it is the game without a clock, how a clock without spoil the rhythms that have made the game magical for so many of us for so many years.

Then I went to see a minor-league game in Toledo where they were using the clock and … by the end of the first inning, I already realized how wrong I had been. The clock was totally fine. It was better than fine. It made the pace feel crisper. Nobody really paid much attention to it. The pitchers had come to accept it — much in the same way that in tennis, the server accepts that clock — and it was no big deal.

And that was a good lesson: My first reaction to change as a baseball fan is always negative. Always. That is just hard-wired into my baseball fanhood. I have written many times that I believe everybody’s perfect version of baseball is the version of the game that was being played when they were 10 years old. For me, that’s 1977, when Rod Carew hit .388, and George Foster blew our minds by hitting 52 home runs, and starters would complete 20 games a season, and Nolan Ryan struck out 341 batters, and there were two divisions in each league and four teams made the playoffs and nine-inning games averaged two hours and 32 minutes.

There’s a part of me I can’t shut off that wants baseball to be like that again.

And that part of me seems to believe that every change the game makes takes us a little bit further away from 1977. So, right, a rule change suggestion triggers an instant and involuntary barricade. I can’t help it.

And I have to remind myself of four things.

  1. We’re not going back to 1977.

  2. We shouldn’t want to go back to 1977.

  3. The only way we can get back any of the things I loved about 1977 baseball is to MAKE RULE CHANGES. This is so important. By not making rule changes, the people who run the game are letting it evolve in countless unpredictable ways. It’s a rudderless ship. Games are 35 minutes longer now not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes. Fewer balls than ever are put in play not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes. The triple is dead not because of rule changes but because of a lack of rule changes.

  4. People like me might complain about rule changes before they happen … but once they do, we adjust. For all the complaining about the designated hitter, the single biggest and most controversial rule change of the last 100 years, nobody stopped watching baseball because of it. As fans, we adapt pretty quickly.

Which brings us to this year. Do I like the extra-inning zombie runner? Yeah, I think I do. My rule change defenses went up when I first heard about it, but now that it’s happening, yeah, it’s kind of cool, it makes me root for extra innings in a way that I certainly didn’t before. I know that we’re all supposed to miss those 18-inning games where the teams had to send out utility infielders to pitch and all that and those were fun, but I mean, they were also kind of dumb.

The DH in the National League? I was against that too, of course, because I liked each league having its own character. And while I’m a DH guy myself I always got a kick out of listening to traditionalists scream about the beauty of the double switch. But now that the DH is in the NL, yeah, it’s kind of cool, it’s a lot more fun watching A.J. Pollock hit than Ross Stripling.*

*One thing I would recommend, though, is that teams at least be allowed to use pitchers as designated hitters, if they want. As you know, the rule now is that if a pitcher is put in the lineup, the team loses the DH for the rest of the game — this was done because wise guys like Billy Martin tried to game the system. But I think that for the really good hitting pitchers like Madison Bumgarner or Zack Greinke, they should be allowed to be the DH and when they get pulled, the manager should be allowed to simply replace them with another DH. I don’t know how often this would come up, but it would be a nice feature.

The three-batter minimum? Seems fine to me. I have no particular love for the lefty specialist.

The point for baseball is: Be bolder. Make changes. Yes, the traditionalists will recoil, at least at first, and maybe even threaten to turn off baseball forever. But you know what? They won’t. We won’t. This has been a difficult year for baseball, just like it has been a difficult year for everything, but I think it has been a nice reminder that the character of the game isn’t locked in all the musty traditions.