Baseball from the plane

A couple of baseball thoughts on the flight to Phoenix as football’s biggest week begins.

There is some talk now — not yet serious talk, I don’t think, but talk still — about adding a pitcher’s clock to speed up baseball games and some sort of ban on defensive shifts to open up offense. These are two ideas to address two of baseball’s biggest problems. One, the games are too long. Two, teams aren’t scoring enough runs.

You could argue a lot of things here. You could argue that one or the other are not really problems but, instead, are simply phases the game is going through right now. A decade ago, any idea to help teams score MORE runs would have been viewed as nonsensical. And for all the grumbling about pace of play — much of it, admittedly, coming from this blog — more people are going to baseball games and watching baseball games than ever before.

So you could argue that these aren’t real problems. You could argue that even if they are real problems, they will work out themselves. You could argue that these solutions wouldn’t work. You could also argue that even if these solutions did work they would cause other even more difficult problems.

What strikes me instead is why I love baseball so much. First, foremost, I love baseball so much because I grew up with it. If I had grown up in South Africa, Malaysia, Spain or Krypton, I might not like baseball. If I had grown up in a small American town nowhere near a major league city, I might not like baseball. If I had grown up with a father whose life revolved around auto racing or the theater or building an ark to prepare for an upcoming flood, I might not like baseball.

But, instead, I grew up with a father who had only just moved to the UnIted States a couple of years before I was born and who believed that an American boy needed to know about baseball. Our earliest family movies are of me swinging a plastic bat. One of my earliest memories is of massive Cleveland Municipal Stadium, that bowling alley smell of stale beer and cigarettes, the way my feet stuck to the floor, the wind off Lake Erie, being surrounded by factory workers yelling, “Spit on it, Gaylord!” I was raised to love baseball, and I do, deeply, intently, more than ever.

That doesn’t mean that I think baseball should stay the same. I may be fooling myself, but I don’t consider myself a baseball purist … at least not as I understand the phrase. I would love to see baseball make changes to stay with the times. Sometimes on email, Tom Tango and Bill James and I will bat around ideas about how to quicken the pace of play, how to make the intentional walk less appealing to managers, how to make regular season extra innings more exciting, how to construct modern pitching rotations and so on. Some of these idea are pretty out there; those are the ideas I usually find most intriguing.

So, why do I find the pitchers clock and a ban on the shift so distasteful?

I think it is because they cut against the very things I love about baseball. Start with the pitcher’s clock. I do believe that the games are too long and, more to the point, there is too much non-action in them. Pitchers do work too slowly, and hitters do step out of the box too much, and it’s possible that a pitcher’s clock would speed things up. I guess there were some promising results in the Arizona Fall League.

But I loathe the idea, absolutely loathe it, and I think it’s because one of the best things about baseball for me is that it is the one game without a clock. How many times through the years has baseball been celebrated with THOSE EXACT WORDS: “Baseball has no clock?”

Every other major American sport has a clock and, what’s more, those clocks are becoming more and more tyrannical. We’re timing things to a tenth of a second in basketball and hockey. We’re stopping football games again and again so the referee can ask the scorekeeper “to please put nine seconds back on the clock.” Golfers are on the clock. Tennis players get time warnings. Referees add extra time at the end of soccer matches to make up for time that was lost.

And, with those games, there is always this subtle gnawing feeling that time is slipping away. Do you feel it? I don’t know about you, but whenever watching football on television and they show the play clock ticking down … 5 … 4 … 3 … I get anxious. It’s not a bad feeling, exactly, but it’s definitely a slight nervousness. Will they get the play off? Won’t they get the play off? It’s like a movie scene where someone is trying to defuse a bomb. Yes, clocks are bomb things. Clocks lengthen the work day. Clocks stop in schools. Clocks wake you up in the morning and clocks tell you that your late for a meeting and clocks run out on your favorite teams.

Baseball — it’s an escape from clocks. Baseball is a vacation from clocks. In baseball, there is none of that time anxiety, none of the feeling that every second matters, none of that clock-watching. There’s a certain tranquility, a certain calm in the rhythms of baseball. I don’t want some stupid clock ticking behind a pitcher, people in the stands counting down, pitchers throwing at the last possible second. Baseball is at its best when you can melt into the game. Sure it’s a cliche, but when just right baseball does feel timeless. Who brings a timepiece to a timeless game?

Are baseball games too long? Yes. Do they move too slowly? Sure. You know who can fix that? The umpires. The rules are already in the book. Umpires don’t need a clock to warn a pitcher to pick it up. They don’t need a clock to refuse timeout to a hitter who breaks contact with the batter’s box. The job of an umpire is to not only to get calls right but to keep the game lively and fair, and for too long now I don’t think the people who run baseball or the players themselves have given umpires the freedom to speed up the game. Give them that freedom now. Leave the clocks to the NBA, where they will replay a shot back and forth to see there was a tenth-of-a-second left.

It also wouldn’t hurt if managers would stop changing pitchers five times an inning.

Then there are shifts. Talking about the NBA, one of the things I never liked at all was the old “illegal defense.” I’m OK with defensive three-second violations — you can’t just stand in the lane all day, I get that — but no five-man defense should be illegal. They have five players. You have five players. They try to score. You try to stop them. This is the very essence of basketball, and if you can come up with some amoeba, triangle, jump-trap, Iron Man defense with your five guys that shuts down their offense, then you should be able to use it.

The same is true for me in baseball. The hitter gets a bat. The pitcher gets a ball and seven defenders behind him. The hitter can bunt, bloop, slap, line, crush, fist, chop, pull, slice, yank, top, pop, tick, drag, crack or smack the ball — these are not his only verb possibilities. And the pitcher can throw any variety of pitch, the defense behind him can line up any way they like. Go ahead. Play ball.

To mess with that is to mess with the game. In the last couple of years, teams have started to shift a lot more and this has undoubtedly had an effect on hitters. Batting averages were lower in 2014 than at any point since the designated hitter was introduced. But we’re still at the beginning of this trend. Hitters have not yet adjusted. There are ways to humiliate the shift. If hitters learn to go the other way, they will get hits just about every time. If hitters swallow their pride, they can bunt for a hit with even a lousy bunt. Oh, and if hitters stop striking out at historic rates, their batting averages will go up.

No matter what kind of shift we’re talking about, teams are still only allowed seven fielders behind the pitcher. They’ve been playing baseball for 150 years, and in that time there have been all sorts of trends, times when pitchers reigned, times when hitters dominated, times when stolen bases were a prominent weapon, times when bunts were key, times when every fly ball seemed to leave the park. Through all of it, one hitter against a pitcher and seven fielders has been a fair fight. It’s a fair fight now too. Give hitters the chance to catch up.

OK, the plane has landed in Phoenix. Baseball talk is over. Let’s go see who or what deflated those footballs.