Proposed Rule Changes Will Hurt, Not Help, the Game

By Ken Reed

Baseball is a significantly different sport than football, basketball, and hockey.  It’s that uniqueness, and the tradition that comes from the fact that baseball has changed very little over the years, that accounts for a lot of its popularity.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”  said Jimmy Duggan (played by Tom Hanks) in the movie A League of Their Own.

Well Jimmy, there’s no clock in baseball either.  Or, at least there shouldn’t be.

Some Major League Baseball executives, including commissioner Rob Manfred, want a pitch clock.  That would be an abomination.

I like baseball because it’s baseball.  I don’t want a clock to be part of the game, like it is in the other major team sports.  In fact, one of the reasons I go to the ballpark is to get away from time pressures.  I want to relax on a summer’s day, like I did when I was 12, hanging out at the ballyard, playing with friends and not caring a bit about time.

Baseball’s not perfect, but it’s baseball.  I don’t mind a little tinkering with the national pastime.  Rule tweaks that don’t change the essence of the game are okay, I guess.  But adding a clock?  No.

Every time Major League Baseball (MLB) moves away from its history, tradition and nostalgia the game doesn’t improve a little, it dies a little.

MLB power brokers are also considering putting a man on second base from the 11th inning on.  What?  That isn’t baseball.  Are baseball’s leaders willing to chuck the sport’s history in order to potentially end extra inning games an inning or two sooner?

There’s also talk of requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters before they can be pulled.  Stupid.  What if the first two batters a pitcher faces hit home runs totaling a combined 1000 feet?  Does it make sense to force the manager to leave him in?  This rule would change the way the game has been played for 150 years.

MLB has tried several things over the last couple decades in an effort to keep up with the NFL and NBA in popularity.  For example, they thought more offense was the key to greater success.  The field dimensions in ballparks shrank, the baseballs were juiced, and the owners looked the other way as their players beefed up on steroids and human growth hormone.  The only thing this did is make it harder for fans to compare stats from era to era, one of the advantages baseball has over other sports.

Recently, baseball added silly one-game playoff matchups. That isn’t how the better team should be determined after playing a 162-game season.  For one thing, it doesn’t take into account the depth of one’s roster, especially the pitching staff, a big key to success over a long regular season.

Where did these moves leave MLB?  Further and further behind the NFL — and probably the NBA — in the minds of America’s sports fans.

It’s time for MLB to do some serious reflection and reevaluation.  What does MLB have that the NFL, NBA, NHL, and especially NASCAR and lacrosse don’t?

They have history, tradition, and nostalgia that the other sports can’t match.  They have hallowed records that sports fans can recite at will.  They have a game that for the most part has the same rules it did a century ago.  They have a game linked by the generations (compare the number of 9-year-old and 90-year-old fans at a baseball game to those at an NFL or NBA game).

The key to success for any business entity is positioning your product against the competition in the minds of your target audience.  Baseball’s competitive advantages against the other professional sports leagues revolve around its history, tradition and nostalgia.

What baseball needs is a commissioner that will say, “We’re going retro, and we’re staying there!”

Remember what a phenomenon Camden Yards was when it was built?  Why was it so popular?  It was a retro baseball park, hand-operated scoreboard and all.  It had all the feel and sensibilities of the great traditional ballparks.  Camden spurred numerous popular copycat parks around the country.

The retro ballpark was one of the few good moves MLB’s leaders have made in recent decades.  They need to make similar retro moves, like wrapping up the World Series in mid-October instead of November, playing some World Series games in the day time, or at least starting them at a reasonable hour, so young and old alike can stay up to see the finish.

There are many similar moves that can be made.  Embrace Retro!  Be the Un-Cola of major team sports.

Baseball isn’t our national sport anymore but it still is our national pastime.  It’s a slow, laid-back sport played in the lazy days of summer.  It’s a link between generations, a place where kids, parents and grandparents can bond on a beautiful summer evening.  The game may not be as sexy as football and basketball.  But it is what it is – and luckily there’s nothing wrong with that.

History, tradition and nostalgia?  That’s the appeal MLB.  Wake up and go retro or continue to slowly die in the American sports fan’s consciousness.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project.  He is the author of three books on sports issues: The Sports Reformers; Ego vs. Soul in Sports; and How We Can Save Sports.


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