Baseball changes about as frequently as the faces on Mt. Rushmore, but every once in a while it entertains ideas to improve itself, and this is one of those times.
Last December the Major Leagues formed a 14-member committee to tweak its format, including such diamond wisemen as Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Frank Robinson. The political columnist George Will also is involved. Will throws right but I’ve long thought highly of his intelligence, especially after he gave one of my books a generous blurb. His participation bodes well for the endeavor.
As you might expect, I, too, have pondered such issues, and have reached a few conclusions. Here they are, for the committee’s (and your) consideration:
STAY OFF THE MOUND; STAY IN THE BOX— A persistent criticism of baseball is that it’s too slow, and that its pace turns off the action-craving young. That’s in part unavoidable—it’s a waltz-time game in a hip-hop era—but it’s partly correctable, at least when it comes to clipping the no-action parts.
I’d start by eliminating trips to the pitcher’s mound by everyone—coaches, managers and other players—while an inning is in progress. What the heck can those guys tell a struggling pitcher, anyway: Settle down? Throw strikes? How to pitch to the next batter? If a pitcher is on a big-league mound he ought to be able to figure out those first two things for himself, and managers can deal with the next hitter by relaying pitch signs through the catcher, as they’re probably doing anyway. Furthermore, the pitcher is on the bench half the time (while his team bats), leaving more than ample opportunity for advice to be imparted.
Especially wasteful is the manager’s ritual trip to the mound to change pitchers; a simple call or wave from the dugout would accomplish the same thing quicker and spare us fans the sight of the likes of Lou Piniella hauling his huge gut across the foul lines. If managers stayed in the dugouts they wouldn’t have to wear uniforms, which make even the slimmer ones look silly.
The game also would lose irksome down time if, once in his box, a batter would be required to stay there until his turn is resolved. I guess he could step out with one foot while he tugs on his batting gloves, but umps could discourage this by calling strikes for excessive tugging. The gloves are merely affectations in the first place. Ted Williams never wore them, nor did anyone else until about 20 years ago, and batting averages haven’t improved with their use.
SHORTER REGULAR SEASONS; MORE PLAYOFFS; BALANCE THE LEAGUES-- Everyone agrees the 162-game regular season is too long, but reducing it would violate the first rule of any business, which is that you can’t make any money if the store isn’t open. I’d cut it to 148 or 150 games nonetheless, but balance that somewhat by qualifying 16 teams for the post-season, thus adding the extra layers of games needed to run the extended playoffs that would be sure to stir more excitement than the obligatory September exercises of teams going nowhere.
Taking two weeks off the schedule would allow the season to end around September 15. Add a month of playoffs and the World Series could conclude around October 15. That would reduce the chance of teams playing through snowflakes, as they’ve done with the present late-October, early-November Series finishes Up North. Abner Doubleday never intended that, I’m sure.
My expanded playoff format would work best with two16-team leagues divided into four divisions in each, instead of the current 16 (NL)-14 (AL) setup. Each divisional winner would qualify, along with the teams in each league with the next-four-best won-lost records. The asymmetrical setup we have is unfair to National League teams in general (each starts with a 1 in 16 chance of winning a pennant against 1 in 14 for each ALer) and to members of the NL Central Division in particular. There are six of them, meaning that each of their chances of winning a division title is about 9 percentage points worse than teams in the AL’s four-member Western Division. Whose idea was that?
Where should the two new teams be placed? Northern New Jersey could support one, and for the other I think the time might be ripe for a two-city franchise, maybe Las Vegas-Salt Lake City, Charlotte-Nashville or Indianapolis-Columbus. Hey, half a loaf is better than … well, you know.
I’ve got other ideas. I’d like to see more day games, in part to woo young fans. I’d like to see the Saturday national TV game abolished so fans wouldn’t be blacked out of watching their local teams during that time. And I’d like to see play calls based on TV replays ended, forevermore. The replays generally are inconclusive and always waste time, and both demean and demoralize the human arbitrators.
Sure, replay-based judgements now are limited in baseball, but unless they’re nipped they’ll spread. Pretty soon electronic gadgets will replace the umps altogether. Then robots will replace the players. Why not? They’ll be easy to maintain, won’t have agents and won’t join unions. Think about that the next time you pass through an automated highway toll booth.