Baseball likes to act as though it never changes, but it does. Pitching mounds move up and down, outfield fences (and sometimes home plates) in and out at some parks. Gloves get bigger, pitchers, too. Drug testing, once weak, now is stronger, most believe. That’s been a big change, one that’s altered the record books.
More change is coming as the new season opens. Here’s a rundown:
RULES: Two moves by Major League Baseball represent sharp departures from past eras. One involves the expansion of TV replay to supplement umpires’ decisions and a system whereby managers can challenge calls.
Baseball got its TV-replay feet wet in 2008 by subjecting home-run boundary and fan-interference calls to mandatory replay review. This season it will expand such automatic surveillance to whether batted balls are fair or foul and whether fly balls are caught or trapped. Additionally, managers now are empowered to challenge just about any umpire’s call once in the first six innings of any game and twice from the seventh inning on. The major exceptions are ball-strike and checked-swing calls and the often-phantom tag middle infielders make on second base during double-play attempts. That last thing is as much a part of the game as spitting and scratching.
I’m against using TV replays to second-guess officials in any sport because it makes the games seem more important than they are. Sports are played by humans and should be judged by humans, and if mistakes are made, play on. Commish Selig thinks so, too, but finally has succumbed to the onslaught of technology, which sweeps away all in its path. At least he resisted longer than most.
A couple of things should make MLB’s replay procedures more palatable than those of the National Football League, which seems hell-bent to make its games all-replay-all-the-time. One is that a manager needn’t throw a stupid flag (red or any other color) to make a challenge. Another is that replay calls will be made by officials monitoring games on TV from a control center and relayed to the umps on the field. This will speed matters by eliminating the under-the-hood ref davening that has become a gag line in the NFL. MLB says replays shouldn’t last much more than a minute.
The major downside I see from the new policy is a sharp decrease in umpire-manager rhubarbs, an age-old source of fan enjoyment. Less often will a manager charge an ump, calling him a blind blankin’ bandit while spraying him with saliva. Now he just can say “Sir, I beg to differ,” and stand by while the replay boys go into action. What a loss!
Baseball’s other rule change is designed to reduce the home-plate collisions that have caused major injuries to both catchers and base runners over the years. Simply stated, catchers no longer can block the plate without the ball and base runners can’t leave the base path or come in leading with their heads, shoulders or forearms.
The wonder is that the new rule took so long to be enacted; one remembers the vicious hit by Pete Rose that ended Ray Fosse’s career in the 1970 All-Star game. The back-breaking straw was the 2011 play that took out Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ brilliant young catcher, and 2 ½ seasons have elapsed since then. Better late than never, though.
You can look for other new or newish stuff on the diamonds this year. Here is some of it:
STRAINED OBLIQUES—I can’t remember baseballers even having “oblique” muscles until a few years ago, but now it seems they are a big source of injury. Obliques are somewhere around the rib cage and when they go it’s a big deal, usually sidelining the player for a month or more. Pitchers are the main victims, possibly, it’s surmised, because the increased body rotation of their higher-velocity deliveries puts particular strain on their rib-cage areas. Those guys’ wives and girlfriends also are affected because it’s supposed to really hurt when they brush their teeth.
BEARDS-- What’s with all the face-shrubbery ballplayers are sporting these days? I mean real Grizzly Adams’ jobs, not just little chin sprouts. Beards have been a Stanley Cup staple for hockey players in recent years, but they play on ice and, maybe, can use the extra warmth facial hair provides. How does that apply to warm-weather baseball?
In spring training games in Arizona I was especially shocked to see a couple of full-bearded catchers. You’d think that their face masks would make such growths prohibitively uncomfortable, wouldn’t you? Anything for fashion, I guess.
NO AROD—For this season at least, the game’s leading diva has been sidelined. Over the winter he appealed his 200-game suspension as a repeat doper, and got it reduced to 162 games, but he still stamped his feet and sued everyone in sight, claiming he’d been conspired against. Then, perhaps thinking he might want to again associate with some of the targets of his wrath, he said “never mind” about the lawsuit and settled into spending the next seven or so months with his feet up. His future certainly lies ahead, but at age 38 it’s not clear where.
$25 HOT DOGS—The Arizona Diamondbacks, mediocre on the field and at the gate, have climbed the game’s gastronomic peak by unveiling its “D-Bat Dog,” an 18-inch sausage stuffed with cheese, jalapeno peppers and bacon—and looking like a pregnant snake-- to be served bunless on a bed of French fries and selling at Chase Field for $25. The item is “really about providing our fans with new options each year,” said Derrick Hall, the team’s perky president. He added: “Every night for us is a successful night because we offer the most affordable food prices in all of baseball.”