Once upon a time February was the start of a vast wasteland that stretched from the end of the football season to baseball’s opening day. But life has changed, including the advent of the 24/7 news cycle that has at least as much influence on sports as on politics, and today so much goes on during the winter it’s tempting to argue that it has as much impact on the outcome of a season as playing the actual games.
In recent years, Major League Baseball appears to also have lost confidence in its game. Statistics, always a significant indicator in the sport, help indicate why: Average attendance has dropped for the third straight season. Last season it fell below 30,000 for the first time since 2003. Last season also included an unusually cold and wet April, noted an Associated Press report, but my guess is that’s not a particularly reassuring detail, at least not enough to explain a worrisome trend.
The assumption tends to be that fans clouded by limited attention spans love offense and high scoring, but that neglects the rest of the world, which loves what we call soccer and they call football, which under either name is not typically high-scoring. And it’s worth pointing out that even high-scoring addicted Americans appreciate that some of the best baseball games are the low-scoring ones. But baseball remains worried about offense, and a batting average that has reached its lowest point since 1972, and strikeouts that last season exceeded hits.
So rule changes may be afoot. Many of the changes under consideration do not seem like they will make much difference, though that’s a perspective that recalls when World Series games were played during the day so children could watch them. In other words, it’s a perspective that places its faith in the game itself, a genuine article that has withstood decades of changes in culture. A genuine article ought to be able to withstand the challenges of technology and shortening attention spans.
Nevertheless, baseball would like to change. It wants to lower the pitcher’s mound, change the trade deadline and the roster size. It wants to keep teams from “tanking” once the pennant is out of reach. Management continues to support limiting the time between pitches and limiting the number of times a manager can go to the mound without making a pitching change. These are “let’s get on with it” rules that may be necessary should players remain recalcitrant to the concept of urgency.
Changes that ought not to be supported include adding the designated hitter to the National League. It ought to be the other way around. The American League has had it since 1973, without harming the fabric of the universe, but the nine players on the field should be the nine players sent to the plate. There’s a reason the National League plays a more interesting game.
A too persnickety rule change proposal involves not allowing one-batter outings, so that you’d have to keep a pitcher in for three batters. This is in the interest of moving the game along but it’s a fundamental change, like the automatic intentional walk, that baseball initiates at its peril. You’re taking away possibility in a game that relies on it deeply. Every pitch, every swing, alters the situation that follows. Baseball needs to keep faith in the fan’s ability to remain patient with its unfolding charms.
Considering withering attendance and other worrisome trends, the temptation to overreact is strong, but here’s hoping baseball can resist it. In the meantime, pitchers and catchers is just days away.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com