Column: MLB should walk back rule change


Charlie Wolfson

A pleasant August evening has turned to night. The field appears a vibrant green thanks to the seven massive light fixtures beaming down from high above, against which the sky looks perfectly black. Just over 40,000 onlookers needed hats and sunglasses to ward off the glaring sun during the early innings, but now all eyes are fixed unflinchingly on the field. Folks milled about, buying snacks and T-shirts during the middle innings, but the concourses are empty now. Nobody dares to risk missing this action. Just as this game seems more important than one in, say, May, this moment seems more significant than the ones that preceded it.

With the score even at two, there are men on second and third with one out in the bottom of the eighth. The next batter is announced, and the home crowd roars its approval as the .300-hitting former MVP kicks his heels into the dirt after stepping in. The stage is set for the home team’s go-to guy to be a hero once again. Just as the crowd reaches a crescendo and the pitcher is about to deliver, the catcher stands upright and steps aside. Instead of a hanging curve for the slugger to airmail to the bleachers, there’s a soft toss a few safe feet off the plate. An intentional walk.

What ensues in the stadium is an instant symphony of reactions. Some groan, dreading that their best chance to get the big hit is being nullified by a chess-like move from the opponent’s manager. Others cackle, boo and jeer, mocking a perceived cowardice on the part of the other team. Still others quietly nod, acknowledging the strategically sound move—one that they’d approve of their own team making. This spectrum of responses is played out in apparent slow motion as four lobs are made from pitcher to catcher.

This situation is an example of what makes baseball so captivating. The sport’s measured, steady pace—pitch, throw, pitch, throw, pitch, crack, repeat—lends itself to drama and emotion because the most significant moments are seemingly stretched out for all to see and feel in real time.

The most critical at-bats, though only a minute or two in duration, seem to be unraveled for all to become immersed in. The lightning speed of a fastball or a line drive to third are offset by the tantalizingly dependable pace at which each at-bat unfolds. No other sport toes the line of high-speed chaos and measured routine in this way.

Sadly, that particular symphony has played its last show. Thanks to a rule instated by MLB last week, managers can now signal from the dugout that they wish to give the batter first base. No pitch needs to be thrown. A simple wave sends him trotting down the line. What was always a drawn out, dramatic display of strategy and reaction from both sides will now be an anti-climax lasting about three seconds.

Commissioner Rob Manfred will say it’s part of MLB’s crusade to make games shorter. He won’t be lying. It is also, however, a dangerous and irritating step toward taking the humanity and emotion out of baseball, and making it a more robotic and uniform game.

Look, I’m on board with making games shorter. I’m all for limiting the number of times a catcher can visit the mound each inning. Nobody is entertained by a crucial inning being interrupted a half-dozen times by Yadier Molina striding out to chat with his Cardinals batterymate. In fact, only 10 people in the country appreciate that, and they all pitch for St. Louis.

I’m also in favor of curtailing the delays caused by video reviews. Expanding video replay was a needed step, but it has gone too far. It ought to be used to correct the most egregious calls—think of Jim Joyce robbing Armando Galarraga of a perfect game or Jerry Meals ending a 19-inning game on an outrageous safe call—but not to split hairs on a fraction of an inch at first base or the string of a glove at second.

Every few minutes spent examining blown up clips of a play decided by a couple millimeters is wasted time. Those calls, though occasionally incorrect, even out over the course of the season. By eliminating the review of those minor, close plays, MLB can shorten games much more effectively than by making intentional walks imaginary.

I’m even content with the recently introduced clocks which ensure that innings start immediately after the two minute, 25 second break, and the even newer clock that limits pitching coach mound visits to a brisk 30 seconds. Those measures cut down on dead time, on time that breaks up the action.

An intentional walk, though, is not dead time, nor is it a break in the action. It’s baseball.

Those chunks of dead time – the inning breaks, the mound visits, the lengthy video reviews – are not times when action could potentially happen. Nothing is being missed by taking them away. Conversely, an intentional walk, however dull it may seem, presents a chance for one of baseball’s most unexpected, wild occurrences.

Nothing is more spectacularly absurd, enthralling and, depending on which team your allegiances lie with, excruciating than a botched intentional walk. Imagine the third of the four lobs accidentally being floated over the plate, the batter obliterating it into the next postal code for a game-changing homer. Or maybe it sails over the leaping catcher’s glove, allowing a runner to score from third. And, yes, there has been a walk-off intentional walk, albeit in a Class-A game between the Lancaster Barnstormers and the Somerset Patriots.

What seems to be a done deal—the batter was already walked, in the minds of everyone in the building—turns into a potentially game, even season-altering blunder. Though this almost never actually happens, the mere possibility of it, lingering in the far, far back reaches of the mind, is eliminated by MLB’s rule change.

The change meddles with baseball’s very foundation, the pistons that make the game run. No, it doesn’t drastically alter them, but any change is significant when it comes to the fundamental rules.

Since baseball’s inception in the 19th century, there have been three ways to get on base: By putting a ball in play and reaching first safely, getting hit by a pitch or taking four balls. In 2017, perhaps on Opening Day, someone will get on base without any of those things occurring for the first time ever.

This new rule is much more than a time-saving measure; it is a change to the basic rules of the game.

In the end, for every fan MLB gains by making games marginally shorter, how many will it lose by making the game more robotic, and less human and raw?

Photo credit Alex Melagrano