Wednesday, March 1, 2017

First They Came For The Umpires . . .

First they came for the umpires (with instant replay), and I did not speak out
Then they came for the slide at home (and then at second), and I did not speak out
Then they came for the intentional walk ...
After the pitcher fires a third strike to retire the batter, with less than two out and no one on base, the catcher reflexively whips the ball to the third baseman, who tosses its to the second baseman, who flips it to the shortstop, who throws it back to the pitcher.  After an out is made at first base, with less than two out and no one on base, the first baseman starts a counterclockwise version.  This is a time-honored exercise known as throwing the ball "around the horn" -- a reference to sailing around South America's Cape Horn.  It is one of those classic baseball rituals that little leaguers have been imitating for generations. 

But it is rather superfluous and eliminating it could shave minutes off every game.  So, look out. 

Until this season, when a manager decided to intentionally walk a batter, he would signal with four fingers.  The catcher would then stand up, extend his glove hand and receive four slowly tossed outside pitches in a row.  The batter would drop his bat and trot to first base.  Another rather quaint ritual -- one that rarely but memorably would go awry when the pitcher threw wildly or the batter reached out and hit the ball. 

No longer.  Starting this year, intentional walks will be issued automatically.  It will save seconds, perhaps a couple of minutes a game.

The geniuses running Major League Baseball are trying to remove its idiosyncratic charms under the guise of speeding its pace.  But eliminating the intentional walk does not measurably impact the pace of the game.  And, besides, there's nothing wrong with the pace of the game (except perhaps too many conferences at the pitching mound and too many pitching changes).

If the powers that be really want to speed things up they could shorten the time between innings, but that would cut into advertising profits.  Or they could also do away with instant replay -- an ill-advised technical innovation designed to bring more precision and less human error but which results in momentum-crushing delays.

Streamlining baseball to accommodate purportedly impatient, distractible millennials will not magically bring more fans to the ballpark. Making the game more robotic by removing the game's traditional quirks is self-defeating.  We need to stop tinkering and have faith that baseball is just fine the way it is.


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