Karl Lindholm: Baseball’s immutability: Fixing the national pastime
The first of two parts
So, baseball fans, what do think about starting extra innings in a tied baseball game with a runner on second, the way it works now in all of organized baseball?
I love it.
It opens up such interesting strategic options: who do you put out there at second to run (the batter who made the last out is supposed to be there, but you can insert a pinch runner)? Do you bunt him over, or not sacrifice the out, and let someone knock him in. After all, he’s in scoring position and “outs are pearls,” as Earl Weaver used to say: “Why give one away?”
It works! It also avoids the interminable extra-inning games that have us diehard fans staying up until the early morning hours, going to bed exhausted (and angry if the Red Sox lose), ruining the next day.
How about the seven inning MLB double-header games this year? Are you OK with that idea, or is it also an abomination, an insult to the game’s integrity?
They’re OK with me. There’s greater urgency early in the game, also inviting different strategic approaches. Last week, I saw a third inning sacrifice bunt in a Red Sox-Rangers game, and that never happens anymore. Condensed baseball, not the worst idea.
I was motivated to write this column following a Red-Sox-Rangers marathon four-hour-and-16-minute, nine-inning game: I watched for two hours inert in my chair and then listened on earbuds to Joe Castiglione and mates on WDEV for two and a half hours while I mowed the lawn.
In 1978, a major league game was played, on average, in two hours and 30 minutes. In 2019, a game took 40 minutes longer (3:10) — and that was down from the previous two seasons. Keep in mind, baseball has the oldest fan base of any of the major sports: the average age of baseball fans is 57, while it is 42 for basketball fans and 35 for soccer. Only 7% of MLB viewers are under 18.
As Susan Jacoby, author of “Why Baseball Matters,” explained: “There is a basic dissonance between the concentration and long attention span baseball demands and the habits of younger generations raised to expect action to be a click away.”
Baseball needs change, adjustments, tweaking, fixing, in order to adapt to contemporary realities. I am not a philistine who would willy-nilly invoke changes in the game’s essence. I am rather a purist, a lifetime fan of baseball’s distinctive nature and appeal. I love the game’s chessboard complexity and marvel at the skills demanded to play the game well.
Baseball’s immutability has been one of its hallmarks. Its resistance to change is its glory. In the baseball classes I taught at Middlebury College, I presented its unchanging essence as one of the nine special and unique features of baseball that accounted for its greatness.
(There had to be nine, of course: philosopher Michael Novak once described baseball as “infused with a gentle trinitarian mysticism” — three strikes, three outs, nine innings, nine players in the field and line-up, 27 outs in a game.)
From Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium to a local Little League diamond, the game on the field is the same one your grandfather saw, his grandpa too. The game has remained fundamentally the same in its vibrant 150-year history of formal play. For 100 of those years, from the end of the Civil War to the 1960s, baseball enjoyed a hegemony among our sporting pursuits and in American popular culture, unimaginably dominant.
The baseball field has been a diamond virtually since Day One in the 1840s; a game has encompassed nine innings since 1857; bases have been 90 feet apart since 1858; the four ball/three strike standard since 1889; the pitching distance to home plate 60 feet. 6 inches since 1891.
There is beauty in baseball’s historic symmetry. But baseball is not a museum piece, though it seems in some ways to be headed in that direction.
Baseball has changed on us! At the game’s highest levels, some of its most appealing dynamics are no longer much in play. Baseball has become a static game of three major outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs:
This year, nearly a quarter of all at bats end in a strikeout. Home runs and strikeouts were at record highs in 2019. Now, nearly a third of all at-bats result of one of those outcomes: in the 1970s, when baseball attendance and viewership were at record highs, it was 23%. Computer-generated statistical analysis (“analytics”) has determined that home runs are more productive over time. So far this year, the MLB-wide batting average is .230.
Just a few years ago, it was rare to see a pitcher throw a ball 100 miles per hour. Now, every team has a bullpen of pitchers who throw between 98-100. Teams’ 26-man rosters now feature 13 or 14 pitchers and a back-up catcher and a couple of highly versatile everyday players (think Marwin González and Kiké Hernandez for the Sox, and Brock Holt just a couple years ago).
Starting pitchers are expected to go five to seven innings, a couple times through the opposing lineup, and then give way to a parade of flamethrowers in the late innings. The complete game by a starting pitcher, long the expectation, is now a rarity.
Change is required, and inevitable.
Let’s end on an upbeat note: many of the problems of baseball that are limiting its appeal are present largely at the professional level. The game is being played in all of its traditional dimensions (“small ball,” if you will) at the amateur levels: bunting and stealing bases, the hit and run, putting the ball in play and making the defense beat you.
Be sure to get to games at Centennial Field this summer and Montpelier Recreation Park to watch the highly skilled collegians of the Lake Monsters and the Mounties play the whole game of baseball.
Next column: a discussion about the tweaks to the game being experimented with in the minor leagues — and the man designated to save baseball.
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