(Blogathon ’16) James Attwood: Slow to Change is Not Always a Bad Thing

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Baseball, as we know it, has evolved greatly over the years. Prior to the 1880s, the ball was actually tossed underhand to a “striker”, not a batter, and it was tossed up there, not how the pitcher wished it, but how the striker called for it. There was rarely an outfield fence, and like the flagpole that recently sat in center field in Houston, trees and the like were not uncommon in the field of play. No gloves were used, and catching the ball on a single bounce still resulted in the striker being out. Also, there was only one umpire, and that person sat or stood slightly behind and to the side of play. When calls were contested, sportsmanship was expected to win out. When it did not, the umpire could consult the crowd for input on making a definitive ruling.

Once the game underwent the fundamental change of being played for money in 1871, the gentlemanly nature of the sport took a back seat, and the competitive edge was ratcheted up. Yet, despite all the changes that have taken place, the game has always more or less resembled the one we have now. Baseball has always been a mutable sport. But just how mutable? Sure, all those differences seem extreme when compared to the game we watch now, but the vast majority of changes all came about before 1900. That’s right, the vast majority of changes to the game came within the sports first 45-50 years of play. Over the following 115 years, the changes to play have been minimal, and have come only after the slowest of deliberations.

The biggest, and most fundamentally changing was the integration of baseball with the debut of Jackie Robinson during the World War II era. In 1903 it was determined that foul balls would be considered strikes. In 1910, cork was added to the interior of the baseball, marking the end of the “dead ball era”. Today’s uniform size and weight ball standard was established in 1934. In 1969, a year after pitching dominated the game like no time since 1918, the pitcher’s mound was lowered five inches, a change that was years in the offing and brought to a head by the likes of 30-game winner Denny McLain (the last of the 30-win pitchers) and the ever-intimidating 1968 NL Cy Young winner and HOF pitcher, Bob Gibson. The last big change to come about that was anything other than a technological evolution (machined bats, instant replay, games under the lights) occurred in January of 1973 when commissioner Bowie Kuhn. This new rule, much like the changing of foul balls to strikes was cut from whole cloth and not some gradual evolution, making it one of the biggest changes made to the game in the modern era.

Sure, over the last 30 years, we have added extra divisions, expanded playoffs, gone with interleague play during the regular season, and even made the All-Star Game “count” for something in allowing it to determine home field advantage in the World Series. None of that actually impacts how the game is played though.

Rob Manfred worries for the future of baseball. Manfred’s solution is to “modernize” baseball by implementing some changes to the game. Unlike the previous changes though, Manfred is in a hurry to get there as soon as possible. The minor leagues have already started implementing pace of play rules and pitch clocks. Those rules are likely headed to MLB in the near future. Even bigger though, Rob Manfred wants to take the AL DH experiment and make it a part of both leagues as a permanent part of the game.

This change would indeed “level the playing field” between the leagues, something that is not nearly as skewed as some would like to claim. It would allow pitchers to pitch and hitters to hit. A few extra aging sluggers would get to artificially extend their careers. It would also all but eliminate an entire aspect of baseball that has existed since the earliest days, that of in-game strategy, most notably, that tied to playing small ball.

With all due respect to Madison Bumgarner and the mind-boggling performance he turned in during the 2014 World Series, without the DH there is no way he gets to put on that show. Some might say that allowing the DH both ways only increases the chances of such a performance. Really though, how often is a performance for the ages going to be turned in? How much different does that game playout if the managers, especially Bruce Bochy, has to start worrying about making a pitching change after only 2 innings of Bumgarner? Other than filling out a lineup card and making the rare defensive switch in the 8th or 9th inning, exactly how much influence does a manager’s ability to call a game matter if the game is turned into hitters hitting and pitchers pitching?

Manfred says he wants to appeal to a younger crowd. How many youths will be trying to decide by the time they are 10 or 12 if they want to throw the ball or hit the ball? Part of what has always set baseball apart from the other sports was the number of athletic skills a player needed to be good at all at once in order to excel at the game. Only the very best of the best hitters and pitchers can reasonably expect to go deep into amateur careers and possibly reach the majors if they are not able to, at some point, hit field, run, catch, and throw all with some semblance of authority.

There is a push to possibly have these changes in as soon as 2017. That is an awful lot of fundamental change in a very short period of time. One could argue that NL organizations cold need as many as three seasons to properly align themselves to adopt the DH. As far as pace of play goes, these changes are not cutting significant time off of the game. In many cases, it is under 15 minutes being shaved from the average league-wide. Baseball was never designed for or intended to be consumed by a generation of people looking for and expecting instant gratification. Furthermore, if the DH is adopted across both leagues, scoring will go up, this will erase any pace of play gains made by keeping the game on a clock.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to modernize the game and appeal to a younger demographic. Baseball makes changes of such a magnitude at a glacial pace though. That’s something that should never change. Small tweaks followed by periods of evaluation to determine what is and is not working can have just as big of an impact as those changes that fundamentally change how the game is played.

Regardless, this game will continue to resemble the one I have grown up loving. I will not walk away simply because I can no longer watch a chess game between managers in the dugouts. For a game so steeped in history, and so tied to the identity of all-around athletic excellence, I do wonder if the game could ever “feel” like it always has, or if it will simply feel like a poor imitation.

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2 thoughts on “(Blogathon ’16) James Attwood: Slow to Change is Not Always a Bad Thing

  1. Pingback: Blogathon stuff you missed while you were sleeping | The Baseball Continuum

  2. Pingback: Every Piece from the 2016 Blogathon | The Baseball Continuum

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