March 26, 2017
Another season is upon us, and Major League Baseball (MLB) has once again made attention-grabbing changes to its game. Lately, these changes have aimed to improve pace of play. The insinuation behind these so-called “improvements” is that the game is embarrassingly, and terminally slow. This, despite the game’s popularity across three centuries, record profits, and hundreds of millions of fans worldwide.
MLB wants “faster play” and more “excitement”. Here’s another way to say what they mean: “we want baseball to be more like football.” Football, in some ways outperforming baseball, is the envy of MLB executives, and they have taken the simplistic and conciliatory view that by adopting football-like qualities, they can narrow the gap between the sport leagues.
In this year’s rule change, MLB thinks it’s ok to skip the four-pitch intentional walk and send the batter straight to first base. Basic math suggests this change will have an infinitesimal impact on the pace of a game, or the average length of games. The intentional walk hasn’t caused a competitiveness problem, or a risk of injury, or any other reason to change this rule. In fact, it preserves the mechanics of the game: four balls pitched equals a walk. Ironically, the intentional walk is quicker than the average at-bat.
But the intentional walk feels slow, and the theory is that this rule change will affect this perception of “slowness.” In doing so, MLB is sacrificing a piece of the healthy part of the game to fix a sick one—a sort of Tommy John surgery performed in the executive suite. But a better approach would be for MLB to combat the perception of slowness with the tools of perceiving: words and images. Talk about how great the game is! Talk about baseball’s adherence to its timeless aesthetic and respect for its rules. Continuing to talk about how baseball is slow is like fighting a fire by talking about how hot the fire is. Douse it with positive water!
There’s no doubt football is winning the perception game, especially on TV. It seems perfectly built for it. Baseball, on the other hand, is not so perfect for TV. But Baseball does not need to change the way its game is played merely for a perceptive error. Baseball is better viewed at the ballpark; let’s take a lesson from there. What do most people do at the ballpark during intentional walk? Boo, check their phone, look at the stadium, talk to their friends. These things can happen during an intentional walk on TV. Focus on the crowd, or the batter warming up, instead of deleting it from the game!
Changing the intentional walk rule won’t silence baseball’s critics. Think of who is mocking baseball for its ‘slowness.’ Is it the father and son in the stands? What about the content fan, relaxing with a frosty beverage? How about the scorekeepers and stat counters? No, this rule change is aimed at the casual fan who thinks baseball is dull, probably while longing for football. If MLB takes away the intentional walk, these “fans” will just find another part of the game to mock, like how dumb the batter looks when he confusedly steps up to the plate only to be waved down the baseline. Or perhaps they’ll mock a sport that’s willing to sacrifice its integrity, its legacy, its aesthetic wholeness merely to silence a few braying malcontents.
Not only does baseball’s gameplay suffer from this rule change, but the prized chatter produced by it suffocates important discussions. There are real problems afflicting baseball that deserve much more attention and remedial action than the intentional walk. The list is long: too many pitchers throwing their arms out, the low number of African-American youth playing the game, the time between innings stuffed with needless filler. There are also great ways to improve the way the game is perceived. There are beautiful possibilities in the way the broadcasts might train their cameras on the action, or tell stories of players, or discuss history, none of which would come across as cloying and craven attempts to cure “slowness.”
MLB should wake up and smell the turf. They’ll be pleased to know that by burnishing the game’s thrills and glittering its action with zazz, at the expense of its real problems, turning the public away from true issues, true human cost, and matters worthy of remedy, baseball is closer to being football than it thinks.