Little League or Major League?

When my sons played baseball as kids, the traditional rules were bent to accommodate the process of learning what is a difficult game. At five or six years of age, they were confined to hitting a baseball off an elevated tee, rather than facing a pitcher. This involved a different, supposedly easier, skill set than hitting a pitched ball. In my experience as a dad, watching my kids and others, this was not a transferable skill. Some kids could slug the ball off a tee, but next year could not hit a nice fat pitch from a coach. Maybe they went on to become golfers? My kids struggled with hitting in tee ball, no doubt due to my lack of golfing ability (although each of them have gone on to play decent golf or better). Yet they thrived hitting pitched balls from coaches, and held their own when opponents began pitching. (The switch, at age 14, to full-size fields, moving the pitcher back ten feet, helped in terms of making contact, but the ninety-foot bases cut down on cheap infield hits.)

The tee-ball games were barely games at all, with lots of scoring, maybe three innings, the adults pretending the score didn’t matter, the kids all knowing who was winning. (One overly-competitive coach told the kids to just keep running, once they hit the ball, since it was unlikely they would ever be tagged out. A force out would have been inconceivable.) There were lots of kid-friendly rules, like coaches pitching when the kids were seven or eight years of age, and then some kids wearing “flak jackets” when opponents with lousy control started pitching (and hitting them). One rule wisely limited how much any kid could pitch, so that the poor batters were not always facing the biggest kid with the hardest fastball. (When I was nine, in my first year of official Little League ball, our “expansion” team faced a twelve-year-old who through a six inning perfect game, striking out all eighteen of us who batted.). The umpires, at least the smart ones, were generous with the strike zone, under the theory that it is much better to encourage hitters to swing and put the ball in play, so that the fielders can be tested, and runners can learn base running skills, and outfielders can worry over where to throw the ball.

One of many little league rules, sporadically used, would put a runner at second base, late in games, at the beginning of an inning. Sometimes this was used in tie games, typically in extra innings, to break a tie. It was also useful when a game ran long, and other teams were waiting to use the field. The batting team would typically send their fastest runner out to second base. Some small-ball managers would even bunt the runner over, figuring he (or she) could score from third on a sacrifice fly, a deep grounder, a hit obviously, or a passed ball or wild pitch. It was a rule born of necessity that yielded results, depending upon a rather narrow set of baseball skills. I never liked it; because it seemed contrived and arbitrary, and did not always reward the better team. It was the least bad of a number of alternatives that were worse.

In the dreadful baseball part-season that was 2020, Major League Baseball was faced with a large number of what were called COVID doubleheaders – scheduling anomalies resulting from the dozens of games postponed due to one or more players testing positive for the coronavirus. Although many of us true fans like nothing better than two games for the price of one (although the greedy bastards schedule “day/night” games on the same day, with separate admissions, to defeat this joy), the Commissioner, predictably, obsessed over the time involved to play two games in one day, and the strain on the athletes, particularly the bullpens. Looking to the minor leagues and colleges, it was decreed that doubleheaders – or two games in one day – would only be seven innings in length. This was despite the expanded rosters to accommodate additional depth and bullpen. To many of us, and many stat heads computing based on nine innings, this was sacrilege.

In addition to the doubleheader plague, the Commissioner was faced with the “threat” of extra innings, and the strain that could cause for bench and bullpen, and he became determined to reduce the chance of long games. (A clock was ruled out, except between pitches and between innings, thus far.) Looking to Little League, it was determined that, in extra innings, each team would start an inning with a runner at second base. In the Major Leagues. In the regular season. In games that count. I was incredulous. I literally could not believe this nonsense. It has to be a joke, not reality. Of all the things that made the 2020 season seem cheap and sad (no fans, sick players, odd results), this was the worst.

This is a lot like Dean Wormer storming about “no fun of any kind” in “Animal House”. The Commissioner is acting like a CEO bedeviled by giving away free product to consumers. In his mind, the fans paid for nine innings, not extra innings. (I’m sure that the owners would charge extra for extra innings, if they could figure out a way to do it.). Competitive balance and strategy be damned, the game needs to end as soon as possible. Get on with it! It’s like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in “Desk Set”, dealing with time management and efficiency experts.

We’ve skewered this emphasis on haste in previous posts. It’s based on the false assumption that baseball fans do not want to enjoy a tie game that goes into extra innings. That’s a premise that does not hold up, when you look at the game and its history. How many memorable extra-inning moments would be gone, if the winning team sent out a runner to second base to start the inning? The impact of a walk-off hit is diluted, if it’s a bleeder that sneaks through the infield and allows the fast runner (who did not earn his place; but merely strolled out there) to score from second base. Boring. Contrived. Okay for kids. Not okay for adults.

You can see where this is going. Next will be the courtesy runner for those aging designated hitters with creaky knees. Letting players sub back into games. And maybe even hitting off a tee, to bring more offense back to the games. Okay, try coaches pitching before that. It’s a hit (pun intended) for the home run derby during All Star Week. With the DH no pitchers hit in the American League. With tee ball or coach pitch, they don’t have to pitch, either. You want offense? Hit off a tee.

The false narrative in the Commissioner’s Office is that there is something wrong with baseball that needs to be fixed. That is true. Plenty is wrong: juiced baseballs, ridiculous contracts, ridiculous prices for tickets and concessions and parking, ridiculous disparity between wealthy and poor (or cheap) teams, performance-enhancing drugs, racism, lack of competitive balance, the destruction of the minor leagues. An “automatic runner” at second base fixes none of these issues. It creates problems.

Baseball on the filed is not broken. It does not need to be fixed by gimmicks like an automatic runner or a three-batter limit or seven-inning doubleheaders or a time limit between pitches or a designated hitter. If the Commissioner wants to fix something, why not focus on the juiced baseball and the inconsistencies, year to year, between and among the baseballs. Deal with the real problems listed above that threaten to wreck the game. Don’t tamper with the rules of the game to suit cheap goals and distract from the real problems. Sir, you aren’t fooling anybody with your smoke and mirrors. You’re embarrassing yourself.

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