We interrupt our daily commentary on politics and other ephemeral matters to defend baseball, because the timeless national game is wrongfully under attack. Baseball! The sport that perfectly encapsulates America’s twin passions for nostalgia and innovation is somehow caught between trends.
Baseball, say the critics, is too slow and old-timey for modern tastes. Yet apparently baseball also has become too reliant on garish home runs and strikeouts. Spectators with limited attention spans apparently want to be spoon-fed singles, doubles and ground balls, or they’ll fall asleep.
Even some ballplayers are complaining: “I think baseball is the most exciting game when balls are put into play,” A’s infielder Jed Lowrie told USA Today. “When you have nine men coordinating on one particular play, with other people running around, I don’t think there’s another sport that has the type of action and strategy, all in one play.”
Wait a minute — people running all over the field? Perhaps Lowrie is mistakenly describing football. Baseball is the game of pitch-by-pitch tension that delivers constant surprises to the attuned fan.
The whining has led Major League Baseball to tweak some rules to speed the place of play. More changes are threatened. The minor leagues now use a pitch clock and start extra innings with a baserunner on second. Some people want MLB to ban the shift in which a manager redeploys fielders toward one side of the diamond to defend against hitters who pull the ball to right or left. Here’s a suggestion for defeating the shift: Coach batters to hit to the opposite field.
The new worry is that baseball has become too much a contest between sluggers and fastball hurlers. The New York Times reported that 2018 could be the first year ever with more strikeouts than hits. “There’s going to be a breaking point,” Erik Neander, general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, told the Times. “In terms of purely watching a baseball game, seeing a few hundred pitches a night that aren’t put in play, there’s not a lot about that that’s entertainment. People don’t come to see the umpire call a ball or a strike or a foul ball.”
Our objection to his statement is he gives no credit to fans who appreciate the game’s many charms. Sure, dingers and 99-mile-per-hour fastballs are exciting, but so is a backhand grab at shortstop. The game, which combines athleticism, skill and strategy, has many enduring wonders and doesn’t need an overhaul. Lost interest in baseball? Maybe you’re rooting for the wrong team.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE