Getting back the baseball beat.
There’s a certain irony that baseball, the sport that most needs to change in order to command attention, is often the one most loath to do so, even if its occasional changes tend to be pretty awesome.
It can feel like an unbelievable claim of yesteryear that baseball was once deemed the national pastime. It plods, and has been thoroughly dusted in the national consciousness by football, often possessing the tone and texture of a beer league softball game of fifty-somethings swinging for the fences with every pitch.
But baseball, I’d counter, is best when it’s most like baseball, which it has ceased to be for some time. Real baseball is running. It’s athleticism. Hitting the ball to the right side of the infield with a man on second and less than two outs. A drag bunt. Hit and run. Men on the go. Which is very different from men insistent on trying to hit the ball over everything. Or walk. Or live with yet another strikeout.
The best thing to happen to baseball in a long time is the new extra innings rule, where each batting team starts with a runner on second. Immediately strategy comes to the fore, and the over-reliance on swinging for the 465-foot moon blast is all but defenestrated.
Bunt the guy over? Try to lace the opposite field single? The game becomes its best blend: part cognition, part athleticism.
When baseball is truly baseball it’s oriented around sublime athleticism. The problem is, one often wouldn’t know it, watching the product of recent years. A viewer can go innings without so much as watching someone run, unless it’s one of the many relievers trotting in from the bullpen.
Bunch of years back, the baseball powers-that-be hit upon the idea of the one-game play-in, an entire 162-tilt season coming down to a single contest.
Was this fair? Didn’t matter. It is exciting, and a team has their shot to advance based upon their play. It’s not a coin flip. High-level drama bucked hoary traditions. And you know what? Baseball got better, and even purists weren’t left crying in their concession stand beers.
The extra-innings rule should be a spur for other changes. Don’t lose heart now, baseball! The shift is a sport-killer. What is more dispiriting than watching infielders align themselves out of position on one side of the field in the second inning of game #22, with the batter then trying all the harder to hit the ball in the air? Simple fix: outlaw the sucker.
Baseball needs fluidity and pace. There’s a rhythm to a good game, just as there is to the way a good team plays, and to that team’s season. The rhythm is crisp, sprightly. Think of an Art Blakey-type ride cymbal beat. That’s the baseball beat. Which is tough to beat.
No one is saying that teams have to follow the model of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, with a season total of like seventy home runs and a couple hundred stolen bases. But a guy on first, a batter believing he can lace one between the first baseman and the bag, and that runner booking for home as the relay throw comes in, is pure baseball. A hitter with two strikes, staring at a shifted infield, and thinking, “well, I’ll try and park this one in the second deck, or else do my strikeout thing,” is pure longueurs. Help baseball to be baseball, and there isn’t a soul who will balk at the means.