Featured Story

Baseball is back, with changes for the good and the bad

This story appeared in a different form in February of 2021.

I’m deep into the madness that is March and it’s still February.

I’m amazed multiple times, lying on my couch, at the speed, passion and skill of the basketball players. Explosive first steps. Crossover dribbles between the legs. Alley oops launched from 30 feet connecting with soaring hands two feet above the rim. Blind bounce passes leading to layups. Feather-soft jumpers from the corner a foot from out of bounds that rainbow through the lights and fall for three.

I’ve thought the changes made to basketball — college hoops and the pros — that I’ve seen over the decades have made the game much more enjoyable. The shot clock, where a team has to shoot within a set time, and the 3-point field goal, which changed offenses and defenses, requiring rethinking of strategies and making players develop new skills, have made the sport better.

And now, with Major League Baseball games set to start — Spring Training officially open last week — I’m reconsidering my outrage a few years ago in this space at MLB’s radical makeover. I then believed any change — any — to the rules and procedures of my favorite sport meant that the final days were truly upon us. It probably has to do with the fact that baseball was my first sport, first watched and played.

The billionaires who own teams, along with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, wanted to speed up the games. The idea was to get younger people to watch the sport to compensate for attention spans becoming shorter and shorter and, uh … what was he saying? Team owners want more folks to watch the games and make more money, an essential goal for any business.

Take — please — corporate sponsors paying hundreds of millions of dollars over long-term contracts to put their names on stadiums. The multinational Citibank sponsors the Mets, and so the ball park (that I sometimes slip and still call Shea) is Citi Field, which makes some kind of sense for a stadium in Queens.

Citi Field replaced Shea Stadium, a dump, but our dump, which was named for William Shea, a lawyer who helped bring National League Baseball back to New York after the Giants and Dodgers pulled up stakes for California.

But Guaranteed Rate Field, where the Chicago White Sox play? Originally called Comiskey Park for more than 100 years after the founder of the Sox, it changed its name in 2003 to U.S. Cellular Field.


But then it changed again to that Guaranteed Rate thing. At least it’s not a completely fall-down funny name like the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, Switzerland (much funnier for British or Irish fans).

Speaking of the National League, I was born into it, along with the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. I’m  now registered to vote with no party affiliation. As for the Church, I’m a weddings and funerals man, with occasional lapses into full-on devotion. But my loyalty to the League has never wavered.

Which shames me to say that the Yankees are one of the few teams left that believe tradition counts for something.

It’s still Yankee Stadium, and they have kept their uniforms, the best in baseball, with only the simple Yankee logo, and no player names across the shoulders, just numbers. They also have only two uniform styles, home whites and road grays, and not multiple ones to increase dollar acquisitions through merch.

I still hate them. Respect? Oh, yeah.

I’m wondering if the Yanks will take advantage of a new rule that allows uniforms to have advertising in the form of patches on jerseys and decals on helmets … The sky is falling.

A change that the National League bravely resisted — the designated hitter — was in place last season. As Julia Fisher wrote in the Washington Post: “The National League recently adopted the designated hitter … The NL has, since the American League adopted the DH in 1973, offered the far more complex, strategic game. AL baseball — and now all professional baseball — is a game for a TikTokified America that amuses itself to death, that craves empty action without time to debate strategy, consider the art of lineup-making or appreciate the beauty of a well-placed bunt. All these rules changes rob baseball of its idiosyncratic joys. Fans who live and breathe the sport, who luxuriate in its weirdness, are seeing an ever more streamlined game — a more boring game. Most of the best things about baseball are unpredictable; its special character lies in its ability to yield, a few times a season, a play or an inning where there’s no possible response but to marvel, ‘Baseball!’ But Manfred and his cronies are convinced that a less weird game will appeal more to the non-fans whom they want to fill ballparks … so we’re stuck with the changes. Lovers of the sport will just have history to remember.”

Count me weird.

And since you got me started on this, I’m not going to sit down, but say MLB’s scrapping the requirement that an intentional walk must consist of four balls thrown outside the strike zone is another wound to the game.

The new vulgarians in power eliminated that rule; a manager only has to indicate to the home plate umpire that his team wants to put the opposing batter on first base.

The intentional walk, part of the chess match played by heavily-tattooed men chewing tobacco, is employed if a team doesn’t want to face a hot hitter or to set up a double play.

Question: Why change a quirky and fascinating moment in a game that true fans relish?

Answer: The baseball powers-that-be (morons) believe it will quicken the pace of the game.

Somewhere: Abner Doubleday is weeping.

Don Drysdale, the great Dodger ace (or borderline psychopath) of long ago, didn’t like the intentional walk. A pitcher known for occasionally throwing at a batter’s skull, Big D was said to hit an opponent on his first pitch after he got the manager’s signal to issue the free pass, which automatically awarded first base to the batter. His irrefutable logic — why waste three perfectly good pitches to put a man on?

Making the intentional walk automatic robs the fan of seeing once-in-blue-moon screwups.

There have been occasions when the pitcher has thrown wildly, missing his moving target, and a runner has scored from third, and also on occasion a pitcher has thrown a little too close to the plate and a batter has reached out and stroked a base hit. Not often, but it’s happened. As Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up.”

Still, baseball is back, and it wouldn’t be a new season without griping, arguing and boring the youngsters by relating how great it was in the old days.

But I’m here to cheer the change that there’s a count-down clock between pitches, making the pitcher come to the plate with the ball within a set time.

Reluctant to like it at first, now I love it, not just because it speeds things up, but because it adds another moment of tension — an essential part of baseball — to the game. Will the pitcher beat the clock? Or, like the fate of every living being, the clock beats him?

The great game is starting again here next month with high school baseball and softball.

Let John Fogerty sing us out:

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone

The sun came out today

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field …

Anyone can understand the way I feel.