Rick Camp Weeps

In the spring of 2012, my youngest son Cormac and I took advantage of a rare opportunity to see the NCAA baseball tournament in our own backyard. Purdue University, not a college baseball powerhouse, was given a No. 1 seed in the event, but the Boilers’ home field was not suitable to host the four-team regional. So they opted to play the regional in Gary, at the home of the Railcats.

We arrived sometime in the evening to watch the Boilers play against the nearby Valparaiso Crusaders, as did several other hundred Boilermaker fans from The Region. But that’s not what we saw.

When we got there, the day’s first game, a matchup between No. 2 seed Kentucky and third-seeded Kent State was just entering the 10th inning, the game knotted at 5. It stayed that way for seven more innings, until the Golden Flashes plated a run in the top of the 18th. UK responded in the bottom half, when a double drove in the tying run, though the potential game-winner was gunned down at the plate.

Two more scoreless frames passed until Alex Miklos hit an RBI-triple in the top of the 21st to win it for Kent, a victory the team would use as a springboard to an unexpected trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

The 5 p.m. start for Purdue-Valpo became a 10 p.m. contest. Cormac vowed to stick around for the entirety of the nightcap that we’d gone there to watch, but he ran out of gas after about five innings, and we weren’t around to see the Boilers close out the win one minute before 2 a.m.

Even though the preliminary game was between two teams that I had no rooting interest in, it was, without question, the greatest day of baseball viewing in my life. Twelve innings of bonus baseball, the potential for a game-changing play hanging on every pitch. What more could a baseball fan want?

Well, Rob Manfred could want something different. Baseball’s baseball-hating commissioner has delivered another new rule that tears a little bit more at the fabric of the sport, and make wonderful games like that a thing of the past. From now on, extra innings in affiliated minor league games will begin with a runner on second base, the better to goose scoring in a thoroughly artificial way.

The league’s nitwits in chief are claiming it’s being done to prevent injury at the minor league level, and to reduce costs as extra-inning games tend to drain the budgets of minor league operations (most concession stand sales dry up and beer sales are already over, but much of the staff is still on the clock). And, if they have to take a dump on 100-plus years of baseball to do it, well you can’t stand in the way of progress.

Long extra innings games are rare enough that this is not likely to move the needle on either injuries or costs. And, make no mistake, this very well could serve as a trial run before it’s introduced at the major league level. Manfred would no doubt consider it.

But it’s not baseball. And not baseball sucks.

 

 

 

Yearn for the Cup

Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s approach, where each and every hairbrained idea for the game is given a public test drive, but there has been a significant number of “what to change about baseball” pieces being written lately. I advanced my own idea a few days ago, reducing the distance between the bases, to change the offensive approach so prevalent now. But even though I think that plan might be the only way to restore offensive balance, it’s not something I’d jump into until other less drastic measures were taken and proved inadequate.

Moreover, for the most part, there’s really nothing about the game that couldn’t simply be fixed by just putting serious, effective pace-quickening measures in place. That isn’t reducing commercial time or changing the intentional walk rule. It comes down to three things: throw the damn ball, stay in the damn box, and quit congregating on the damn mound. MLB announced half-assed steps to address the third, but without any concerted effort at the first two, the games will continue to creep along at the snail’s rate they’re at now.

Other than that, the on-field product mostly doesn’t need serious fixing. But there are other ways to deliver the game that could generate new interest from both the casual and hardcore fan alike.

My idea would be to borrow from the boys across the pond. During the various soccer seasons in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, the campaigns are also broken up by the occasional tournament. The Champions League. The Euros, the World Cup, etc., are often played midseason. These don’t detract from the Premier League or La Liga chases. It’s just bonus football.

Why can’t baseball do something similar? Why not introduce the North American Cup, a season-long tournament for professional baseball throughout organized ball here.

Here’s how I see it playing out: The High A season starts with two 15-team tournaments, with the two events broken down by parent-club affiliation. The games could be played over the course of a weekend at two sites (with the host clubs getting the bye each year). And if you can find a way to pull the Rookie League and low-A teams into the mix, more’s the better.

The champions of each Single A tournament then advance to the Double A tournament a month later, to be played under the same format (though now there will be no need for byes, as each field will have 16 teams). The winners, naturally, advance to play in the Triple A tournament in July.

Finally, over the course of five Mondays in late July, early August (when many MLB teams are just playing out the string), the tournament is resumed at the major league level. The league will schedule no regular season games on those Mondays (the schedule can be reduced to 154 games as part of the plan), allowing attention to be focused entirely on the Cup. Games can be played at home fields or a single site.

The NA Cup would provide more than a few benefits, besides just additional baseball with something on the line. First, it would give the many out-of-the-running teams a second chance at doing something meaningful during the season. And the inclusion of two minor league teams, who would on occasion knock off a big-league opponent to advance to the second round (since this is baseball), would deliver the Cinderellas that make the NCAA basketball tournament so exciting. And if you provide a nice financial incentive along the way, you’ll get some buy-in from the players.

We don’t need to gimmick up the game by putting a runner on second to start the 11th, or allow any three players to hit in the ninth, two cockamamie plans that have been tossed out recently. A single-elimination tournament is a dramatic change from the 162-game grind, but it would remain the same great game at its core.

It’s Time to Try 87

“Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection,” Red Smith.

 

As much as it pains me to say, Red was wrong. And I’m a guy who once had a conversation with his ghost.

To be fair, in Red’s day, there was no reason to believe his comment was inaccurate. But as the game we both love has developed, it’s quite obvious that the balance is simply off, at least at the big league level.

Hitters in MLB have discovered something in the last 10 years. Swinging hard, every time, is the best course of action. Choking up or cutting down the swing with two strikes to put the ball in play is no longer the operating philosophy in a big league batter’s box. If you’re going to offer at a pitch, then don’t hold anything back. Once an approach reserved only for sluggers, both the undisciplined Kingman types and the patient Thomes, this philosophy is now common across the major leagues.

And, quite frankly, it works. Hitting the ball hard is simply the best way to success. Defenses are too good and too smart to simply hope that getting wood on the ball will pay off often enough.

In a vacuum, the at bat that ends with a swing and miss is still less valuable than one that results with the ball in play. Even accounting for the occasional double play, the opportunity for a flare to left or an infield hit, a miscue by the shortstop or even an advancement out tilts in favor of BIP vs. strikeout.

But those aren’t the only two options. Swinging hard and connecting produces hard contact, which is more likely to result in singles, doubles, triples and homers. And when you swing and miss, as will often happen, the batter often gets another chance to swing again, or to reach ball four.

Yet this is, in one sense, wrong. If hitting the ball hard is the best outcome when you swing, then swinging and missing should be the worst. And not only is this true on a philosophical level, it’s also accurate on an aesthetic one. Something we all knew in little league is just as true for MLB: The game is better when the ball is in play.

So how do we fix this? How do we get out of this all or nothing approach and get back to a more balanced game? You’ll read many suggestions, including but not limited to adjusting the strike zone (bigger or smaller), adjusting the batter’s boxes, making the bat handles thicker and, of course, making the ballparks bigger.

The latter two suggestions should help cut down on homers. But I’m not sure any of those things really change the equation when it comes to approach. It will still make sense to swing as hard as possible, even if the outcome is less likely to be four bases.

What needs to happen, to alter outcomes, is to increase the gap between putting the ball and play and failing to do so. Swinging and missing must hold a larger penalty than it does now. And the only way I think can truly achieve that is to adjust the distance between the bases, cutting the gap down to 87 feet or even lower.

If you reduce the distance, infielders will have no choice but to move in a few steps to counteract that, as the current depth would result in too many infield hits. If the infielders are playing closer to home, it will lead to more ground balls and line drives getting through. You’ll also see more balls dropping behind them, as the gap between the infielders and outfielders shouldn’t decrease (ideally, you’d pair the change in distances with the deeper fences, to truly maximize the value of the ball in play, and player speed would become a more important commodity).

Now, changing the distances between the bases would be a major shift in the sport, and I would advise that other efforts be taken before tinkering with Red’s Ideal. I’m just not sure any of those other changes will produce the desired effect.

It’s not that difficult

Rob Manfred, the anti-Mikey of baseball commissioners (he’ll try anything), is now floating the idea of starting the 11th inning of the all-star game with a runner on second base, and is contemplating bringing back the bullpen car. Why? To speed up the game, of course. And if you’re thinking there must be something else to make those thoughts congruous, there isn’t.

These gems are being tossed out after Manfred’s 2017 change, allowing teams to issue intentional walks by merely holding up four fingers rather than throwing four wide ones, somehow didn’t manage the trick. Instead, despite this massive bit of time-saving twice every five games, major league games averaged five more minutes than they did when teams were buzzing through games in the heady days of 2016.

As long as Rob’s man Fred and the rest of the MLB braintrust keep messing around the edges, nothing is going to happen to change the snail’s pace of today’s game. Rather, the solution is quite simple: make the pitchers throw the damn ball; make the hitters stay in the damn box; and make the catchers and infielders stay the hell off the mound. Take care of those three things, and baseball’s pace of play problem is erased.

What’s amazing, really, is that the solution can come without any meaningful sacrifice. MLB doesn’t need to slice time from the commercial breaks, which would cut into revenues. Just nip the moments between pitches, time that essentially serves no one, and you’ve turned a 3:15 game into one that takes 2:45, with no reduction in the action.

Yes, the players will initially balk, having convinced themselves that they need those 20 seconds between pitches to clear their heads or plan out their course of attack for the next pitch. Nonsense. They believe they need it because they’ve come to accept it as the norm. Get rid of it, have the umpires enforce it, and the complaints about it will evaporate.

Base coaches were once up in arms about having to wear helmets on the field. Now, no one thinks twice about it, because they’ve grown used to it. The same will happen to pitchers and hitters if the league merely follows through on its stated desire. And while I loathe the idea of a clock in a sport that’s measured in outs, not minutes, I’m open to its implementation if it fixes this problem.

I love baseball. I don’t like not baseball. And MLB has become way too much not baseball. It needs to stop.