Baseball, the sport that more or less invented social distancing (if you don’t count the batter, the catcher, and the home plate umpire in a close enough cluster), is about to return to America, so it is said. At least the Show will. This brings good news, bad news, and very bad news.
The good news is, the proposed July return acknowledges a nation in dire need of respite from the coronavirus’s toll in human life and human mischief and exhausted of asking, “Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you.”
The bad news is, there’ll have to come bristling debate on part of the proposal: will the players get only their cuts of a half-and-half league revenue split, or will they get their normal if prorated-for-time 2020 salaries?
The very bad news is that slightly more than half season to come may leave room for some of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s mischief. The proposal approved by major league owners and submitted to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association includes that the postseason will begin with fourteen teams, courtesy of two more wild cards each in the American and National Leagues.
Manfred has only sought such a postseason expansion for almost as long as he’s been Bud Selig’s successor, of course. Bad enough that some of his thoughts about redressing play-of-game issues have run the gamut from nonsense to more nonsense. Worse is that he has no apparent thought that play-of-postseason requires even more serious redress.
Even if the proposed structure for this year is one time only, well, we’ve heard it before when baseball’s governors tried things once—and let them linger regardless of their wisdom or enhancement of the game.
The postseason is already long enough. And we’ve suffered long enough, too, the thrills and chills of teams fighting down the stretch to the very last breath to determine who’s going to finish . . . in second place.
The original wild card advent legitimised the second place finisher as a championship contender, which was bad enough, and removed the time-honoured incentive of the first place finish as the sole legitimate entree into postseason play. Manfred appears to be witless to comprehend it even as he further exposes himself a man to whom the common good of the game equals little more than making money for it.
You guessed it: here I go yet again. But a three-division league giving a round one bye to the division winner with the best record of the three, while the other two slug it out in a best-of-three division series, with that winner playing the bye team in a best-of-five League Championship Series, would a) produce far more of a genuine league champion and b) far fewer viewers turning off or avoiding television sets or radios on the road to the best-of-seven World Series.
All that said, there are a couple of things to come in the short 2020 season that Manfred, the owners, and the players alike would be wise to make permanent. Rosters are proposed to expand from 26 to 30. Sound as a nut. Make it permanent.
The designated hitter will come to the National League for the short 2020. Good. Make it even more permanent. Pitchers batted for a .128/.159/.163 slash line in 2019. That is unacceptable production no matter what you think of “tradition,” and baseball history is nothing if not full enough with traditions that deserved to be and were killed. OK, you asked for it: Thomas Boswell’s wisdom, one more time . . .
It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.
As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL. But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.
Depending upon the team’s up-and-down lineup possibilities, I’d far rather have what amounts to an extra leadoff hitter or cleanup hitter in that spot than a gang of spaghetti bats who might maybe hit one to the back of the yard as often as Halley’s Comet shows up. Assuming they don’t get injured swinging or running the bases and taken out of action when you need their arms the most.
I don’t want Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jack Flaherty, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Josh Hader, Noah Syndergaard (when he returns), or Jon Lester wasting time at the plate no matter how many home runs they’ve hit once in a blue moon. I want them strictly on the mound missing bats or luring outs. That’s why they’re paid what they’re paid.
Beyond that? I’m not going to complain about the possible electronic strike zone, I want the balls and strikes called right, too, which means by the rule book and not according to Angel Hernandez’s mood on a particular afternoon or evening.
But I’m going to complain that Manfred and company continue underrating and underdiscussing umpire accountability, which still seems not to exist much if at all. More’s the pity. When the Korean Baseball Organisation sends an entire ump crew to the country’s minors for re-training after a few too many complaints about a few too many individual strike zones, the American Show needs to pay attention. And the Hernandezes, Joe Wests, and C.B. Bucknors ought to be made to watch their behinds.
MLB’s return will mean empty stadiums to begin with gradual re-openings, not to mention one-time mixed-league divisions based on geography to a great extent and special considerations for keeping players, coaches, managers, umpires, and grounds crews safe. It may sound like a pain in the sliding pants, but it may also beat the living hell out of the alternative, which we’ve had restlessly enough for over a month and counting.
And, like anything else, desperate times call for desperate or at least temporarily ameliorative measures. The only thing we have to fear is that the least appealing of them might become permanent and the most appealing and truly necessary among them might become memories after the season ends.