Rob Manfred replaced Bud Selig as commissioner of Major League Baseball six weeks ago. I didn’t think baseball needed a radical shake-up when Selig stepped down, and Manfred appeared to me as no more radical than any other business lawyer who once was a partner at a firm with three names.
I was mistaken on both counts.
Picking up the pace of play was an obvious priority because no nine-inning game that ends 3-2 should last more than three hours. Habits developed during childhood are difficult to break, and discouraging hitters from dawdling during their at-bats — and pitchers from meandering on the mound — won’t be achieved overnight, or even this season.
But the mindset that there is no clock in baseball and, thus, no need for anybody to hurry, that needs to go. Manfred is applying the push gently.
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Meanwhile, if there’s a pattern to the commissioner’s brief reign, it’s that no potential rules change is off limits for discussion. The following topics already have been broached in the belief more balls put into play — and, by extension, fewer strikeouts — could make baseball a more enjoyable spectator sport.
• Eliminating, or at least regulating, defensive shifts. The notion that sluggers inclined to pull the ball suddenly will learn how to choke up and slap the ball to the opposite field — or put down a well-placed bunt — is idealistic but not reasonable.
• Shrinking the strike zone to make batters less vulnerable to any pitch below the knees. That’s usually swing-and-miss territory, but if a batter takes the pitch, the umpire calls a strike. No fair.
• Requiring relief pitchers to face a minimum of three batters per appearance. This could be thorny in a National League park — what if the left-handed specialist who just escaped an eighth-inning jam by throwing to one batter is due up in the ninth inning? — but the premise has promise. Micro-managing has turned the last three innings of a game into a laborious parade of pitchers whose sole job is to retire one batter.
• Reducing the schedule from 162 games to 154, which was the length of a regular season for the better part of the 20th century. The motivation here is twofold: It spares players some wear and tear, and it prevents the World Series from extending into November (as could be the case this year).
I know, weather conditions during the first week of November are not drastically different than weather conditions during the last week of October, so the threat of a November conclusion the Series is largely symbolic.
Still, at some point a line must be drawn distinguishing a long season from a way, way too long season. October 31, it seems to me, represents that line.
Schedule reduction is not a new concept. Since the expanded American League went to 162 games in 1961 — the NL went to 162 games the following year, after it also expanded — length-of-season screeds have been as common as demands to consider the Hall of Fame candidacies of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.
An impediment to shaving eight games from the schedule was the intrigue surrounding the record book: If baseball returned to 154 games, the thinking went, it would make it all but impossible for anybody to challenge the single-season record for home runs.
Thanks to the steroids scandal — did I just type those words? — the single-season record for home runs is a weightless obscurity. We used to care. We don’t anymore. Life goes on.
Otherwise, the only complaints about a 154-game season would be from owners not thrilled to sacrifice four home dates, and the broadcast dollars associated with them.
Please. Every baseball owner is swimming in money. The NFL, the most successful pro sports league in the history of world, pulled in $9.5 billion worth of gross revenues last season. Major League Baseball — at $9 billion — was right there with it.
Eliminating four dates from the home schedule, in order to preserve a symbolic but substantial tradition, doesn’t strike me as a terribly harrowing concession.
The Mariners’ regular-season 2015 finale is set for Oct. 4, a Sunday matinee against Oakland at Safeco Field. A 154-game schedule would find the Mariners wrapping up on the previous Sunday, Sept. 27.
How to reduce eight games from the schedule over seven days? Simple. Schedule a doubleheader along the way, an old-fashioned, let’s-play-two, forget-any-of-this-day-night-
garbage twin bill.
My most cherished memories growing up were the Sunday afternoons I spent in the bleachers, watching baseball for five hours.
I still spend Sunday afternoons watching baseball for five hours, but it’s not the same.
I’m watching only one game during those five hours, and the eighth-inning pitching changes take up two of them.