By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
Everything changes – even baseball.
Baseball is the most entrenched of all games, yet it constantly changes; and it has to if it
wants to stay alive and relevant. I can remember when organized baseball was a lily-
white sport, when no players of color need apply. Thank God baseball, and all other
major sports, finally woke up and changed that. I grew up in an age when there were no
big league teams west of St. Louis or south of Washington, DC. How relevant would
baseball be today if that were still the case? Not very, I’d say.
Half a century ago it was unthinkable to even imagine a time when pitchers would not be
required to hit and their places in the batting order would be taken by players who
weren’t required to play in the field, only to bat. Heresey! But that’s what happened.
Now, like it or not, the designated hitter rule is a fact of baseball life. The National
League coninues to hold out against it, but it’s swimming against the tide. Like it or not,
the rule here to stay.
Now baseball is going to change again - because it has to. You know that old saw about
necessity being the mother of invention? It’s an old saw because it’s true. Baseball sees
the writing on the wall, and it has to do something. Attendance is down. TV ratings are
down. The fan base is aging, if not already old. In a word, business is off. Something has
to be done to turn it around. Oh, business is just fine for the Red Sox, the Yankees, the
Cubs, the Dodgers, and a few others; but that’s not the way it’s trending. In fact, in a lot
of places (hello, Miami) business absolutely stinks.
Change is coming and the only thing to do is brace yourself for it. We don’t know what
form it will take or when, exactly, it will arrive, but it’s on the way. All we can do is hope
that it’s change for the better.
This is where the “it can’t happen here” syndrome comes into play. “Baseball will always
be around,” we hear said. In some form, I suppose it always will be, but things do change.
For example, when I was a kid a heavyweight championship fight was as big an event as
the Word Series. It was huge. Now, I confess, I don’t even know who the heavyweight
champion is, and I suspect that I an not alone. Wait! Is it some guy from Russia? (No, not
Putin!) Boxing is still around but the big-time glamour of the Friday Night Fights when
everyone – I mean everyone! - tuned in is a distant memory. Horse racing used to be big,
too. Now, take away the triple crown races and for the average sports fan horse racing is
all but invisible
Baseball has slipped, too. It’s still big but it’s well behind football in popularity. The
powers that be are tasked with the job of stopping that slide.
So we see commissioner Rob Manfred floating ideas like outlawing defensive shifts
because, well, because they work. When players are positioned on defense where a batter
is most likely to hit the ball, that’s just being smart, right? But what if such tactics
become illegal? What if every defensive player is required to position himself in a
designated area, regardless of who is at bat, and regardless of where he’s apt to hit the
ball? What about the radical idea of teaching hitters to hit the ball into the areas that are
Well, it’s just an idea, and ideas are what baseball needs. Baseball needs to think outside
the box, and not just the batter’s box.
In all minor league games this year every inning of an extra inning game begins with a
runner on second base. The purpose of the new rule is to guard against elongated extra
inning games. Making it easier to score by putting a man in scoring position before the
inning even starts is supposed to alleviate a problem which only comes up a few times a
year. But it shouldn’t create more problems than it solves, should it? Ah well, nobody
said that every idea is a good idea.
Pitch clocks have been talked about for years. Make the pitcher throw the ball within a
specified number of seconds, or else – or else he’s going to be in trouble. Pitch clocks
and limiting visits to the mound can shorten a game by minutes but they don’t address the
issue of too many games lasting for four hours and longer.
“Games take too long,” is the constant complaint we hear. One way of dealing with that
might be to simply shorten the games. Cut them to eight or even seven innings. Little
League hit upon that option years ago. Kids needed to be home in time for supper.
(There’s the old necessity-being-the-mother thing again.) “Don”t worry about Tommy
being late for supper, Mrs. Jones. The game will be over in seven – no, make that six! –
six innings. Yeah, that’s the ticket.” And so it was.
An eight inning game would take about half an hour less to play. It would relieve teams
of having to carry twelve or thirteen pitchers on their rosters. Or does that make too much
Well, it’s an idea.