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Saving Baseball: Some new rules for an old game

Bob Levey

Is baseball in crisis? If you listen to the Keith Olbermanns of the world, it is. Now, the accuracy of Olbermann's rant is highly debatable. As Craig Calcaterra points out, the numbers in this new reality of cable, Internet distractions and fractured audiences are actually pretty impressive.

I love baseball. But Olbermann definitely had one thing right, at least in my case. Once the Oakland Athletics were eliminated, I no longer cared who won the World Series (though I desperately wanted someone to eliminate the Detroit Tigers, who have bounced my team the last two years, because I'm petty like that).

I believe I'm uniquely positioned to think about ways to make baseball better. Why me? For one thing, my favorite team routinely tries to do things a little differently. To compete, they have to. The Oakland A's also happen to have the legacy of Charlie Finley, with his white shoes and orange baseballs and pinch-runners.

The other qualification? I've not a baseball lifer. Growing up, I preferred faster-moving, more physical sports like hockey and football. Baseball seemed like watching grass grow. Paint drying. A man scratching his crotch, impulsively and habitually. We live in a time and place where everyone seems to take a Tool lyric to heart: constantly overstimulation numbs me / but I would not want it any other way.

There's one change in particular that I think baseball needs to seriously consider ... but I'll save that one for last. These are all just ideas, and I realize that most fans, particularly fans who visit Baseball Nation, will dismiss most of them outright. But if you truly love the game and want it to remain healthy as a business, you have to consider some changes. Because baseball is rapidly becoming appealing to just a smaller, aging population of traditionalists.

First, the change that most people outside of National League fans and traditionalists have been seeking for years. For the love of Edgar Martinez, let us never see a pitcher hold a bat again. National League baseball is the worst. Greg Maddux had it wrong. Chicks don't actually dig the long ball as much as they just dig teams scoring runs. And having the bases loaded with a pitcher coming up in the ninth spot is, quite frankly, the most anticlimactic moment in sports. Yeah, yeah, we should expect more from our athletes. But we live in a world of specialists. Seriously, how much did you enjoy watching Ben Sheets or Randy Johnson hit the baseball? Or trying ...

While we're at it, let's just outlaw the overshift. Yes, David Ortiz and Brandon Moss might be pull hitters and tend to hit the majority of their balls to the right side but wouldn't it be nice to have more clearly defined "zones" for the defenders? I know, you're going to say, "Great hitters should be able to hit any way." Maybe. But hitting a baseball successfully is the hardest thing to do in sports. Scoring runs is tough. Let's make it a little easier. Make it so the shortstop can't go past second base in preparing for a pull hitter. And vice versa. The second baseman can't go past second base for a right-handed batter. Give the hitters a better chance, and put the responsibility on the pitcher to make better pitches.

Here's a more radical change: a pitcher clock. Yeah. Baseball games take forever. They're just waaaaay too long, and there are so many of them that committing to season tickets means you're committing a quarter of your waking hours to a baseball game 81 times a year. The games need to be faster, and simply enforcing the rule that theoretically limits how much time a pitcher can take before delivering his next pitch would help a lot. You want to see games move, and suddenly they would move. It would be like having a Mark Buehrle-type pace to every game. Also, there's no reason for all those mound visits by the catcher. A visit from the catcher should count just like a visit from the bench. More than one non-pitching-change visit in an inning kills the flow of the game.

Speaking of disrupting the flow, fans might boo the visiting pitcher when he throws over to first base, but it's a necessary evil. Stealing bases has become a lost art, though. You want more offense? Limit the number of times a pitcher can throw over to first base during a half inning. Say, twice. Imagine what someone like Coco Crisp or Jacoby Ellsbury could do if he knew that a pitcher couldn't throw over to keep them close (to discourage them from basically going halfway to second you could state that if a player starts to advance to a base, you could throw to the base they were moving towards and then that player could essentially "pickle" them). The amount of stealing bases and offense would increase by a ton.

The baseball season needs to be cut down. Part of the reason football fans love the sport so much is because there are only 16 regular-season games. Every game means so much. There are 162 games in the baseball season. Even diehard fans can suffer from fatigue by the middle of September. I've long thought that 140 games would be a better number, with the season starting in the middle of April. Make it a summer sport while making each game mean a bit more by having fewer of them. And every World Series should conclude during the third week in October, preventing a potential Game 7 on Halloween.

I also think that the umpiring in baseball is pretty much the worst in all of professional sports. I know that's a subjective opinion, but I've watched all kinds of sports and because the umpire is involved in pretty much every single play of every game, they tend to control the outcomes of games more than in any other sport. This frustrates me endlessly, because I don't buy the "human element" of the game. Not when there is the technology to make things right. So while I'm thrilled that MLB seems intent on expanding the use of video review, including managerial challenges, there's something even bigger that should be done ...

Baseball needs an automated strike zone. There are statistics out there that show how much a singular bad call in an at-bat can affect the ultimate result. And from a personal perspective, baseball has become nearly unwatchable to me in recent seasons, because the variation in strike zones is massive from umpire to umpire. We've seen innovations that only amplify this frustration: K-Zones, PITCHf/x, or whatever system the national broadcast happens to be using. These systems only serve to reinforce when a pitch misses and misses badly. Then it leads to me acting like this. Okay, not really. But sort of. My point is that we clearly have the technology to be better at this. So why not embrace it. Human element? Bull. Why get it wrong all the time when it can be much closer to perfect? Umpiring jobs? Well you'd still need a home plate umpire for plays at the plate. Hell, have the umpire stand off to the side so he can judge whether or not a check swing is truly a check swing. He can move in real close when there's a play at the plate.

I've been asking for this for years now. As I've gotten older, I've started watching cycling, and you know what the best thing about that sport is? Outside of the sheer human punishment these guys are inflicting on themselves? There are no referees or umpires to screw up the result. We might never have an automated strike zone. But I can dream, can't I?

Anyway, go ahead. Call me crazy. I know that many of these proposals are far-fetched and probably won't happen, at least not while Mr. Selig resides in the Commissioner's Office. Baseball likes its traditions, however archaic and dulling. However maybe that's changing a bit as, for those readers who frequent this site know, a radical replay test is being conducted in the Arizona Fall League and I'm ALL for it. It should be about getting it right in the game and making the game more watchable and accessible. Maybe the next commissioner will have a little Charlie Finley in him. That would be as welcome as some shiny new white cleats.