The first thing I did when I moved to Washington D.C. last year was plan a trip to Camden Yards. Actually, no, that's a lie; I planned to go to Baltimore before I even packed up a box.
I moved suddenly. A job came up, I took it, and I had only three weeks to rip out my deep Boston roots, bundle them up, and drive them 700 miles south. I knew I'd be grasping about for anything familiar once I arrived, and an early season Orioles game felt as close to home as I was going to get. My mom grew up in Baltimore; she raised me as an Orioles fan for as long as she could until I gave into the peer pressure of the third-graders around me and announced my allegiance to the Red Sox.
My uncle and two of my cousins — all die-hard Orioles fans — lived near enough to Baltimore to come watch the Os face the Blue Jays with me. We met at the gates of the stadium a week and a half after I moved, I bought a hat, and we headed to our surprisingly cheap seats right behind home plate.
If baseball means anything to you, there's a buzz to a ballpark that hits your bloodstream as you emerge from the concourse and catch sight of the field. At the first game I go to each season, it feels like I'm mainlining nostalgia. There's a pleasant ache, like driving by a house you no longer live in, where you were once very happy.
That's because there are constants. There's the beer that sloshes over the side of the cup when it's slightly too full for the angle of the cup holder. The guys strapped to metal coolers who count change and sling hot dogs. The echo of a terrible walk-up song ("Blurred Lines", Matt Wieters? Really?) as a batter approaches the plate. All of it transcends time and place. It is, to borrow the oldest and most overused analogy available to a sportswriter, religious. When my mom first went to a game at Fenway Park after moving to Boston for college, she told me that she turned to the person she was with and said, "It feels just like Yom Kippur."
I didn't care that I was freezing as I sat there last year in the early April chill and freed peanuts from their shells. I also didn't care that we were singing "Country Boy" rather than "Sweet Caroline" in the seventh inning stretch like everyone does at Fenway. Being at that baseball game with my family was the first time since leaving Boston that I hadn't felt completely unmoored and totally out of place.
Change is good; moving, making new friends, and taking new jobs are rewarding experiences. But change is also hard. It's disorienting. It separates you from the things you know and love, and sometimes it takes a while to acclimate and find them again.
A lot of people don't like change. And a lot of people really don't like change in baseball. It's America's oldest game, the one many families latched onto the way mine did when they came to Baltimore in 1920 as immigrants from Eastern Europe. The sport is steeped in history and memory; the internet flooded with moving stories of grandparents who finally got to witness the Cubs win a World Series last year. It's why I didn't have homework for three weeks during my sophomore year of high school when the Red Sox finally broke The Curse and the city lost its collective mind.
Fans' and media members' attachment to the familiar has been a bit of a problem for baseball commissioner Rob Manfred as he's tried to push through new rules and amend old ones. He's on a mission to ramp up Americans' supposedly waning interest in the sport by implementing changes that could speed up the game, like the no-pitch intentional walk. Manfred has also suggested limiting defensive shifts and implementing a 20-second clock for pitchers. Whether any of this would make a significant amount of difference in speed of play, or lead to an increase in runs (and therefore excitement) remains to be seen.
A lot of sportswriters hate the proposed changes. Here's Noah Frank, a Washington-based baseball columnist, lamenting how they could affect the spirit of the game:
"But you can be, if you choose. You can allow the ballpark to be an escape, one of the few available to us anymore. You can shut out the world and let the sights, smells and sounds of summer flow through you. The absence of a clock rigidly tracking every bit of action is what makes baseball different from other spectator sports.
It's what makes it baseball."
And here's CBS' MLB columnist Brad Kallett on a proposed rule to start a runner on second base during extra innings (which won't actually happen, as Manfred recently clarified on The Rich Eisen Show):
"Call me old-fashioned or boring — I don't believe that I'm either, for the record — but this has to be one of the most preposterous, nonsensical ideas that I've ever heard presented. It's ludicrous on so many levels that, quite frankly, I'm not sure how I'll fit all my issues with it into one column."
Given that the last major change to the game was the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, reluctance makes sense. People aren't used to baseball evolving, and the less change you've experienced, the more likely you are to be wary of it. Humans — and even sports — are resilient, but if you haven't had practice bouncing back, you're more likely to worry that you won't be able to.
Here's the thing, though. Even if all of the proposed changes were implemented, even if you did start extra innings with guys on second base, I don't think baseball will never not be baseball. I don't think messing with the rules can mess with the things we love most about the sport.
Baseball is a game based on the build-up. Loving baseball means you have to love all of the Just Sitting There. You relish the the periods of inactivity that make the Big Thing That Finally Happens so rewarding. Sometimes that amount of time is longer than others.
But as the tension builds, you drink your beer. You get another. You start to feel sick because you ate too many peanuts. You watch the crowd at Camden Yards, or the other people at the bar, or your friends as they lazily scroll through their phones between innings on your couch. Last year at that Orioles game, I spent a solid three innings watching these two Marlins fans behind home plate heckle the umpire with a litany of PG insults ("your pants are falling down!") until they got escorted out. The Marlins weren't playing. They were there for no discernible reason other than to just Be At A Baseball Game.
What I'm saying is that, sure, changing the rules would change aspects of how the game is played. But you'd have to basically strap shoulder pads to the players and allow tackling, or change the fundamental structure of innings, to mess with the ecstasy or heartbreak that comes with the release of that treasured build-up. You'd have to destroy all the ballparks, burn all the old jerseys, move the teams, and change their names to sever the ties that bind people to their families, their homes, and themselves.
Maybe all of that is the real argument for not making anything different at all; if you can't fundamentally alter the game, why bother tinkering? But changes -- when it comes to anything -- are somewhat inevitable. And while they might be stupid, they won't ruin the sport (if they somehow do and I'm proved wrong, we'll all go to a shitty game, I'll buy you guys beers, and we can talk about how much the new rules suck. Which will still feel a lot like what we always did).
I eventually settled into life in D.C. only to uproot myself 355 days later and move to New York City (change, it turns out, can be somewhat addicting). My cousin and his wife live here, too, and we've already planned to trek to the stadium when the Os play the Yankees. My cousin's weeks-old daughter has a Manny Machado t-shirt ready to go, and babies get into Yankee Stadium free if they're small enough. We Googled it. We're going to give her baseball memories before she can even hold onto them herself.
Because the remembering -- along with the rhythms of innings, the Just Sitting Around, and the Big Thing That Happens —- is what sustains the romance of the game. And the feeling of baseball, the tug that can, as the Mets' Noah Syndergaard said last year, "rip your heart out," can't be taken away so easily.