May

6

 Growing up, like many of the kids on my block, a hot summer day in Baltimore was as good a reason as any for a stickball game. We'd find a tennis ball or maybe a pinkie, and a broom, and in the street we'd set out our bases. The broomstick provided us with a bat. With little hands, it was far easier to manipulate than a real bat, and a plastic bat (a la whiffle ball) didn't work too well, getting dented. We'd play for 3 hours and then the Good Humor truck would come through, or maybe the ice cone truck, and off we'd go to our individual homes to get some money for some relief from the heat. Then it was back to the street for another hour before the calls for dinner started. Getting older, use of a real bat became practical. It was a symmetric piece of wood with an little bit of a handle at the end, usually with a stamp that one was to always keep facing away from the pitcher (and presumably the ball). These were the days of the 4 man rotation, the long relievers in the bullpen, strategy around whether to pinch hit for the pitcher late in the game, and so on. Baseball in the 1960s and 70s bore a remarkable similarity to that in the 1900s and 1910s. There were now black players, and Daddy Longball, as we used to call a homer, had made a visitation and decided to stay for a spell, but the similarities were still striking.

Great pitching (the era of Koufax and Gibson, McClain, Ford and Palmer still shut down great hitting. And there were great hitters (Mantle, Robinson (F), Mays), great runners (Brock), and just basic competitors (Robinson comes to mind immediately, but there were others like Berra, albeit in the twilight of his playing years, and Ernie Banks). Starters tried pitching a full game, and the question was usually whether he made it through seven innings, not when has he thrown 100 pitches. (101 pitches? OMG, his arm?!) Throwing a complete game was a sign of strength, and shut-outs were a good example of pitching skill. A no-hitter was a special show of pitching finesse. Then came the divisions, and the designated hitter. I get the DH. Liven the games up with some hitting. It ruined the whole idea of pinch hitting for the pitcher late in the game, but it still fit within the framework of the game. Career stats in the 1970s and 1980s were comparable with those 80-90 years before. Then came Rollie Fingers and the "Specialist Reliever" (I think it was Fingers who defined the role). Still, baseball was still baseball. All was at peace in the world.

Fast forward a few years. Now we have inter-league play. Why bother with a World Series, then? TV money. If you're going to have inter-league play, liquidate the leagues and form geographically defined divisions. Most recently, there's been the imposition of instant replays to "clarify" the ump's call. This would be done at a central facility in NY. Baseball has always been a relatively slow game compared with football or basketball. This new "innovation" is one which robs the game of much of its feel, at least to me. Maybe the idea was dreamed up by some NFL marketing maven. Count me as one of those who sees little benefit and lots of downside from this new rule. Some of the other recent rule changes are equally vexing, like where the catcher can stand, what constitutes a catch, and so on. But baseball continues.Baseball endures. An Earl Weaver special remains a 3 run blast.

So you might imagine my surprise at hearing a report on NPR this morning of an proposal to change the shape of the bat to be more like an ax handle. In some ways, I can understand the idea—it may be more comfortable, especially for the kids. Fair enough. But how do you bunt with such a beast? What about bat control—will it really be easier or harder? Some of these question will need to be considered—and considered with more care than some of the more recent misdirected effort at progress have been.

In any case, it's just the first week of May. There's a lot of the season to be played. I just hope they don't muck it up with more talk of an ax-handle bat. What will they do next, lower a basketball net to 9 feet so the average fan can hit more baskets?


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