Even though we like to think we’re the first generation to extensively write and talk about baseball, and while it may be true that a majority of all baseball writing has been drafted in the last decade, the rules and affairs of the game have been debated and discussed since the beginning of the sport itself.
“These two-hour games wore on the nerves,” The Sporting News wrote in 1920, “[and] They made the Boss Bug [fan] late for supper and when this happened the real Boss Bug grew peeved and knocked the game for making him late for meals.”
You also heard familiar appeals to popularity, like as it related to the swirling 1910s debate of trick pitches and slowed offense: “[T]he spit ball hurts batting and therefore strikes straight at the heart of the game’s popularity.... The game has become onesided [sic]; too much of a mere pitchers’ duel. Something should be done for the downtrodden batter...,” reported in Baseball Magazine, 1919. They got their success as the live ball era began, and Baseball Magazine rejoiced, “[I]f the public prefers the new game, the magnates prefer it.”
One way in which we frame the “success” of baseball is very much based on how popular it is, plain and simple. Content mills generate piece after piece on local and national ratings, Q-ratings of how popular, or unpopular, athletes are, and attendance articles make for easy fodder on how well a team is faring.
Yet we rarely interrogate why we should align ourselves with cultural supremacy and profit, and the idea that if baseball is no longer as popular, then “something” is lost. What is lost, I’m not really sure, because I’m pretty sure that in the age of the internet and web 2.0, literally any niche interest is enjoyed on its own terms within its own esoteric community. Those people do fine for themselves.
Time and again, though, major media publications increasingly try to cosplay management: what could we do, what magic bullet would it require, to turn the clock back to when baseball was the most watched and talked about sport? The most recent attempt now comes from the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “A Radical Pitch to Save Baseball.”
The thesis is essentially that if you gave the leading team two outs instead of three, it would both increase the competitiveness of the game and shorten it by a half-hour or so. Once again, though, it’s not posed why we need to save it to begin with other than “too slow, too boring” which, sorry!
I’ve had a standard for rules changes that I think generally applies, with a couple of exceptions: changes are necessary if a particular, standard facet of the game is inhibited without it. For example, you have the replay. You could quibble with the implementation and the increased times, but without it, you have a bigger issue: objectively correct events in the sport are not recorded as such, and important events can be tipped by, again, objectively false rulings. There’s also the previously mentioned changes of trick pitches, which essentially broke offensive/pitching balance without it.
The on-the-field ruling still has the “respect the case law” standing I would come to expect from lawyers running a sport, and I think that still preserves the integrity of umpiring for bang-bang plays. The same could be said for the home plate slide rule, and while it surfaced the most reactionary responses on the planet, it did not fundamentally alter the strategy of the game, and it prevents a star catcher’s brain from turning to mush. I think that’s a fair trade-off.
The exception of course is the designated hitter, which fundamentally changed the structure and tenor of the games and organizations affected by them. It completely altered strategy, and teams have completely changed roster management because of it. It was done for boosting offense, yet again, so it could be argued that without it, offense would have sunk in the 1970s to near-deadball era levels.
All of it still presupposes a popularity component, which is fine if you’re running the sport, but not necessarily if you’re watching or writing about it. I get it: baseball writers have a vested interest in the sport being more popular because it means more dollars, but just like the only way to write about teams isn’t just how “efficient” they are via $/WAR because you aren’t yourself the general manager, you don’t need to calculate the perfect formula for increased popularity because... you aren’t yourself the owner or commissioner.
Ultimately I’m going to like baseball regardless of the menial changes, even if I myself will grumble in the first or second year of its implementation. And I may even scorn future changes that are made for sheer popularity’s sake, like, for example, adding a runner on second in extra innings. Unless rule changes are needed to facilitate the existing viewing experience or rule-set (or safety), I’m not going to be clamoring for them one way or the other... and literally no one is asking for you too, either.