There is no harm in trying. No harm in the conversation.
So when a handful of players’ union officials cover the couple blocks from 49th Street to Park Avenue on an arctic Friday to deliver their vision of the best game, when a handful of league officials receive them and offer their version of the best game, what comes of it is almost – and for the moment – beside the point.
Because something will come of it. With cool heads, which probably won’t last forever. With pure intentions, which may or may not be at odds. With an agreement that while the game is not broken, the game could use a paint job, and then we can argue over the color of the trim.
In late January the league office proposed a variety of changes to baseball, all designed to – in its view – improve the product. Among them, the well-worn introduction of a pitch clock, a limit on September roster additions, further limits on mound visits, shorter inning breaks and a requirement that pitchers face a minimum of three batters, barring injury.
The union returned with other ideas, some grand, some minor. How about a universal designated hitter? A four-man taxi squad at the end of the Triple-A season? Could there be divisional realignment? Expansion? Should the mound be lowered? If the trading deadline were moved to early July, wouldn’t that heighten the significance of the season’s first half? In a game that seeks personality, what if some players wore microphones? What if the television booth were on the other end of those microphones?
Bigger still: incentivize winning. In what would be anti-tanking measures, the union suggested the amateur draft and international pool money be re-ordered to reflect the standings. If, say, a team were to lose 90 games two straight seasons, should it fall in the draft? If it were to run that to three seasons in a row, should there be harsher penalties? On the other end of the standings, consistently competitive teams would be rewarded, perhaps with additional draft picks. Is a payroll floor anything but the truck that sweeps up dawdling marathoners at the end of the day?
This all seems like a lot and it is. The owners are meeting in Orlando this week. Spring camps open next week. Gobs of free agents roam the streets. The season opens March 28. And suddenly there could be, for one, 15 new DH jobs and, for another, hardly the same call for situational lefties.
That’s the conversation, of course. To be had in Orlando. To be furthered on Park Avenue. To be kicked around in 30 clubhouses and in countless gin joints and in the conscience of a game that has been slow to change. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily.
Out in front, these are not bad or unintelligent men. Among Rob Manfred’s greater prides is that the game has not taken a day off due to labor trials in a 20-year watch. Tony Clark is new to the landscape but not new to the game. His strength is in the life he has spent in it, and he has begun to surround himself with the people who will better cover those blocks between 49th Street and Park Avenue.
There is hope, which is a funny word for a $10 billion industry, because by most measures the game putters along just fine. By others, there is work to be done, which isn’t covered by simply having a pitcher pick up the pace a little.
All this against the backdrop of the slowest or second-slowest offseason in memory, depending on how you’d rank this one against last year’s. So, here’s a thought:
Can’t take it with you, fellas.
I mean, you’re hiring a right fielder, not getting a scorpion ankle tattoo. In a few years, the right fielder washes off.
The game better be careful, or pretty soon people will stop thinking it’s so important. People will stop thinking it’s legit and worthy of their time. People will start wondering if it’s really a game or just another con, like corner card games and monthly cable bills.
The game is meaningless when you know how it ends.
A friend of mine says, “The outcome has to be uncertain,” and I used to say, “But you need villains, bullies, someone to root against too,” but that was before everyone was either a bully or a sap. That was before it was decided the outcome was worth chasing only if it were guaranteed, as foretold by very bright people paid to be very bright people.
Otherwise, pssh, tear down, tread water, keep the powder dry, sell tomorrow.
Baseball’s in a helluva spot. I’m not the hysterical type. But baseball’s in a helluva spot.
The unforeseen rise of the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays, when a year ago they were lumped with the dead and dying and uncaring, has been forwarded as proof that certainty is a myth, that low payrolls and nameless rosters are simply (and necessarily) alternative (and strategic) means to an end. My friend who rails against certainty wonders how many threads of that tapestry can be removed before he’s left with a complete set of dinner napkins.
What’s next is what will shape the game for the coming generation. You can’t require teams to spend on players they believe they don’t need. But you can emphasize the baseball season again, the season that is coming, the season that exists today, the only one that will be played today, the only one you’re selling today.
So, sure, add some DH jobs. Mic them up. Change the trading deadline. Flatten the mound.
But, first, make it all count. It’d be a start. And there’d be no harm in that conversation either.
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