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Baseball's Bud Lite

For a fellow who's regarded as one of baseball's old goats, commissioner Bud Selig has been remarkably flexible when it comes to certain innovations. While he was still "acting" commissioner--an impermanence that lasted six years--Selig pushed each league to split into three regional divisions and add a wild card team, thus manufacturing an extra round of postseason play and bringing untold excitement to four additional cities. He also endorsed interleague play in the stated belief it would create heated local rivalries--Cubs-White Sox, Yankees-Mets, Giants-A's and the like.

Selig's real motives, of course, were purely financial: The owner of the Milwaukee Brewers was building the gate and prying loose the public dollar.

Selig's critics (and they are legion) charged that divisional expansion and interleague play would dilute the excitement of the World Series, and they may be right. But baseball's somewhat temporary, conditionally perpetual headman had a fresh solution for that, too: In 1994, he canceled the World Series.

It is that unholy blot on the game for which Bud Selig will doubtless be remembered once he has moved on to the bullpen in the sky. Helpless or unwilling to make labor peace between players (whom he sees as chattel) and owners (whom he embraces as comrades), he canceled the World Series. For baseball fans, this was like banning Fourth of July fireworks or railing against motherhood. It is Bud Selig's legacy.

Now this servant of the owners has undertaken a new form of mischief.
Using Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as his front man, Bud Selig wants to speed baseball up. Fans love the long ball, he reasons, but they want to see it in short games. They hope to go home at a reasonable hour and be nice and fresh for work and school the next morning.

Translation: Let's get the unwashed bastards into the ballpark, stuff them full of overpriced hot dogs, showcase a couple of three-run dingers and hustle everybody out of there. That's the ticket. Little matter that a decent ticket now costs 28 bucks. The meter is running, and we've got board meetings to attend. So if we can get the poor dopes from whom we stole the 1994 World Series in and out of the place before they realize their pockets have been picked, everybody will be a lot better off. Especially the owners, who are paying the electricity bill.

To this end, Officer Robinson, aka "special assistant to the commissioner's office," has lately been making the rounds of assorted major-league ballparks. He's been telling everybody from managers to batboys to house organists to snap things up. Pitchers who once chose to irrigate their kneecaps, plant corn and change hairdos between deliveries are now instructed to stop fussing and throw the thing. Batters seeking TV face-time who regularly step out of the box to perform tai chi with their batting gloves have been warned to stand in and hack, lest baseball's clock police drag them down to the station house. If Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, a heady type, wants to fancy himself George Patton in Sicily, the Seligites say, he can damn well do it on his own time. And Don Baylor's saunters from dugout to hill, presumably to (someday) yank his pitcher, have got to go. It's like watching a kid paint a fence.

But even Selig seems aware that some postmodern delays are here to stay. The bat used by today's hitter has such a thin handle that any fastball on the inside corner can shatter the thing like a matchstick, requiring a trip to the dugout and a perusal of the alternatives. Today's overpaid starting pitcher rarely works more than five or six innings and is followed, in turn, by his team's middle reliever, short man and closer, necessitating much lollygagging and groin-scratching unknown in Big Train Johnson's day. The strike zone has also shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, so hitters can lay off more pitches and prolong their at-bats.

Television networks have managed to inflate the 2:05-minute break between innings to 2:25 for nationally broadcast games: That way, they can run an additional commercial and help defray the unconscionable costs of TV rights.

And what of baseball's current power surge? Clearly, it has been engineered, via lively balls and the tiny strike zone, to rekindle interest in the game. But high-scoring, multi-home-run contests take longer than two-hit shutouts, as anyone who has eaten two full meals and watched seven changes of weather in the course of nine innings at Coors Field can attest.

The time-card shows this: In 1975, the average American League game (with designated hitter in place) took two hours and 25 minutes; last season it took 2:57. National League games were about ten minutes shorter. This season, Selig and Robinson have succeeded in trimming all games by an average of six and a half minutes, but they're still not short enough by baseball's lights.

So, then, what's so terribly wrong with Bud Selig's speed plan?
The answer lies, as it so often does in matters baseballic, in the beautiful and mysterious nature of the game itself. I'm not the first to say it, not by a long shot, but it bears repeating. If you want a two-minute warning, go to a football game. Like the 24-second shot clock? Basketball's your game. In love with the Hollywood Minute, the New York Second and the drive-up wedding (followed, inevitably, by the seven-month marriage)? Then get thee to the drag races.

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