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Baseball rules proposals thrill Thomas Boswell — mostly

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training soon in Florida and Arizona, and while a lot of attention has been fixated on unsigned free-agent stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and what that might portend for future labor relations, the week’s biggest development involved proposed changes to the game’s rules.

Any discussion of rule changes usually evokes visceral reactions from traditionalists, particularly when the sport in question is baseball.

Few sportswriters have spent more time watching baseball than Thomas Boswell has, and in praising most (though not all) of the proposed changes, our man Boz recognized something essential: Rules serve to preserve and uphold what we care about in our favorite sports; they aren’t what we actually care about. Baseball fans care about watching hitters try to solve pitchers, and vice versa. Five pitching changes in an inning actually detracts from that spectacle, or at least spreads it out interminably. So a rule change that forces pitchers to face a minimum number of batters actually gives us more of what we care about in a sport; it doesn’t diminish what we’ve grown to love over decades.

It’s also worth noting that rulebooks always have been living documents, and while the 60 feet, 6 inches, between the pitching rubber seems sacrosanct, the height of the mound has been adjusted, to wide acclaim.

Of course, there always will come a bridge just too far. In an effort to curb the potential for seemingly endless extra-inning games, one recent proposal called for each team starting each extra inning with a runner on second base. Of this possibility, Boz wrote, «The first time I see a ‘free runner’ sent to second base to start the 10th inning, I might decide that soccer has become my favorite sport.»

— Matt Rennie, deputy sports editor


What’s not to like about proposed MLB rules changes? Nothing, except for one.



Fantasy is fun. So let’s dream of a day when baseball is a significantly more enjoyable and properly modernized sport.

Both leagues use the designated hitter. Every relief pitcher must face at least three hitters, unless he retires the side first. Rosters have 26 men, not 25. There’s a 20-second clock between pitches that applies to both pitchers and hitters so that no one dawdles. Each team is allowed just five mound visits, not six. In extra innings, each team always starts its turn at bat with a man at second base.

Because of these changes, the average MLB game takes less than 2 hours 45 minutes rather than more than three hours. Offense increases by a half-run per game. All World Series games are played by the same rules. “Relief specialists” who can cope with only one type of hitter — left-handed or right-handed — have dwindled while better all-around pitchers replace them. A 13-inning game is rare, exciting and never boring.

Also, relations between players and owners, now at their most acrimonious in a quarter century, improve. The union is happy that the 26th man has added 30 new MLB jobs while the universal DH has raised the salaries of 15 others. Reducing marathon extra-inning games is appreciated.

Owners are happy that players, who hate to change their habits, agreed to speed up the game and thus improve the product for fans.

Fans are happy that games take just a little more time than in the NHL and almost 40 minutes less than out-of-control NFL marathons. And no one, thank heavens, will see five relief pitchers in half of an inning again.

On Tuesday, I would have said that such transformation was a pipe dream. Then, on Wednesday, we discovered, initially in a report by the Athletic, that MLB’s owners and players already have been discussing these changes, some of which may be implemented by Opening Day.

 I don’t like a couple of these proposals, but I’d vote “Yes!” to the whole package in a heartbeat for the sake of overall improvement of the sport and to smooth labor-management relations, too.

In this mood of “Let’s fix everything while we’re at it,” both sides also are trying to find a way to tweak the draft order so fewer clubs feel as if they should “tank” a season to get a better draft slot. Players obviously want more competition for their services. But owners also realize that the game is burdened with far too many “free ride” teams that turn a profit off revenue sharing while fielding cheap young teams that need a miracle to get near .500.

Why is baseball suddenly getting serious, we hope, about so many problems when, for example, it has dragged its feet on unifying the DH rule since it was created in 1973? Apparently, acrimony can have ancillary benefits.

Players are furious. The past two offseasons have been financial disasters for free agents as contract offers plummet in both average dollars and years.

Owners realize how mad — and suspicious — their players are.

Spring training starts next week, yet it appears Manny Machado has only one offer, for $175 million over seven years from the 100-loss White Sox, while Bryce Harper has heard lots of sweet talk but apparently has no dotted line on which to sign — with anyone. Such salary crashes can lead to battle.

The bosses probably never dreamed of a salary correction of the current magnitude. They don’t want a strike when the current CBA ends after the 2021 season. What can they do to foster even a little goodwill?

That 26th roster spot, plus those 15 new DH jobs in the National League, have been union talking points for years. Now owners seem to realize, “We better give it to ’em.”

Relievers, as a group, will be happy, too, if they get a three-batter-minimum rule. They hate to be ordered to “get hot” constantly so that managers can play their genius-vs.-genius matchup battles.

Two potential rules changes will create more fuss than the others combined.

The first time I see a “free runner” sent to second base to start the 10th inning, I might decide that soccer has become my favorite sport. Isn’t this utterly against the spirit of a game that’s so proud that you just keep playing, same rules, no gimmicks, until someone wins and that you can’t be beaten because a clock runs out? That guy on second sure looks like a gimmick that “ticks” to me.

Maybe if such a rule came into play to start the 12th inning or even the 11th and did not apply in the postseason, I wouldn’t break out in hives.

Almost no fan is going to like all the new rules in a package as sweeping as the one being considered. The only way you’re going to get a half-dozen improvements to the sport that you love is to tolerate one or two that annoy you. Yes, even if you’re an NL fan who hates the DH.

To be perverse, I often have said that I enjoyed both forms of Major League Baseball, each in its own league. But then the World Series rebukes me. In each game, one team is doubly penalized: playing on the road and playing by the other guy’s rules.

This is your Ultimate Showcase?

The union is never going to kill the careers of its 15 DHs. And it shouldn’t. So for decades, everyone has known the only possible unification would be all-DH.

Now’s the time. Some will scream. I won’t. I became a baseball fan long before the DH existed. I mocked it. Then I covered the Orioles for many years, and not once did I ever say, “I miss watching pitchers hit.” Last year, pitchers batted .115.

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I will sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I have seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the American League, you must pitch your way out of it, not “pitch around” your way out of it.

As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.

Baseball has a chance, right now, to improve itself on many fronts. Unify the DH at last. Make the World Series fair. Force the NL to improve. Weed out relievers who are one-batter trick-pitch freak acts. Erase some of those 2½ -minute naps when a reliever arrives mid-inning. Cut down mound visits. Expand rosters so players can get more rest and suffer fewer injuries. Speed up the game — a lot. Put in that 20-second pitch clock. By May, no one will even notice it.

Except, perhaps, when we consistently leave the park before 10 p.m. and say: “That was fun. I had almost forgotten how a baseball game was supposed to feel.”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit

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