Baseball’s pace of play issue doesn’t have to be rancorous. Here’s how
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Major League Baseball is expected to make intentional walks automatic this season. When a manager signals the umpire, the batter will trot to first and fans will be spared the ritual of watching the pitcher throw four pitches wide of the plate.
Seems innocent enough. Only a contrarian purist would oppose the idea.
It’s the symbolism that matters. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it a priority to improve the pace of play and he has the backing of the owners. Changing the intentional walk is the prelude to a bigger fight.
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, a member of the committee that will propose new rules, said earlier this month he is willing to consider even radical changes such as starting extra innings with a runner on second base.
Manfred is already exchanging sharp words with MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark and threatening to put in speed-up rules unilaterally when the collective bargaining agreement grants him that power a year from now.
It’s a necessary discussion but it doesn’t have to be so rancorous. Ultimately all sides want the game to prosper and part of that is ensure it attracts a younger generation of fans.
The first step should be to educate the players. Show them the age demographics of who watches the games on television and for how long they watch. Give them a reason to care about this issue, because right now they don’t.
Players see escalating salaries and big crowds at games. They are focused on tomorrow, not 2030. Demonstrate why they need to make changes now to benefit the players who will follow them.
Manfred and the owners also need to change their rigid ways. Baseball needs to embrace the idea of promoting individual players and their personalities. If the goal is to make the game more interesting for younger fans, enlist the players in that mission and get their ideas.
So let’s try these rules on for size:
■ Set a date for instituting a 20-second pitch clock but make it Opening Day 2019. Give veteran pitchers plenty of time to get used to the idea. The clock is already in use in the minors, so for many pitchers the adjustment won’t be difficult.
■ Make it a rule that other players, including the catcher, can call time and visit the mound no more than three times an inning.
There is no need for the shortstop to run over and pat the pitcher on the back every time the count goes to 3 and 0. The catchers also can stand to be more judicious in their visits. Every single pitch doesn’t need to be a drama.
■ Enforce the rule already in place that hitters need to stay in the batter’s box between pitches. Remember when David Ortiz got all upset about that in 2015? It worked out fine that season and helped cut some time from the game. But it has steadily eroded away since.
■ Allow players to wear any color or style of cleats they want. Anything. If a player wants wear day-glo orange cleats, so be it. If you want the players to change their ways, give them something back. They want the right to wear colorful cleats.
Kids love athletic shoes and all the different styles. Make them want to see what Mookie Betts is going to wear on a particular night and maybe they’ll stick around and become fans.
■ Get in the business of promoting players. MLB should use its marketing force and MLB Advanced Media to give young stars a bigger stage. The Red Sox, as an example, promote Fenway Park more than they do Xander Bogaerts.
Players need a better platform than their own social media accounts.
■ Rosters can expand to 40 players in September but 27 players must be designated for every series with changes allowed for injuries. September games are a tedious mess with managers using reliever after reliever. That is a simple fix.
■ Create a once-a-year super series. The Red Sox play the Yankees six times in six days, three games in each city. The Dodgers play the Giants; the Cubs play the Cardinals and so on. It would be a way to create even greater interest in the rivalries.
■ One proposal that makes endless sense is the idea that the home team should take batting practice second. That way fans will get a chance to watch.
Using Fenway Park as an example, the Red Sox usually start batting practice around 4:15 p.m. for a typical 7:10 p.m. game and it takes an hour or so.
The gates open 90 minutes before first pitch, at 5:40 p.m. By then the Red Sox players are long gone. Players would simply have to flip their home and road pregame routines. Not a big deal.
Let’s start there and see where it goes. The brewing fight can be avoided if both sides take the time to understand what the other side values and why.
A few thoughts on the Red Sox:
■ Even if it’s for the entire Triple A season, the Red Sox should leave Blake Swihart behind the plate and give him a chance to develop.
Swihart, who turns 25 in April, has caught only 125 games the last two seasons. Jason Varitek did not become a full-time major league catcher until he was 27.
The Sox erred last season by making Swihart into a left fielder and not because he got injured. They allowed to him catch only 21 games before having him change positions. It was a reckless, short-sighted decision.
So, too, are proposals that Swihart could become a third baseman or a super-utility player.
Let him catch this season and see where it leads. A young, athletic catcher with above-average offensive skills is such a rarity. Swihart should be given every chance to succeed as a catcher.
■ If you believe Pablo Sandoval is without redemption, know that the fans at JetBlue Park applauded his failed attempt to bunt for a hit on Friday. People like comeback stories more than they do running somebody down. Well, most people.
■ Hanley Ramirez changed the way he played last season. This year he has changed the way he interacts with others. He has always been more of a jokester than a leader but is trying his hardest to be positive presence.
You see it in little ways like his accompanying a group of pitchers to watch a basketball game or making a point to say hello to staff members every morning. At 33, Ramirez understands the importance of a championship in crafting a career with no regrets.
■ Betts has a standard answer whenever he is asked how he can improve on last season. He says he doesn’t want to and that being nearly that good again would be fine.
Lowering expectations is an old trick, but nobody is buying it. Betts has another level in him and it starts with a 30-30 season.
■ Christian Vazquez’s arm is noticeably stronger than it was 12 months ago and above average. But, sadly, it does not appear he will ever have the bazooka he once did.
■ That Sam Travis has only 22 home runs in 934 minor-league at-bats doesn’t make sense when you watch the ferocity with which he swings the bat. But while Travis attacks the ball, his swing doesn’t have much loft.
It reminds me of Don Mattingly and sure enough, Donnie Baseball had 37 home runs in 1,842 minor league at-bats then went on to hit 222 in the majors. I’m not saying Travis is the next Mattingly, just pointing out that power develops over time.
■ Ortiz posted a video to his Instagram account the other day of his son making a few shots in a youth basketball game. In the background, you could hear Big Papi cheering like any other suburban dad.
There was something cool about that, an iconic athlete finding such joy at watching his son play. Seems like retirement agrees with David.