Note: This is the first of the occasional sequel to Field of Bad Dreams: Ownership’s Assault on Major League Baseball.
Today is Opening Day of the 2023 Major League Baseball season. This is truly a delightful time of year. It’s a time to take in the sights and smells of a sunny spring day, a time to bask in Mother Earth’s protective glow as the days begin to grow longer than the nights, a time to be reminded of all that was once good, and can be good again.
And it’s a time for the Toteboard to remind you of how MLB team owners are still doing everything within their power to fuck up a beautiful game.
Over the last few years, the powers-that-be have infected baseball with universal pinch-hitters, extra-inning ghost-runners, and month-long playoff periods – the last of which actually flies in the face of their stated goal of speeding things up. And now, without even the merest pretense of oversight from an independent commissioner’s office, they are truly running amok with ever more ridiculous and transparent schemes to deplete the sport of substance and logic, shortchange the fans, and (of course) fill their cash registers.
The Toteboard here identifies the three main acts of malfeasance that are ushering in the new era.
MALFEASANCE #1: DISEQUILIBRIUM, DAT EQUILIBRIUM
Last year, the Toteboard reviewed in great detail what had historically been the “wonderful, glorious, mathematical symmetry of the baseball season” and of the game itself, a symmetry that the owners have been systematically dismantling over fifty-plus years, through a succession of expansions, league divisions, wild-card series, interleague play, and various ever-shifting improvisations.
And now, the owners have announced with great fanfare – no doubt in response to the Toteboard’s scathing indictment – that this year’s season will mark a return to the balanced schedule. “Hallelujah,” proclaim the sportswriters and stooges in the broadcast booth, “it’s great to have it back.”
But there’s only one problem. The damn schedule is still not balanced! It’s not even close. So how is it not balanced? Let us count the ways. But if numbers aren’t real to you, you may want to skip ahead to Malfeasance #2.
Intra-division play: Each team will play 13 games against every other team in its own division. Um, hello? Has anyone noticed that 13 is an odd number, which means there will be an imbalance between the number of home and away games each team plays against every other team? And what is the formula that decides the Braves should host the Marlins for 7 games, but visit them in Miami for only 6, while hosting the Mets for 6 but visiting them in New York for 7? That seems to be classified information. Or more likely, they’re just hoping no one will ever ask. The Toteboard had previously suggested that such decisions were probably determined through “an ad hoc mishmash of coin tosses, turn-taking, and/or combined shlong sizes.” It doesn’t appear that the bean-counters have made much progress since then. If play isn’t even balanced within the division, well, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the schedule.
Inter-division play: Logic dictates that teams should play teams outside their division fewer times than they play teams inside their own division. Yes, this division system does create a lack of clarity about which team in either league actually deserves to be called the “best” at the end of the season, but if we’re stuck with divisions, we might as well strive for at least some semblance of internal coherence. And so, each team will play every other team in the same league but in a different division 6 times, 3 at home, and 3 away, which seems to make a great deal of sense. But wait, it’s about to get strange. That’s only against 6 of the remaining 10 teams in the league. They will play the other 4 teams 7 times, where there is no rhyme or reason as to which teams are the 6-ers and which are the 7-ers, or again how they’re going to negotiate that fact that 7 is (still) an odd number, i.e., 3 games at one ballpark, 4 at the other. As the dear departed Fred Rogers might have asked, “can you say random?”
Inter-league play: Every team plays every team from the other league (except 1) 3 times, all in one ballpark, so there’s not even an attempt at balance there. The Braves host the Yankees and the Orioles, but they play away games with the Athletics and the Guardians. And what about that other 1 team? Well, each team will play a select interleague team 4 times, 2 at each park. Why does 1 team merit that special attention? Well, MLB’s explanation, and they’re apparently sticking with it, is that it’s a chance for teams to have a little more fun with their “traditional rivals,” and to spread that wealth to both ballparks. And so yes, the Yankees get to host the Mets twice, and visit the Mets twice, in what amounts to an old-fashioned subway series. But on closer inspection, most of these traditional rivalries are tails in search of a dog to wag. The Braves have been paired with the Red Sox, presumably because there was a time when both teams played in Boston. But the Braves haven’t called Boston their home since 1952. That’s more than 70 fucking years ago! If that’s a real rivalry, the Toteboard doesn’t think the good people of Atlanta and Boston, let alone the Millennial and Gen-Z ballplayers, are actually aware of that “fact.” What’s more, the Marlins and the Rays haven’t even been in existence long enough to have traditional rivalries, and yet here they are in these special matchups simply because they both happen to reside in Florida. At least they’re barely 300 miles apart – why on earth are the Blue Jays paired with the Phillies, who are close to 500 miles away and have no shared history? The Toteboard’s head is ready to explode.
This is, of course, all in the service of keeping things at exactly 162 total games, a “magic number” that presumably can’t be violated without wreaking havoc on all the long-term season-ticketholder contracts and various other agreements that are already in place. It’s actually a lot like politics. If you can’t get the numbers to work, just gerrymander. And then lie about it.
Incidentally, feminist theologians have for decades observed that men in positions of power often exhibit a tendency to issue statements with great authority and confidence, statements that the audience uncritically accepts despite obvious visual or otherwise empirical evidence to the contrary. The Toteboard has previously labeled such types of statements “public fictions,” and this public fiction about a balanced schedule is a real doozy.
MALFEASANCE #2: IT’S ABOUT TIME, IT’S ABOUT MONEY
For the last several years, the owners have been trying to shorten game times by nickel-diming a minute here, and a minute there, first by limiting how often teams can change pitchers, then by limiting how many times coaches or catchers can visit the mound without making a pitching change, then by limiting the pitcher’s warm-up time between innings, and now by limiting the number of times a pitcher can step off the mound and/or attempt a pickoff. But that’s nothing compared to the newest and most radical stroke of genius, i.e., the pitch clock, this ubiquitous timer that punishes batters for not getting in the box and pitchers for not delivering to the plate fast enough. Admittedly, the Toteboard won’t miss the excessive cat-and-mouse games of pitchers stepping off and batters stepping out, of pitchers rubbing up the ball and batters rubbing up their balls, but this unilateral change to the tempo and the overall tone of the game will almost certainly have some unintended consequences, not the least of which is all the occasions when the pitcher and catcher won’t have time to reach agreement about what pitch to throw – a confusion that could eventually result in an injury.
Still, the Toteboard’s biggest complaint about all this is that there are no data anywhere indicating that fans actually want shorter games or that these changes will attract a larger audience. That’s just (another) public fiction and smokescreen. In actuality, this is ultimately nothing more than a commercial ploy to deliver less of the product while charging customers the same amount. This is simply MLB’s version of Haagen-Dazs reducing their pints to 14 ounces, or Delta reducing legroom to squeeze in more rows of seats, or Marriott midrange hotels reducing or eliminating housekeeping services and blaming it on the pandemic. You can bet your Boston baked beans that these changes that are supposedly undertaken to make the fans a little happier are simply there to cut payroll and expenses and make owners a lot richer. It’s really quite the ingenious formula: provide less, charge the same (or more), and pretend you’re doing it for your customers. We can’t speak for everybody, but the Toteboard certainly feels ripped off.
MALFEASANCE #3: ONE ARM TIED BEHIND THEIR BACKS
To invoke the language of another Toteboard post from last year, Malfeasance #1 may be stupid, and Malfeasance #2 may be wrongheaded, but Malfeasance #3 hits the mother lode by being simultaneously stupid, wronghead, and offensive.
The Toteboard readily acknowledges that it can be something of a traditionalist, even a fundamentalist, when it comes to baseball, but it also acknowledges that various bits of fine tuning have historically worked for the good of the game. It’s actually a good thing that we now have the balk rule, the infield fly rule (even if some umpires apply it overzealously), and the ground-rule double, just to name a few. And MLB has often adapted well to unanticipated doldrums. They responded to the “dead-ball era” with new rules governing the dimensions of ballparks, the outlawing of doctored pitches, and (maybe) a more tightly wound baseball, changes that together made it possible for the next generation to produce a Babe Ruth. And when pitchers began to dominate the game in the late 1960’s with exploding fastballs and newly refined pitches like the cutter and slider, they lowered the pitcher’s mound and slightly shrank the strike-zone to give the hitters a fair chance. In retrospect, such changes were appropriate and well considered. MLB tinkered with some of the existing structures, but allowed the game to be played as it had always been.
But one of the changes made for the 2023 season is quite different. It is actually damningly different. This rule-change is, to the Toteboard’s knowledge, the only rule ever enacted that specifically prevents players from playing to the best of their abilities. We’re talking about the new rule that bans the defensive shift and prevents infielders from standing on the outfield grass. And over time, it will become clear just how radical, and how destructive, this new rule is.
One of the most ingenious aspects of baseball is the way players must constantly adapt to the changing moment. Hitters shorten up their swing when they have 2 strikes, or when they’re facing a flame-thrower. They lay down a bunt when infield defenders station themselves too far back. They poke the ball in the hole between first and second base when the first-baseman has to hold a speedy runner on base. And defenders must do the same, playing power-hitters deeper, spray-hitters shallower, pull-hitters to one side of the field, free-swingers God-knows-where. There’s serious thought that goes into whether the shortstop or second-baseman will cover the base on an attempted steal, or how to position an infielder to receive a cutoff throw efficiently. And then hitters adjust to the defensive adjustments, and the defenders adjust to those adjustments. That’s one of the dynamics that makes baseball wonderful, that makes every moment different from the previous one. It is, for everything else one can say about it, a thinking person’s game.
But now, MLB is greatly restricting players’ ability to adapt, by actually requiring defenders to stand in particular places when the ball is pitched. With one stroke of the pen, MLB owners are now instructing players on the field that they can no longer choose how best to position themselves when defending against various hitters, i.e., that the rules now prohibit them from playing their smartest possible defense. And as a result, batters no longer have to learn how to adapt to smart defense, and consequently will never have to learn smart hitting. As the Toteboard warned last year, the outlawing of the defensive shift “restricts strategic agency on the diamond and pretty much publicly announces that batters are too big and dumb to adjust to smart defense.” The thinking person’s game is rapidly becoming baseball for dummies.
This is unprecedented. Players must now involuntarily handicap themselves on the field. And fans are forced to watch a game where defenders are prevented from doing their jobs, all because some geniuses upstairs think viewers lack the intelligence to understand the game’s subtleties and simply want to watch a relentless cavalcade of base-hits (“more hits, more fun,” boasts the shameless MLB ad). This actually brings to mind an absurd moment in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, where members of “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent” visibly display self-inflicted handicaps in order to repudiate any suggestion that a divine being gives the slightest shit about them: “There were women who had received by dint of dumb luck the terrific advantage of beauty. They had annihilated that unfair advantage with frumpish clothes, bad posture, chewing gum, and a ghoulish use of cosmetics. One old man, whose only advantage was excellent eyesight, had spoiled that eyesight by wearing his wife’s spectacles. A dark young man, whose lithe, predaceous sex appeal could not be spoiled by bad clothes and bad manners, had handicapped himself with a wife who was nauseated by sex. The dark young man’s wife, who had reason to be vain about her Phi Beta Kappa key, had handicapped herself with a husband who read nothing but comic books.” And now, baseball players who, through intelligent study of their opposition’s habits and statistics, know exactly where to position themselves on the infield, handicap themselves by standing on spots where it is virtually impossible for them to utilize the skills that they have worked so hard to develop through years of training and practice.
The Toteboard thinks it would actually be better if defenders had to carry 10-pound sacks of flour on their backs, as long as they could at least position themselves as they saw fit. Yes, lowering the pitcher’s mound made it harder for Bob Gibson to strike out as many men in 1969 as he had in 1968 (though he still did so), but at least he was allowed to continue with exactly the same effort. Players on defense no longer have that option.
And so there you have it. A game being slowly bled of its class and dignity by a bunch of money-grubbing buzzards. But it’s still baseball, and those buzzards know that in this age of rising fascism, global warming, and escalating gun violence, far too many of us owe much of what’s left of our mental health to that annual ritual of sitting at the game in the night air with family and friends, seduced again and again by the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. However much they may degrade the game, baseball is still the lover we’d never deceive, the one we just can’t leave.