Part 1 of 2
For the briefest of moments in March the earth is oriented such that the Sun is directly above the celestial equator as it heads north. The Vernal Equinox brings with it a full entourage of promises and hopes. Thoughts arise of what lay ahead. It is oh so familiar, but always different. Ten days later baseball joins the party. It has its own assemblage of aspirations and dreams. It too has the feel of being the usual. Every year brings with it the changes of landscape within the system. This team is ascending, that team is descending, these players have moved, and have you seen that new kid? On it goes. In most years the system enters Stage Left with little if any differences from the last sighting. The old Organizational Development saw is that the longer an organization exists the more resistant to change it becomes. A history of continued success within a paradigm dooms many long-term ventures when the seas change. Only the alert ones successfully navigate through the turmoil. Hence, this year will be different. Major League Baseball (MLB) has instituted a number of rules changes. If not familiar with them here is a good primer. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2023/02/27/mlb-rules-2023-shift-pitch-clock-bases/11358317002/)
The rocky shores of business are littered with the detritus of behemoth vessels sunk by the refusal to leave the comfort zone of familiarity. RCA was a mammoth corporation built upon the bedrock of Vacuum Tubes. The electronics world changed with the long-delayed deployment of transistors. The company never adjusted despite several attempts at diversification including the ill-fated 8-track cassette format. In 1987 it entered dinosaur space. Then there’s Eastman Kodak (EK). Few companies ever dominated a single product more than EK did with photographic film and paper. It’s easy to imagine the Board of Directors guffawing at the notion of digital photography. Fast forward: When is the last time you went and purchased film? The hole opened in Rochester by the hyper-contraction of EK is still there. At the end of the day MLB is a business. Driving the business ship through wind shifts and rough seas is a task best suited for a steady hand at the wheel. A good helmsman makes the subtle turns needed at the proper time. Baseball had a long history of doing just that until about thirty years ago. Since then the “Afterguard” has been asleep at the wheel…until now.
Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as “Connie Mack” managed some 7,755 games. That’s nearly 2400 more than his nearest competitor Tony La Russa. But, his biggest contribution to the game may have come when he was a player with the Washington Nationals in the late 1880’s. Baseball is still infused with the DNA of Cricket. In the Auld Game a tipped ball was in play as long as it cleared the wickets. In Mack’s day a foul tip caught by the catcher was an out on any strike. Connie developed the odd skill of mimicking the sound of a tip on a swing-and-miss resulting in an undeserved out. Baseball changed the rules in 1891 to where the caught foul tip was only an out if the tip occurred on the third strike. It gutted Mack’s tactic.
Baseball history is rife with such rule changes. Wee Willie Keeler of. “Hit it ‘em where they ain’t” fame is the reason a bunt foul on the third strike is an out. Keeler would bunt fouls incessantly until he got a pitch to his liking. It partially explains why he came to bat some 633 times in 1899 yet had only 2 strikeouts. Baseball had seen enough of that and changed the rules in 1901 to make a bunted ball gone foul on the third strike an out.
The pitching mound evolved from a box emulating Cricket’s bowling area to having a pitching rubber on flat ground, to then a mound, and then a lowered mound after the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. All of this in response to tactics by individual players or a collective imbalance of offense versus defense. And, in most cases the rules changed while the player was still active. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA for the entire 1968 year is probably safe for the foreseeable future. The lowered mound was the last meaningful change introduced by MLB until this year. Yes, the Designated Hitter was borrowed from Beer League softball and video replay was introduced. The deleterious effects of the former would take days to enumerate. The primary effect of the latter was to slow down the game. Speaking of slowing down the game…
Nomar Garciapparra was a good player. But, his habit while at-bat was to step out of the box and then make a ritual dance/show of adjusting the Velcro on his batting gloves; between every, single, pitch. It was silly, distracting, and wasted time. But, the most important aspect of it was that it was tolerated. The “Nomah Shuffle” spread like a virus throughout the game. Washington’s own Ryan Zimmerman was an avid shuffler. Years after the shuffle was introduced another Nat, Denard Span would hold his hand up as he prepared to bat. . When he dropped it the pitcher could proceed. That practice became widespread also. Pitchers responded by slowing their deliveries home. By then the umpires had effectively ceded control of the game to the players.
There was a rule that required pitchers to release the ball within 20 seconds of receiving it from the catcher. It was simply ignored. This Nomar Shuffle silliness started in 1996, mind you. Baseball’s definition of timely corrective action was to implement a rule change to fix it some 27 years later. By then the game times had swollen to over three hours on average. But, the larger context is that the game lost appeal to the younger demographics. Raised on electronic entertainment the pace-of-play of baseball was, at best, sonorous. If Dad dragged Junior to the game the odds are that Junior spent much of the time there playing on his cell phone. The generational chain of fandom has been an inherent part of the MLB business model for some time. Baseball didn’t cultivate customers as much as they inherited them. Anyone in the advertising business will tell you that keeping a customer is a lot easier and cheaper than garnering one. Awakening from a dense London Docks type of fog MLB realized that an integral part of their business model was under duress.
This wasn’t the only storm cloud about. Bud Selig was the Commissioner of MLB from 1998 to 2015. He could scarcely give an interview without boasting that the industry was generating $1 Billion in revenue annually when he took the job. It was making $9 Billion when he left. He never mentioned that he had scarce little to do with the change. The cash infusion came largely from the organic growth of Regional Sports Networks (RSN). The natural expansion of Ted Turner’s nationalization of Braves’ coverage was a collection of networks providing local team coverage as a part of cable bundles. The model poured money into the coffers. But, the money went directly to franchises. In some cases the local franchise bought or established the RSN eliminating the “Middle Man” so as to receive the advertising income directly. It was all so wonderful until suddenly it wasn’t.
Part 2 “A Different Direction” will appear soon.