MLB lockout: Don’t focus on the money. Players, owners must fix the game itself

Detroit Free Press

The Major League Baseball lockout will be over at some point. When the games return, Opening Day — metro Detroit’s favorite spring holiday/party — will be rescheduled.

Will it feel different?

Maybe a little. More likely, though, stadiums across the country — including Comerica Park — will be packed, because that’s what we do.

By July (or maybe even June), few will remember the details of the current collective bargaining agreement stalemate between the game’s owners and players. In other words, ‘The game will go on.’

And that’s a shame. Because it’s the game itself threatening its future. Not the division of its its revenue.

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Both sides are aware of this, of course. The phrase “pace of play” has been tossed around since the last CBA in 2016. Unfortunately, no one has had the will to do anything about it.

But pace alone isn’t costing the game its cultural relevance. It’s the style — the pitching changes, the pitchers who step off the mound, the batters who step out of the batter’s box, the defensive shifts favored by every manager in the league.

Still, clocking pitchers and keeping batters in the box for their entire at-bat (unless they get hit by a pitch or are otherwise briefly incapacitated) won’t mitigate the analytics-driven front offices that prioritize power over strikeouts or putting the ball in play.

Nine defensive players occupy the field at any given time. Too often, only two are involved in the play.

Home runs can be thrilling, to be sure. But so are triples and steals and a tense pitchers’ duel late into the game. But you, dear reader, have a better chance of making the big leagues yourself than you do of watching two starting pitchers tossing up zeros in the final three innings of a meaningful game.

The number of games with at least five pitching changes has risen more than 30% over the past five years, according to Sports Illustrated. That’s great for pitchers’ employment numbers. But not so much for the narrative.

Or for the flow.

Or for the seven players behind the pitchers, who now go longer without fielding the ball than they ever have. Pitching staffs are so deep these days that starters are usually replaced by another pitcher who can hit the upper 90s, who is then replaced by yet another pitcher doing the same.

On and on it goes, a relentless parade of “heat” and “stuff” and late-breaking movement that lends itself to online memes and highlight packages. Meanwhile, batters — prized for their power above all else and groomed to swing for the fences — play their parts in a strikeout-walk-home run (sometimes referred to as, ahem, the “Three True Outcomes” ) theater of the dreary.

Crash Davis, the fictional catcher featured in the movie “Bull Durham,” told the young pitcher he was mentoring that strikeouts were fascist. That it was good to throw to contact because it gave his teammates behind him a chance to get in the game, which, in turn, allowed the fans more entry points into the game.

OK, that last clause was mine, but all I was doing was extrapolating. Yeah, referring to a nearly 34-year-old movie smacks of unchecked romanticism and sentimentality for the way things used to be.

I’ll own it, even as I’m hardly pining for the days when first basemen were built like short-order cooks and mustachioed pinups playing third base stubbed out cigarette butts in the dugout. I’m not someone who thinks the 3-point shot from the logo has ruined the NBA. Nor do I think penalizing spearing — or simply cornerbacks who use their hands too much — ruined the NFL.

In fact, I’d argue the opposite — those leagues adapted to the breakneck evolution of skill and talent (and the year-round practice that led to both). In a vacuum, of course it’s awe-inspiring that middle-inning relievers throw the same nasty stuff that yesteryear’s aces did. And, of course it’s thrilling that baseball is no longer a sport without some muscle definition. Likewise, the batters have increased their bat speed and overall power.

What’s not so thrilling? Baseball hasn’t done much to adapt to its heightened talent, nor has it confronted front offices’ constant pursuit of efficiency — a good thing in almost every aspect of life but an occasionally sterile thing on a field meant to be a stage.

Efficiency is fine until it kills the story. And baseball is suffocating its ability to tell stories.

Baseball acts as if it’s essential to the American spirit. It is not. Yes, its glory and appeal derive, in part from its lack of a clock. But that was before efficiency gave us three-hour games every day.

There is no reason baseball can’t keep pitchers on the mound and batters in the box during an at-bat. There is no reason baseball can’t outlaw the defensive shift or limit the number of pitching changes (with exceptions for injury or other health issues).

Basketball introduced the shot clock (in most places) because fans got tired of watching the “four corners” offense, which is an antiquated way of saying fans got tired of players standing around, holding the ball, passing with no intent of shooting, trying to bleed the clock and shrink the number of scoring opportunities for its opponent.

Well, MLB’s quest for efficiency is shrinking the number of chances for players to play … baseball. All while extending the time they stand around.

Games have never been longer, on average. Not that time itself is the enemy of a good story. The playoffs show us that. Yet postseason series are finite, narratives with a minimum of four acts and a maximum of seven. If those acts each exceed three hours, that’s fine — the pressure of the postseason provides its own kind of propulsive tension: Someone wins, someone goes home.

But three hours (or more) on a Tuesday night in June? With 90 more games on the slate?

No. No, thank you.

Baseball isn’t football, a game that unfolds over three hours as a sort of epic poem — not just on the field, but in its weekly buildup and aftermath. A football game occurs once every seven days (generally), with enough preparation time to devour a fourth of the lunar cycle.

It benefits from a different rhythm. During the game, in its bursts of speed and violence followed by contemplative retreat. During the week, in its run of the psychological spectrum: Monday is for review; Tuesday is for chill and reflection; Wednesday and Thursday are for preparation; Friday is for last-minute adjustments and Saturday is for travel.

Each day the anticipation builds, as fans follow a similar pattern as the teams they love: reliving, then debating, then hoping.

Football’s story is told over a week. Baseball’s story is told over an evening (or an afternoon), because there is another story the next day. It’s just like life, and if you think of it that way — say, sitting down to dinner with a friend to share tales — two hours, maybe a little more for a really good one, is just about right.

But our old friend baseball’s stories are growing ever longer. It’s getting harder to find the time to listen till the end, especially when some of our newer pals — basketball, hockey and even soccer — have tales that are a bit tighter-paced.

So, no, the labor dispute isn’t ideal, as the owners don’t appear to be negotiating in good faith with the players. Meanwhile, the fans who love the game just miss spring training and will miss the traditional spot on the calendar for Opening Day.

Yet all that will fade when the game returns. What won’t fade is the way the games are played. Both the owners and the players would do well to come back with some better stories on that front.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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