Paul Sullivan: Changes are coming to baseball, but are they for the better?

Tribune Content Agency

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In an effort to bring straying baseball fans back to the ballpark, a new proposal potentially would eliminate the age-old tradition of the home team batting last.

Under the proposal, which would need the ratification of the owners and the players union, two designated team captains would meet at the plate 10 minutes before every game. The plate umpire would hand an MLB-approved bat to the captain from the home team, who then would toss the bat in the air in the direction of the visiting captain.

The visiting player must catch the bat with one hand before proceeding toward the home player, who then would grip the bat with one hand immediately above the opposing player’s grip, leaving no room between hands. The visiting player would use his other hand to grip the bat above the home player’s hand, and the captains would alternate until all that remains is the knob of the bat.

When the umpire rules that no room remains to grab the bat, the team with the hand closest to the knob — the one with the upper hand — would be afforded the option of having the last at-bat. The proposal stipulates: “Chicken claws are strictly prohibited.”

The “upper hand” proposal is unlikely to pass for one reason: I made it up.

Major League Baseball has made so many changes to the game over the last few years that any silly idea is believable, so why not propose a “get the upper hand” duel for last ups? Would you ever have thought MLB would come up with a plan to have teams choose their first-round playoff opponents in a reality-style TV show? Is that any crazier?

MLB’s New York office is full of forward-thinking individuals, many of whom have degrees from lofty universities at which the football team is secondary to getting an education. I went to Mizzou, so what do I know?

Just this: Every time the game changes, it’s less and less like the game we grew up with and fell in love with.

The new three-batter-minimum rule for relievers, which will begin March 12 in spring training games, is just the latest in a series of “pace of game” rules changes designed for no good reason. Even if the reliever proves in one or two batters that he doesn’t have his stuff and needs to be removed, the manager will be forced to leave him in for one more hitter, putting his team at a distinct disadvantage. Relievers faking an injury to come out will be their only remedy.

Can too much change be counterproductive?

“Of course,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said. “But I would say historically, over decades, baseball has probably erred on the side of too little change rather than too much.”

Stearns might be right. He’s one of the next generation of Ivy League general managers steering the ship toward innovation, along with Cubs President Theo Epstein and others. Epstein defended last year’s rule changes, saying “99% of the game is the same and that connection is still there” with all fans.

“The thing to realize is the game evolves constantly,” Epstein, 46, said. “And sometimes it’s important to be thoughtful and get ahead of it so it evolves toward a brand of baseball that’s more pleasing for fans — full of action instead of full of dead time. So sometimes it’s important to nudge it in the right direction.”

The question is, who gets to decide what’s the right direction to nudge it?

Baseball seems intent on adding four wild-card teams, meaning 14 of the 30 teams will be playing in October and a grueling, 162-game regular season will have less meaning.

“Look, the genesis of it, I imagine, was more competitive balance, more fan interest,” Stearns said of the expanded playoff proposal. “Those are real positives. I also understand the purist’s argument of it, that it potentially diminishes regular-season games. So I’m interested to hear the debate on this because I do think there are valid argument on both sides.

“I am glad that as an industry, wherever this idea goes that’s being debated, that we’re thinking about this as an industry, where we historically haven’t been great at implementing change, looking for change. The fact that we are now actively seeking change, trying to make our game better, more digestible, more interesting for our fan base, that is a positive.”

This season will include several changes, including increasing the roster from 25 players to 26 through Aug. 31, increasing the time spent on the injured list for pitchers (and two-way players) from 10 days to 15, reducing the challenge time for managers from 30 seconds to 20, and, of course, the three-batter minimum rule for relievers, the most controversial and confusing of the bunch.

The rule stipulates that any relief pitcher must face a minimum of three batters, “including the batter then at-bat (or any substitute batter), until such batters are put out or reach base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire crew chief’s judgment, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher.”

Got that?

A few days before the start of Cactus League games, one manager still wasn’t sure. He argued with two reporters that a reliever who comes in and faces one batter to get the third out of the inning would then have to return the next inning to face two more hitters.

We told him he was mistaken, but he stood firm, saying: “That I know for a fact.”

Presumably he’ll be informed otherwise when March 12 rolls around.

Maybe all these changes will be good for the game. Maybe millennials and Generation Z will enjoy the game much more without as many calls to the bullpen. Surely all these highly educated, deep thinkers know what’s best for baseball’s future.

But if they really want to do what’s best for the game, it might be nice to ask the fans before they start implementing their crazy ideas.


©2020 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.