Baseball’s minor leagues, that congeries of 247 farm teams scattered across the fruited plain, kick off (damn football; even its idioms invade other sports) a new season next week. The minors are the beating, or at least fluttering, heart of professional baseball. Its players—the cocksure, the self-doubters, the athletic princelings, the juicers and has-beens and nervous homesick 18-year-olds—are united in the single dream of making the major leagues, but in the minors it is the fans, and the towns, and the stadia—the more lived-in, beer-reeking, and peanut-shell-strewn the better—that provide the atmosphere, the localistic twist, the soul.
Just as Broadway producers used to try out their schlock on audiences in New Haven and other provincial cities, so do the lords of baseball experiment with rule changes in the minors before adopting them in the majors. This year, in response to complaints of interminable games, minor-league teams will play under new rules designed to make the sport more like football.
Baseball, so long fetishized by eggheads for its timelessness, is submitting to chronometric tyranny. To speed the game, limits (which vary by minor-league level) will be placed upon visits to the pitcher’s mound by coaches and position players. In the upper echelons of the minors, pitchers now must begin their windup within 15 or 20 seconds of taking possession of the ball. Like the shot clock in basketball, these revisions pander to the attention deficit disordered. (I say this as one who grouses as much as the next besotted spectator at the languid pace of some games.)
But the worst is yet to come. Throughout the minors, each extra inning will begin with a runner standing on second base: a gimmick of surpassing vulgarity, as trashily meretricious as hockey’s shootout or football’s overtime.
Those experiments judged successful may later be taken up by the major leagues, though the single biggest time-saving step the majors could take—eliminating the 20 or more extra minutes provided for commercials during each televised broadcast—is about as likely to be ratified as a fifth base.
The ubiquitous “walk-up music” is an even more egregious time-waster than a catcher’s frequent trips to the mound. Even in the lowest of the minors each batter strides to the plate accompanied by a snatch of song, rather like Elvis taking the stage to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Occasionally a Southern kid will choose Johnny Cash, but for the most part the crowd is aurally assaulted by ten seconds of rap or corporate pop muzak. I’d like to say that the Dominican players approach the batting box to “Salve Regina,” but, well, wrong Dominicans.
I do wish that back in 1992-93, Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush had been named commissioner of Major League Baseball—a position he coveted, according to former commissioner Fay Vincent. The alternative history makes one’s head spin. Bush was a wretched president who has the blood of perhaps half a million Iraqis and others on his hands, and he ought to have the deaths and amputated limbs and damaged brains of hundreds of thousands of Americans on his conscience, but he’s a baseball traditionalist who would have guarded the integrity of the game as zealously as he befouled the office of the presidency. His appointment a quarter-century ago as the Supreme Ruler of Baseball would have been, for Iraq and the U.S. Constitution and those who love the American game, the ultimate win-win.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America