Opinion | Baseball looks strange, but the weird thing is how easily it happened

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Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine, a columnist at MLB.com and author of the novel “how lucky.”

Maybe your family argues about politics around the dinner table, but in the Leitch family, we bicker about baseball. But no matter how passionately I might argue, I’m never going to convince my uncle that Mike Trout is better than Mickey Mantle. After all: My uncle is just as passionate about the sport as I am.

Debates like that have been the topical tentpole of every baseball generation — and every sports talk-radio call-in show — since I fell in love with the game as a child.

Which is why it has been a surprise to see just how dramatically baseball has changed lately and how little backlash (outside of the usual smattering of social media grumblings) the changes have stirred in a sport that famously cherishes its traditions.

To watch a baseball game today is to see countless things that once would have been considered unthinkable.

Extra innings start with an automatic, aka zombie, runner on second base. Now there are three wild card teams. Catchers call pitches by punching the buttons on an electronic device that communicates with an earpiece in the pitcher’s cap. Television announcers interview a third baseman in between pitches while he’s on the field.

Next season, more changes might be coming, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement reached in March. They’re intended to speed up games and promote more offense — theoretically reversing the decline of young people’s interest in the game. We could see a pitch clock, a ban on infield shifts, and bigger bases (to encourage base-stealing).

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Even the rules adopted so far are foundational changes in the sport, the sort of alterations that “traditionalists” have been fighting for decades. I remember Bob Costas being apoplectic about breaking the leagues up into divisions.

And these big changes have just sort of … happened? Decades of fevered debates were just sort of shrugged off, and next thing you know: My All-Star ballot has a spot for National League designated hitter. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that my uncle the baseball purist hasn’t been picketing MLB stadiums in protest. Has yours?

I’d say there are two major reasons – one on the field, the other off – for the collective “Okay, fine!” response to some truly radical reworking of the baseball landscape.

First, on the field. Some of the changes debuted during the truncated 2020 season, which featured only 60 games and occurred in the dark days of the pre-vaccine pandemic. The changes were meant to speed up the games and just get through the season with a minimum of injuries and covid-19 infections.

The runner-on-second rule in extra innings, often used in collegiate and Little League tournaments to finish games faster, came in for that reason. It was tolerated as the cost of cobbling together a troubled season. What’s the big deal, when you’re playing in empty stadiums with pumped-in crowd noise and cardboard cutouts in the seats?

That opened the door to the idea that baseball could play around with its rules and traditions without causing a widespread revolt by players or fans.

Even players who could have been expected to grouse got on board. Consider St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a baseball traditionalist if there ever were one. Last week he praised the automatic runner on second base: “If I was a fan and there was potential for a run to basically be scored on every pitch in extra innings, that would be more fun to me.” (MLB is still weighing whether to use the rule in 2023.)

Retired players in the broadcasting booth might complain that the game doesn’t look like it did when they played, but the players on the field seem to love it. Pitchers and catchers overwhelmingly took the option of using the electronic pitch-calling system when it was introduced this year to discourage sign-stealing.

Yet I think it’s the off-field influence that has played a more powerful role in vanquishing baseball traditionalism.

On a basic level, the traditionalists themselves are a bit of an endangered species. Most of the cranky old sportswriters who used to dominate every press box I stepped into are gone, often replaced by a younger, more innovation-friendly (and definitely more diverse) group that by nature is likely to “OK, boomer” anyone being overly wistful for the old days.

It’s more than that, though. I think, in the wake of the pandemic and the exhaustion of being a human being in the year 2022, there might just not be that much emotional space left for the dug-in, purist mind-set that has been long been the hallmark of baseball fandom.

When we’ve got to worry about the state of democracy, or nuclear war, or a looming recession, well, jeez, how much can you care about the freaking designated hitter? No matter how much you yank on the sport and twist it, no matter how much you futz with the rules, it remains, stubbornly, baseball. And that’s a relief.

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