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Wussification of Baseball is a Hazard With New Rules

With new home plate collision rules, the wussification of baseball continues to move the MLB away from its history and closer to the NFL – the No Fun League.

Bud Selig
Bud Selig

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Crafting a balancing act, straddling a fence, often produces a result satisfying for few.

So when the Lords of the Game institute yet another genteel way of doing things, as per rules discouraging home-plate collisions between baserunners and catchers, yet another old-school appeal of baseball is being purged for 21st century sensibilities.

Call it the wussification of baseball, some of which is necessary, other parts of which are questionable.

Our oldest, most venerable pro sport built its legend on the scratchin,’ spittin’ style of the majority of its participants – players, managers, and even umpires.

Some of the really rougher edges on and off the field needed to be purged – namely racial intolerance and high spikes, along with Walter Alston allowing Sandy Koufax’s other-worldly arm to throw 191 pitches over 13 innings in a 1960 macho display. Stuff seems barbaric by the standards of knowledge we possess today.

Yet so much other stuff seems engaging in its ultimate harmlessness. The images that hold us close to baseball, that generates stories, ultimately embellished over the decades, are the secret to baseball’s appeal. That’s the difference between baseball and the more popular NFL, whose proponents still admit also stands for “No Fun League.”

Consider the issue of replay. The Lords resisted significant encroachment of the cameras for a couple of years after otherwise-competent ump Jim Joyce single-handedly blew Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s 2010 perfect game with a premature safe call at first base. But the truth was hard to resist when the sharp, revealing HD images were exposing egregious umps’ mistakes, distracting from the talk of the game itself.

Now the most controversial calls will be arbitrated on video. That will dramatically cut down on the colorful manager-ump arguments which provoked interest in baseball and generated its most humorous images. Agent-provocateur A.J. Pierzynski expressed disappointment with expanded replay for just this reason: arguments are a part of the game.

With replay to settle matters, will there ever be a reason for a skipper to tear first base from its moorings (Lou Piniella) to kick it into right field (also Lou Piniella) or hijack the bag (Lloyd McClendon) to the dugout? Or a Piniella to kick dirt onto an ump’s pants while somehow staying on his feet?

Those are all-time classic images that tickle the funny bone decades later. Leo Durocher, the most amoral baseball man of his time, even used his confrontations for profit, doing a beer commercial in 1969 that recalled a dustup with Jocko Conlan: “I kicked him, he kicked me…”

Umpires have already long legislated the players-only justice system that featured the knockdown pitch and similar close shaves. By 1992, Greg Maddux could not retaliate for Cubs teammate Ryne Sandberg being low-bridged without being tossed from the game, with no warning having been issued. When “Mad Dog” exacted justice by throwing close to the opposing catcher, he was immediately ejected on an umpire’s judgment that he was well-known as a competitor.

If no player had been hit, the umps in previous decades usually would let the players settle matters to their logical conclusion. In 1973, close-shaver Jim Barr of the Giants threw at the Cubs at Candlestick Park. Opposing pitcher Rick Reuschel brought matters to a conclusion by hitting a Giant with the slowest changeup in his arsenal. All matters were settled, the game uneventfully resumed, no one was hurt, and the umpires stayed out of the fray.

Have you also noticed the lack of illegal-pitch strip searches on the mound in the last few decades? Pitchers obviously don’t want to risk a suspension if they are caught cutting or greasing-up baseballs. Sideshows involving the likes of Gaylord Perry, Mike Scott, Phil Regan, and others – did they or didn’t they doctor balls? — used to be a part of the summertime ritual. No more.

Out of sight of the general public, the players themselves have changed. Perhaps their skyrocketing salary inflation combined with a desire to be available to media for the least amount of time contributes to the end of traditional clubhouse camaraderie. Sights of skivvies-clad players holding court around their lockers, beers in hand, for extended periods after games have disappeared. The last regular instance I can recall was colorful, hirsute closer Rod Beck holding court for Cubs teammates around his locker after games in 1998.

Now, home clubhouses are almost empty post-game as players get treatment in the trainer’s room, only briefly appearing at their lockers after showering before they hurriedly leave. No one lingers. Affluence and Hollywood-celebrity compensation squeeze a significant chunk of personality out of baseball.

I’m no Luddite. Baseball has to change with the times and not lag in the tolerance level. The game has welcomed players of all colors and ethnic origins from around the world. Given the momentum of the times with Jason Collins’ and Michael Sam’s coming out, the first openly gay Major Leaguer is in sight. There is no room for insults, crudity, and sophomoric behavior. No Richie Incognitos are wanted.

Somehow, like Fenway Park being updated with some 21st century comforts, baseball has to find a way to meld the best of the old with the necessary evolution into the new. Otherwise, it’s some other sport with which we’re not familiar – and won’t fondly talk about 20 years from now.

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