Monday, April 14, 2008

Rules is Rules

We're about two weeks into the season and have seen some interesting, if not earth-shattering, developments. The one that's struck me the most is the dispute over the third base coach's box. It seems that the umpires are going to be cracking down on more of the little things this year, or so it seemed when Yankees third base coach Larry Bowa was ejected from a game for standing outside the coach's box on the third base line. The umpire said that he warned him not to stand there, but Bowa (being Bowa) told him to shove off. The ump tossed Bowa and got a lot of people miffed.
The thing is that no one ever -- ever -- enforces the rule about the third base coach standing in the box. Very few coaches actually stand there; they move out to get away from errant line drives and to stand where the oncoming base runner can better see them. They've been doing this for years, and Bowa's ejection over this rule has to be the first in I don't know how long. The umpire claimed that he was just doing what the chief umpires were saying: enforce the rules, especially this one. And yet no other umpire has made a stink over the issue.
Stuff like this happens a lot, and it usually isn't a very big deal, but over time, it gets on my nerves. Basically, there are numerous rules in the baseball rulebook that are never actually enforced. Except sometimes an umpire (or an opposing manager) will take it upon themselves to reverse decades of tradition and actually enforce the rule that day. Some rules that fit this description: coaches standing in the coach's box, batters standing in the batters' box, catchers staying inside the catcher's bos, a pivot man at second base actually touching the bag, someone sliding into second base staying within reach of the bag, making an effort to avoid being hit by a pitch, pitchers keeping their hands clean of foreign objects (such as pine tar) and several others that I'm sure I could think of if I tried.
In fact, two notable historical events are based on the selective enforcement of rules. The famous Pine Tar incident between Billy Martin and George Brett is notable. Hitters aren't supposed to spread pine tar too far down the handle of their bats, but Brett (and a few others, likely) were bending the rule. Martin waited until he could use this to his advantage and brought it up right after Brett hit a key homer against the Yankees. I doubt the umpires really cared, but when confronted by an opposing manager with rulebook in hand, they called Brett out.
Another incident, 100 years ago, was known as Merkle's boner. In late September 1908, the Giants and Cubs were locked in a pennant race. On September 23, at the Polo Grounds, the Giants had runners on first and third in the bottom of the 9th of a 1-1 game against Chicago. Merkle was on first. The batter at the plate hit a single, scoring the runner from third, and sending the New York fans into a frenzy. They mobbed the field, so much so that Merkle never made it to second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed this, grabbed the ball (although it may not have been "the" ball; reports differ) and tagged second base. The umpire therefore called Merkle out on a force play and ruled that the run didn't count. With the fans on the field (and enjoying what they thought was a victory), the game was ruled a tie, only to be played if it would affect the NL pennant. It did, and the game was picked up on October 8, with the Cubs winning the pennant and, later, their final World Series.
Observers pointed out that Merkle's "boner" was actually common practice, and no one had ever strictly enforced the rule before. The selective enforcement of the rule angered John McGraw (who was indeed prone to anger) and he protested the move vociferously. But the Cubs won out, and Merkle's boner was perhaps the most infamous baseball moment of its time.

Someone intelligent (I think it was Rob Neyer) recently suggested that we finally get rid of all the bullshit and half-heartedness; we should go through the record book and either enforce all of the rules or get rid of the rules that aren't being enforced. Think about any other rules system where there are rules on the books that are only sporadically enforced, with no telling where or when that will be. It's inherently unfair and it's just a big distraction. Something either is a rule or it isn't; it's silly that after more than 100 years of organized baseball, we're still afraid to draw the line on these minor issues.
As far as the third base box goes, I don't see why we should keep the coach in there, so long as they're reasonably close. If my memory is correct, the third base box was created because of one specific coach (I think it was Hughie Jennings) who would run up and down the third base line to distract the pitcher. That may be an apocryphal story, yes. But what other practical purpose does a third base coach's box serve? Is there some serious problem in baseball with coaches wandering about and distracting the pitcher on the mound? It would be a pain in the ass to start enforcing this outdated rule now, especially if only some umpires are going to do it. Let it go and rewrite the rule to allow coaches to range further out. I don't think it will compromise the sanctity of the game.

More short thoughts:
  • It's absolutely maddening to listen to baseball announcers at this time of the year (or any time of the year, really, but bear with me). I have to listen to two or three morons pretending that there's something significant about the fact that David Ortiz is 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. And I have to hear gainfully employed journalists talking about Nate McLouth as if he's suddenly metamorphosed into a major league hitter. And, of course, you can't last very long without hearing dire tales about the Detroit Tigers or stories about the "surging" St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City Royals.
    It is part of our passion as fans to try and draw vast conclusions from even the smallest snippet of information. We turn 10 or 20 at bats into a statement about someone's character, or a 7-game losing streak into a sign of imminent destruction. In the middle of the season, we're much better about treating small sample sizes as the mostly meaningless or misleading slivers of information that they really are. But early in the season, we're powerless to stop ourselves from looking for the fate of our team in the smallest details.
    As fans, we can be blamed this weakness. But there's no excuse for commentators and announcers --who have presumably experienced more than one or two Aprils in their baseball careers -- to continue the ritual idiocy every spring. Someone out there should be learning from experience and discounting all of this hoopla as the bullshit it is -- making mountians out of 6- or 7-game molehills. But these people are few and far between. And it must be said that if everyone admitted that April games are no more important than July games, it would be hard to convince people to watch them, or to watch the 24-hour cable sports channels dedicated to analyzing them. Remember -- making something out of nothing is good "journalism."
That's all for now. I'll be back soon to talk about bloggers and their impact on the world of sports media, pro and con. I'll also let you in on the process of writing a play -- specifically, a play about baseball, which I'm working on right now.
Greatest sports quote of the decade: "And that happened."

1 comment:

t ball said...

Baseball play? Cool, good luck, there aren't enough of those.