“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
— Marcel Proust
David Wright avoids cliché and groupthink. He listens to a question and provides an answer, and the question I asked in spring was essentially this:
If you were the czar of baseball and could change anything about the game — pace of play, travel, fan experience, etc. — with just a decree, no need to negotiate with the Commissioner’s Office or the Players Association, what would that be?
Wright explained he would take Noah Syndergaard out to the field, start at the mound and work back a foot or two at a time, and when the radar gun no longer registered 95 mph, make that the new distance from the mound to the plate as a way to reduce strikeouts and get more balls in play.
While I appreciated Wright’s independent thought process and refusal to just repeat a familiar alteration, my initial internal response was that it was a step too far, too radical, the kind of suggestion that gets the “purists” — more on that term in a bit — into their “leave my game alone” fury.
But in doing research for this very piece you are reading now — with the assistance of the wonderful baseball historian John Thorn — I was provided the story of how in 1893 the rules were changed for a fellow named Amos Rusie. Think of him as the Noah Syndergaard of his day. He was throwing so hard and frustrating the hitters to such a degree that the decision was made to move the mound back from 50 feet (where a hurler could conclude his pitch, prior to the addition of an actual slab) to the 60 feet, 6 inches it is now.
So back to those “purists” who keep bellowing to leave the game alone. When they harken to wanting the game to be the way it used to be, does that mean they want to return to a 50-foot mound? Do they want to restore a game in which no one of color was allowed to play? When all travel was by train? When uniforms were wool? When no games were televised?
Pretty much the only constant in the sport is lamenting a better product in a bygone era. The first modern game — having set rules that would clearly earmark it as what we would know as baseball — is generally accepted as having occurred on June 19, 1846, at Elysian Fields in Hoboken. Yet, in the Sporting News of Dec. 31, 1904, Henry Chadwick wrote: “The ‘fans’ of that time [1850s] were opposed to any and all changes. They wanted to have the game ‘played as their daddies did.’”
Consider the words of the fine outfielder Peter O’Brien, who said: “They don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or 10 years ago.” He perceived a lack of passion in the players — motivations to perform beyond the sheer love of the game he felt existed in his heyday.
O’Brien, by the way, was the captain of the Brooklyn Atlantics. His insight was registered in 1868.
In the time since, the real national pastime has been bemoaning the ruination or even the death of baseball. Writers as great as Walt Whitman in the late 19th century and Ring Lardner in the early 20th weighed in on this calamity. There have been broadsides at too little offense in the ’70s and ’80s — the 1870s and ’80s, if you are scoring at home — and too many homers. Lardner, in fact, wrote about his personal drift from the game because of the frequency with which Babe Ruth generated long balls.
It does not take too much digging to find baseball obituaries offered for, among other things: the advent of televised games, the designated hitter, the wild card, the league that won the All-Star Game being handed home-field advantage for the World Series. The game has escaped imminent demise more often than James Bond. It always has been evolving — in rules, in style of play, in embracing technology.
“This is a historic fact — every innovation in base ball has been bitterly fought until finally adopted.” That was written by Malcom McLean and reprinted for the Sporting News … of Oct. 23, 1913.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said: “The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was.” That goes for the enterprise of baseball, as well. No matter how wonderful the past, an open mind must be kept for the future.
Because what is easy to forget — since games are attached to all of this — is that this is a business. And no business more successfully traffics in nostalgia like baseball. Yet, being trapped by nostalgia — notably by a reactionary segment of the fan base trying to hold onto this mental image of what the game once was (though it never really was that game in their minds) — can prove debilitating to the sport.
The NFL — the most popular league in this country — changes rules constantly and is more beholden to its TV partners than any sport. But it receives a fraction of the criticism for doing so that MLB does. That positively speaks to fan passion. But also works as an impediment to an evolution that must constantly be ongoing with any business, baseball included.
Rob Manfred is proving to be a proactive commissioner, trying to anticipate what must be addressed (notably dead spots in action) before it becomes an incurable cancer to the game. The roadblock often is the “purists,” who refuse to open their eyes and minds and see that the game has been ever changing to address the tastes of the clientele and the relentless march of modernity.
Because besides being just a business, baseball is an entertainment business, competing these days with more forms of entertainment delivered in a greater number of ways than ever. Just check how those entertainment businesses change not just year-to-year, but at times month-to- month (or even less). The movie business cannot be ensnared by when films were in black and white and the TV business by the model that worked when there were just three networks to pick from.
The trick for MLB is to keep the essence of baseball while tailoring around it to keep it fresh and attracting new pools of fans. In other words, same as it has ever been from the mid-1800s. No matter what the “purists” say, the game was never static, never just as it ought to be. Yesterday has always been a great time for baseball. The key is to make tomorrow — the future yesterdays — even better.