Thinking baseball at the quarter pole

If we were brinking on October, not June, and the regular season were to end tomorrow the Red Sox, with the AL’s best record, would be bracing for an epic clash against the Cubs, with the NL’s best record, and all the sporting world would be their stage. The demand for these two chronic sobsisters to settle a largely imaginary score at some new and fanciful Armageddon is this seasons’ seething sub-plot.

Ultimate disappointment is guaranteed. But rounding 2016’s first pole, with more than a quarter of the schedule come and gone, that prospect looks as likely as any. That is unless you embrace the possibility the Mariners will ever win anything in your lifetime or you can somehow stomach the Mets.  

Three other teams in each league have piqued special interest over the first quarter of the long haul. In the AL, there are the Orioles, who can hack with anyone but who lack pitching, the White Sox, who’ll go as far as Chris Sale can carry them, and the Indians, playing fairly brilliantly for old friend Terry Francona, considering their offense is strictly Punch and Judy while their allegedly strong pitching has been spotty.

Otherwise, the AL has been more about teams failing to measure up. What’s wrong with the Royals? Probably nothing save for a touch of post-championship ennui likely to burn off as the temperatures rise in the heartland. The Astros, on the other hand, are another matter. They look lost.  So, too, do the pitching-ravaged Angels where the party may be over for Mike Scioscia in Anaheim. Could that be ditto for Joe Girardi in the Bronx where the Yankees might post their lousiest record since their infamous 1966 season? Probably not, but Brian Cashman may be another matter.  Torrid Toronto may be taking off but they’ll crash again in the post-season.      
As for the NL., Dusty Baker has calmed down Washington’s Nationals. It’s now or never for the Pirates. Can the Dodgers, with a hideous payroll veering on $300 million, continue to fail?  One lives in hope. At the other extreme, there are the Giants. As is their custom, they’re rising in another even-numbered year under the brilliant Sabean-Bochy leadership. If the Cubs are to be denied – and the weight of history surely still tugs in that direction – it’ll be the Giants who serve as saboteurs. Far at the other extreme, you have the Braves projecting to lose a record-busting 120 times.  Ole!

Records of rather greater distinction are up for grabs. Inevitable are the moments coming soon when David Ortiz passes Ted Williams on the homer rolls and A-Rod smacks his 700th (groan!). In an era unfriendly to starters, Chris Sale might win 25, as could Jake Arrieta. Max Scherzer whiffed 20 in one evening. A lifetime .213 hitter, Jackie Bradley, won’t surpass either of the DiMaggio’s hitting streaks or finish in the .340s. But Xander Bogaerts should. The last to match Daniel Murphy’s .395 first quarter were Georgie Brett and Tony Gwynn. There, the comparison ends. A remarkable moment beckons with Ichiro Suzuki drilling his 3,000th MLB hit to go with roughly 1,600 he smote in Japan. Talk of your history!

Apart from all the runs, hits and errors stuff, however, it’s emerging as a season of “issues.” New rules, new attitudes, new thinking about old rules and customs, affecting mood and tempo. It’s all about “change,” a highly loaded and instinctively suspect notion in this most traditional and steadfast of American games, where the way it was played a century ago is remembered fondly and not lightly subject to question.

A new commissioner treads lightly, seemingly disposed to attempt subtle course corrections but worried about raising ire. At the end of the season, loom new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) parleys. The scene may be as serene as it’s been in a half century, but that doesn’t mean it’s blissful.

There are those new curbs on sliding, popular only with pugnacious middle-infielders.  Confusion reigns on the base paths. The Utley fiasco in last year’s NL playoff provoked a much too drastic reaction from the MLB Suits. The precious little contact that exists in baseball needs to be preserved, not banned. The flap over second-base take-outs embarrasses the game and compounds mistakes made with the flap over home-plate collisions.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” That immutable axiom ought be kept in mind when they’re tempted to mess with basics, the latest example being the misguided alterations being proposed to make the strike-zone a touch “higher.” Better they order more umpires to respect the strike zone essentially defined and understood for about a century and a half.   

Back off, boys! There needs to be a time-out on all this idle tinkering.  Yes, the games do drag. Pace is a problem. But more technological intrusions are not the answer. We don’t need minute-long reviews of every pick-off play.

After a modest drop a year ago, the average length of games is up another seven minutes.  Obviously, whatever you’re gimmicking ain’t working. So try, try to do less!


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