Look, I don’t want you to think me unserious. I very well could be, quite possibly I am, but I don’t want you to think it. So you should know I debated with myself over writing this article. And I won that debate. So here I am. Here we are. Because it’s January. And we ain’t got nothing to do.
I asked myself this question a while ago: how do you improve the structure of baseball? We’ve been so focused on fixing small bits here and there, forcing a pitcher to do this little thing, or the batter to keep his foot there, but how do you take the general rules of the game and make it more interesting? Do you make pitchers throw with their opposite hands. No. Do you add little spikes to the ball? No. Do you put each base at the top of a small flight of stairs? Well… I’ll get back to you on that one. Otherwise, though, all of the above are ridiculous suggestions. They might be funny (or not), but you couldn’t implement them because they’re too silly and too painful.
However, there is one way you could change the game and create, at the same time, grounds for more strategy — as opposed to more injuries. The answer is, you eliminate one of the bases. Think about it. There are four bases. There could be two, or three, but for some reason, there are four. I’ll blame Old Hoss Radbourn. It’s odd to think about, but it takes forever to get around the bases and baseball, as baseball itself acknowledges, takes too long. What baseball needs is an HOV lane, an express lane, and a way to add some choice. Let’s give players options and watch them make mistakes!
You can’t get rid of home plate. That’s right out. The game is centered on it, and also, what would umpires wipe off with those cute little brushes? You can’t get rid of first base, either — not without restructuring the entire right side of the field. Also, once the ball is in play, the game centers on first base. Also also, removing first base would be plain old mean to larger batters who need a quick respite after the stress of hitting. For the same reasons you can’t get rid of third base, either. Well, you could, but again you’d reshape the baseball field and that’s too radical. There’s only one base left and it’s the only base you could reasonably lose: second base. So let’s lose second base!
Well, not lose it entirely. I propose leaving it there. Removing it entirely would be unpleasing to the eye. Instead, we should make second base optional. Let runners make the decision for themselves after reaching first. They can travel the 90 feet from first base to second base, or they can live a little, take a chance for once in their lives, and go straight across. The distance from first base to third base is 127 feet. That’s an additional 37 feet — or, if you prefer percentages, 141% of the regular 90-foot distance between bases. Also, there’s the pitcher’s mound to negotiate, a lump of dirt that could throw off the fastest base runner, a bit like adding a Tal’s Hill to the baseline. (Note to self: add a Tal’s Hill to the baseline!)
Let’s play this out. The batter smacks one into the gap and takes off towards first. The center fielder takes a long angle and manages to cut the ball off, but he’s known to have a weak arm. The way the game is currently structured, our runner has two choices: he can stay at first or he can go to second. And really, there is only one choice here, unless the batter-runner is dealing with chronic leg injuries. He has to go to second base. Most of the time this is the case. Mostly, we see the ball off the bat and know immediately where the batter will end up. There isn’t much suspense. Sometimes there’s a close play at second, but it’s rare. If it looks like it’ll be a close play, mostly the batter will play it safe and remain at first.
But let’s play it out again, only this time with the new rule allowing the runner to skip second base if he wants to. The batter smacks one into the gap. The center fielder takes a deep angle and cuts it off. Now, before the batter reaches first base, he has to consider his options. He can stop there, he can continue going from first to second, or he can take a much sharper turn and head for third! Now we’ve got some excitement on our hands.
The batter has to break down the options quickly. Second is further from home plate than third base, but closer to first base, so the chances of making it safely are increased, but the payoff for the effort is lessened. Alternatively, the runner can go from first directly to third base. That will take longer and so there’s an increased risk of being thrown out, but the payout is much higher, or at least higher depending on the players coming up and the game state.
What is the point of all this? It creates excitement, opportunity, and risk in an area of the game where, beforehand, it was mostly rote. It allows the game to play up for speed by giving fast runners a chance to make a bigger impact. It turns the repetitive nature of outfield defense into a thinking man’s game (“Do I throw to second and take the chance of giving up third, or do I throw to third and take the chance of giving up second?”).
Perhaps the biggest drawback to baseball as a sport is that its rigidity doesn’t cultivate as many quick decisions. Baseball doesn’t possess the flow of hockey or basketball, and it never will. It’s not that kind of sport. But the sport should encourage instances where that kind of athleticism is encouraged and rewarded. There are some, but they don’t come around too often. Making second base optional forces both the runners and the fielders to be aware of and prepared for both options and then to think on their feet in the course of a play, reacting to what the other will do instead of doing what everyone in the ballpark knows they have to do.
Or maybe give the players jetpacks? Eh, let me get back to you on that one.
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