Two weeks ago, I showed the Bryce Harper/Jonathan Papelbon confrontation to someone who doesn’t consider herself a sports fan. Her immediate reaction: “Oh my gosh. Is that guy in jail right now?”
When I described Chase Utley’s “takeout” “slide” to my dad, his reaction? “Why would you be allowed to do that?”
In the middle of the most magnificent part of its season, baseball has delivered more than its share of “Oh good grief” moments.
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Papelbon’s decision to put his hands to Harper’s throat is importantly different than Utley’s decision to “slide” so late and so brutally into Rueben Tejada, even though both involved violence against other players in ways we hope have no place in baseball. But what both incidents, along with the anonymous reactions of current and former players, illustrate is a belief in the ways of baseball as unchanging, as if the first man to round third base was Methuselah, and we’ve all trotted home the same way since.
There’s a lot of terrific tradition in baseball, but there’s been a lot of really dumb stuff, too. Respect for tradition is great, and makes us feel things about the teams we root for. But it isn’t the only thing. Or even the most important thing. And when there is goofy stuff, there is no reason to let that stuff stick around, because we have the power to change it.
We’ve been to the moon! Also, we can track the velocity and trajectory of a pitch in real time. Both of those things are pretty difficult because we had to build rockets to go very far away (into space!), and install a bunch of cameras and develop software and whatnot. We’ve amended the United States Constitution twenty-seven times, which is a long and hard and often terrible process. But we’ve still managed it twenty-seven times. All of which is to say that we ought to stop being so precious about how the game has been played and ask if this is how it ought to be played.
I’ve clearly never played or coached or scouted professional baseball; apart from being a woman, I can’t hit for much power, although my speed tool is decent. My voice isn’t necessarily the one you want deciding things like this. But there is a collective of men and women, managers and executives and commenters and league officials and players old and new who can help the game improve these things. If you meld the on-the-field experience of current players with a more holistic view of the game from other observers, I imagine the League would be able to find pretty smart solutions to obvious problems. You have the expertise you need right there!
As an aside, when considering the perspectives that might be brought to bear on these questions, proceed with caution and a healthy skepticism when confronted with anyone whose argument amounts to, “But that’s how the game is played.” OK, sure. And? If the majority of players today were to say Utley’s slide was clean or Papelbon’s attack part of baseball’s holy writ, we might want to give greater weight to other viewpoints. If collective wisdom has been wrong for a long time, why double down on it? You can do a thing all day every day, and be pretty good at it, and still be deeply wrong about how it ought to work.
Baseball isn’t gravity. It’s made up. All of it. We develop statistics and metrics to understand what we see on the field, but at the end of the day we’re just finding ways to better describe and measure a game that exists within parameters shaped almost entirely by our fancy. When confronted with things that are silly or poorly conceived or dangerous, we can and should change them. We all thought the transfer rule was dumb, so we changed it. We didn’t even wait until the end of the season. We worried that umpires were making bad calls when forced to see a million things simultaneously and render quick calls on the field, so we added video review. Getting the rules right so that baseball is fun to watch, and highly challenging but safe to play, is difficult, and requires effort and nuance. But acknowledging the need for change doesn’t. Because it’s not gravity. It’s just a game. It might be the best game, but what if we can make it even better?
Chase Utley’s suspension is a head-fake toward contrition on the part of the League, but the deeper impression that needs to be made, the perspective that needs adopting, is an openness to adaptation in the face of the atrophy of outmoded rules and viewpoints. We’ve already been to the moon. This next part should be easy.