By John Woodford / Ann Arbor, Mich.
A few words on the meaning of “Game On,” the name of my new column:
The games people play range from idle fun, which can involve either mindless or mindful ways of messing around, to highly regulated contests against opponents vying for immaterial or material stakes.
The dictionary says games are “decided by skill, strength or luck.” But as we all know, some games are decided by cheating or trickery. In fact, some games are determined by who can better “game” the system. So, oxymoronically, the loser of a game is sometimes “game,” as in quarry.
My column will focus on all forms of games and gaming ranging from overt sport and play — the “bread and circuses” that the Roman satirist Juvenal identified as a way in which the powers-that-be appease a jaded and decadent populace — to subtler ways in which our powers-that-be are gaming “We the People,” not just by bread and circuses but via politics, news media and the arts as well.
Let’s start with the controversial subject of Major League Baseball (MLB), which was once the highest form of a sport not only born in the U.S.A. but co-identified with our nation, right along with apple pie, Chevrolets and, per H. Rap Brown, violence.
I maintain that MLB now is no longer the pinnacle of baseball, and that even a Little League game today offers a finer example of what baseball has been and should be.
The cabal that runs MLB has observed over the past two decades or so a constantly waning interest in baseball, which they gauge by the number of TV viewers and ballpark attendees.
For well over a century, the game of baseball took place on green fields of dreams all over the country, in pro- and semi-pro leagues, traveling professional and amateur squads, on Little League, Babe Ruth League and Pony League diamonds, on public school fields, and in pick-up games in sand lots and public parks in small towns and big cities alike.
Most of that action has disappeared, not only in our big cities but also in most small towns. Most baseball fields are unattended today, strewn with weeds, broken glass and rusty cans. School districts say they don’t have the money to maintain the fields or to equip and outfit the teams.
A lot of youth baseball today involves private commercial leagues that charge participation fees that only well-to-do families can afford. That’s why so many of our major leaguers now come from Latin American countries where the sport is still played with authentic passion. Wannabe pros from those locales sign initial contracts well below figures commanded by U.S. players.
MLB depends on TV commercials. Broadcast deals provided the bulk of the record-setting $10.8 billion in revenues MLB chalked up last year. The glut of ads has grown so thick that the time of a nine-inning MLB game stretched to three hours and 11 minutes in 2021, up from less than two hours when Babe Ruth was playing in 1920.
But far from blaming commercialism for this expansion of game time, MLB accused pitchers of taking too long between pitches. A new rule was introduced this year, requiring a pitcher to start his pitch within 15 seconds of the time he receives the ball with no runners on base, within 20 seconds with a runner on base and within 30 seconds between batters.
This rule will be easier to comply with once someone builds the right robot for the job. Meanwhile, the human pitchers are stressed, as the rule makers knew they would be, and therefore more likely to give up hits, throw wild pitches or fail to keep runners from stealing bases. The new rule is working. So far this year, games are averaging two hours and 39 minutes, 22 minutes shorter than last year.
But showing where its heart is, MLB is letting fans at the park buy beer later into the games than they used to. The cutoff used to be the seventh inning but now it’s the eighth, so the reduced game time won’t jeopardize the profits of the breweries. (It will, however, mean fans can leave the parks with more unabsorbed alcohol in their bodies, but that’s a game between them and the traffic cops.)
The oligarchs of MLB also blamed flexible defensive tactics for making it harder for batters to get base hits. Teams were moving infielders around to counter the tendencies of batters to hit to either the left or right side of the field. They could also station a fielder at the outer edge of the infield, on the outfield grass that is at the margin with the dirt infield. This tactic is now restricted by complicated rules that are unofficially known as a “shift ban.”
MLB’s stated purpose in curbing the freedom that game players should enjoy by shifting their defensive positions was to produce more hits and runs. More excitement. But all they had to do to give hitters a better chance of succeeding was to lower the pitcher’s mound. Pitchers gain an advantage by throwing the baseball down toward their target.
In 1969, MLB lowered the maximum height of the pitching mound to 10 inches, five inches below the previous limit. And it worked. With today’s bigger, stronger pitchers, batting averages have been dropping, along with runs scored.
So further lowering the mound would increase the hits and runs and excitement without interfering with the defensive team’s freedom to deploy fielders wherever they wished. But the owners prefer to show their employees who’s the boss.
The meddling by MLB honchos hasn’t stopped there. They decided this year to make permanent a goofy experimental “tie-breaker” rule that contaminates the game by placing a runner for the team at bat on second base at the beginning of each extra inning.
The runner is nicknamed “the ghost runner,” because the runner doesn’t have to get a hit to be awarded a double. When the extra inning opens, there he is, standing on second base! This change results in a better chance of batting in a run, thereby reducing the length of tied extra-inning games.
For me, the no-shift rule is definitely the worst of the new rules, because it interferes with a team’s skill at devising its own defense batter-by-batter. That and the ghost runner are the last straws for me. I’ll confine my baseball viewing to any league that doesn’t introduce such rules. Similar interference by investor types in other sports has soured me on those sports, too:
Pro football requires a pass receiver to have two feet in bounds when he catches a pass on the sidelines. It’s a dumb rule with no rationale other than to require a receiver to make a risky contortion of his body, thus exposing him to unnecessary injury. The Canadian and college football leagues, like most other sports with boundaries, sensibly require only one foot to be in bounds for a catch to be successful.
I’ll close with professional basketball’s worst rule, since we’re now in the thick of an exciting NBA playoff season. If a team calls a timeout with the ball on its half of the court, the ball can be advanced to the opponent’s half of the court, much closer to the basket, simply by virtue of the timeout.
That is a perversion of the spirit of a game. It’s a corruption of the spirit of play to let a timeout, rather than a player’s dribbling or passing the ball, advance the play up court. Why is it done? They say it’s to excite the fans. Bread and circuses!
John Woodford lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he retired after two decades as the executive editor of Michigan Today, a University of Michigan alumni/ae publication. His career in journalism includes editing and/or reporting duties for Ebony magazine, Muhammad Speaks newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Haven Register, the New York Times and Ford Motor company publications.