Baseball Addition by Subtraction

By Bob Socci

Thirty-five years ago, in what was widely viewed as an act of defiance, baseball’s commissioner created quite a stir by sitting through a World Series game sans an overcoat.

The Big Red Machine was beating the Yankees on a frigid Sunday evening at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, for the second of four wins during its sweep of ‘76, and the late Bowie Kuhn was on the hot seat.

For the first time ever, Major League Baseball was staging a World Series weekend game at night, thus avoiding direct competition with the NFL for afternoon viewers. Critics were convinced that Kuhn sold out to television.

Mike Hargrove earned the nickname "The Human Rain Delay" with the deliberate mannerisms he displayed during his 6,693 major league plate appearances (photo courtesy of espn.com).

Ostensibly, the commissioner deemed it in the best interests of baseball to eschew an extra layer, as is if to boldly suggest to viewers nationwide that a 40-degree chill in mid-October was perfectly suited – topcoat or not – for a ballgame.

Of course, today such controversy might seem silly. We all realize that a main mission of every major sport, college or pro, is to maximize ratings and thereby please the networks and their sponsors. If anything, we in the East simply hope – often in vain – that World Series games end while it’s still p.m.; not the following a.m.

Furthermore, nowadays it’s customary for the Late Fall Classic to stretch into November and be played by men wearing ear muffs attached to their caps. There’s no sense pretending when being practical might keep them warm.

And as Kuhn’s eventual successor, Bud Selig, recently indicated at his annual meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors, baseball’s postseason is about to last longer and extend later.

There’s been talk of playoff expansion for years. USA Today was writing about the possibility as early as the fall of 2003. In April, MLB proposed a rule change to increase the field from eight to ten teams, as soon as 2012.

“I would say we’re moving to expanding the playoffs, but there’s a myriad of details to work out,” Selig told the AP editors in late April. “Ten is a fair number.”

In exchange for this inevitable expansion, and with the integrity of the game at heart, I am seeking a tradeoff of sorts. I’m pleading for contraction; hoping baseball will soon eliminate some of the things that are truly troubling about the way it’s being played in the 21st Century.

As easy it might be to come up with 10 or more, I’ll settle for just a handful. In this case, five is a fair number.

But rather than publishing the items on my wish list all at once, so that Commissioner Selig can pay each due consideration, I’m divulging them one post at a time.

So, mislabel me a purist or traditionalist if you so choose, but here’s the first edict I’d love to see – in the best interests of baseball:

1. A Ban on Velcro

There are a lot of theories, some prompted by actual studies, for speeding up baseball’s pace of play and shortening its average time of game. Naturally, though unscientifically, I’ve come up with a suggestion of my own.

I arrived at it, after a somewhat exhaustive review of thousands of plate appearances, from hundreds of games, in recent years. For time’s sake, the moment has arrived to outlaw Velcro straps on batting gloves.

As much as anyone, I value the rhythms of the game and appreciate the timeless appeal of its timeless nature. I would never quibble with the great Roger Angell, who wrote: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

What’s gotten old, or – to borrow a frequent expression inside the sport – what’s gotten tired is the routine that interrupts the game’s flow before every pitch. Hitter steps out of box; hitter rests the bat handle against his legs or tucks the barrel under his arm; hitter undoes the strap of each batting glove; hitter refastens the strap of each batting glove; hitter returns to box.

Right-handed or lefty; slugger or Punch-and-Judy; it doesn’t matter. Every at-bat, between balls and strikes, such fidgeting has gone from idiosyncrasy to idiocy.

It’s reached the point where Frank Deford recently made the point, during an NPR commentary: “The worst thing that ever happened to baseball was batting gloves — because unlike all the other gloves in the world, which people just put on and forget about, baseball batters seem to be born with a compulsion to monkey around with their batting gloves. Batting gloves, to baseball players, are like texting to teenagers.”

Granted, such finicky behavior spawned one of the sport’s best nicknames – Mike Hargrove really was ‘The Human Rain Delay.’ But, as fascinating as every Nomar Garciaparra at-bat proved to be – from the tug on his gloves to the tap of his toes – too many of today’s batters remind me of my 11-month old every time he reaches for the Velcro straps on his sneakers. Maybe they, like him, just love hearing the ripple of Velcro off and Velcro on.

Just think, if such a ban has the effect both desired and expected, then baseball can begin to better police the use of other implements. Like shin guards and elbow pads.

Resourceful Yankees coach Mick Kelleher has his hands -- and belt -- full as caretaker of gloves and other equipment (photo courtesy of Reuters).

First-base coaches are constantly being weighed down by equipment handed over by almost every batter who reaches base. If enough guys get on, the coach has to form a relay with a bat boy just to get the gear back to the dugout. How can that coach possibly offer a fist bump after an RBI single, when his hands are full with the previous batter’s arm and leg guards?

Perhaps baseball needs legislature to impose hands-free coaching.

Should a batter choose to bat in body armor – thereby gaining an advantage over a pitcher in their battle to control the coveted inside corner – maybe he should be forced to keep wearing it on the bases. So what if it proves bothersome while running.

Heck, for years pitchers have donned cumbersome jackets on the basepaths. Those satins in the seventies had to be worth at least a lost step or two trying to go from first to third.

On a fabric-related topic, just last week I witnessed a first after a Baltimore Orioles farmhand reached second.

Josh Bell, in short sleeves, delivered an RBI double. But once in scoring position, he took time to remove a pair of long black sleeves from his back pockets and pull them up over his elbows.

I had heard of padded sliding shorts, but had never seen what were presumed to be sliding sleeves. Can you picture Pete Rose scraping the dirt on a head-first dive, only after first pausing to cover his hairy forearms with Lycra tubing? Eeshh.

But I digress, getting way ahead of myself. For now, and for the good of the game, let’s simply take it one strap at a time.

On deck: There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

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