Sports rules

Not like “sports rules!”, but the rules of sport. My beloved Boilermakers went down to Bloomington and beat the Hoosiers on Thursday night. It was a joy to behold, with the exception of one weird call toward the end of the game. It’s been called a “blarge“. IU’s Thomas Bryant lowered his shoulder and barreled into Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. One referee called a blocking foul on Swanigan, another called a charge against Bryant (it was a charge). As a result, the call was a double foul.

This turns out to be the correct way to handle it. It’s also really terrible. Those two calls are mutually-exclusive. Especially in this circumstance, because it caused each team’s best player to foul out in the final minutes of a close rivalry game.

But it got me thinking about how and why the rules of sports get changed. Major League Baseball is apparently considering a rule change to speed up extra innings. I hope that goes nowhere. In my mind, it’s a fundamental change to how the game is played. Ostensibly, it’s to shorten games. MLB has made several changes over the past few years to try to speed the game up.

But here’s the thing: I like baseball because it’s a slow game. Baseball is a deliberate game that invites conversation and statistical analysis in-game. I don’t mind rule changes, but they should be to improve the game. Speed isn’t automatically an improvement. It can even be a detriment.

Book review: The Only Rule is it Has to Work

The instinct and tradition that go into making baseball decisions has given up some ground to statistics over the years. A sport that has long been obsessed with the most miniscule stat (if I heard “he has the best batting average after falling behind 0-2 in the first at bat of the second game of a double-header played on Thursday since Someguy Wholastplayedseventyyearsago” on a broadcast, I wouldn’t blink) is letting those stats drive some decisions. Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics are the most well-known example, thanks to Moneyball, but it happens everywhere. Even in a small independent league in California.

The Only Rule is it Has to Work is the story of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller: two statheads who got to use a baseball team as a laboratory for testing their hypotheses about what makes a baseball team successful. While everything went right for the Sonoma Stompers at first, the season didn’t have the satisfying payoff that a fictional account would. But even in a four-team league, only one team gets to claim the championship.

In a sense, the ending helps make the book a truer representation of baseball. While every team (and every fan) wants that trophy at the end of the season, the road is not easy and more likely ends in frustration than the sweet joy of victory. But baseball can be a wonderful sport without that joy: just ask generations of Cubs fans who have lived and died without their team winning the World Series.

I had my first exposure to unaffiliated ball this summer when the Lafayette Aviators had their inaugural season a five minute bike ride from my house. I instant fell in love with “my” team: a group of guys trying to get just a little bit better while they’re in college, in the hopes that they’ll get drafted. Playing for almost no money, in front of crowds measured in the hundreds, these guys live a life so different than the big leaguers. Reading this book gave me a greater appreciation of what the players, managers, and owners go through.

Despite the frustrating way the season ended, Lindbergh and Miller must have liked what they had a chance to be a part of: they’re still listed on the Stompers’ website as Special Assistants to the General Manager. And I think that’s what this book is really about. The stats are nice, but like the players, Lindbergh and Miller just want to be a part of baseball.

Those of us who love the game can use this book to live vicariously. The authors aren’t superstar players, and they’re not even working in the big leagues. They’re just two passionate guys working with a team just above rec leagues. It’s not so hard to imagine yourself in their shoes, and for a moment you’re a part of baseball again.

Baseball and apple pie

Baseball isn’t as popular as it used to be. That’s hardly news. Some, including incoming Commissioner Rob Manfred, have argued that it’s too slow-paced for modern American society. To that end, he’s talking about some rule changes. The first is a “pitch clock”, designed to keep the game moving along. I don’t find that particularly objectionable, thought it would certainly take some getting used to.

The second, more obnoxious change, would be to ban defensive shifts. Seriously? If the idea is to generate more offense (it’s been a pitcher’s game since the end of the steroid era), my response is “who cares?” If you want to see a lot of hits, show up for batting practice. I’ll admit that I tend to be biased in favor of defense in sports. I’d much rather see a great dive and throw to first than a home run. If the shift is a problem, perhaps batters should learn to hit to the opposite field. I’m looking forward to Manfred proposing that players have to stand still until the ball hits the ground. Perhaps if he were the NFL commissioner, we’d finally see the “5-second count” rule for blitzes.

Next up for Rob Manfred: eliminating the apples from apple pie so people can eat it faster.

How do you solve a problem like Pete Rose?

I’ve considered making the three-hour drive to Cincinnati on Sunday to attend the Pirates/Reds game.  Not so much because I care about either team, but because MLB has decided to allow Pete Rose to be honored for the 25th anniversary of his breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record.  It’s ironic that he will miss the day that MLB says is the 25th anniversary because of a pre-scheduled engagement at a casino.  It seems appropriate for a guy who earned himself a permanent ban from baseball by betting on games.  He may be the most talented player to receive the ban hammer since Shoeless Joe Jackson, the difference being Rose actually deserves the ban.

By the same token, all of the betting in the world doesn’t give him 4296 hits or a lifetime batting average of .303.  Those were earned bit-by-bit over the course of 24 seasons.  Whatever he may be off the field, on the field he’s Charlie Hustle.  Being a great athlete does not excuse anything, but I’m glad Rose’s accomplishments are being honored this weekend.  After all, he’s not receiving a humanitarian award.  Besides, if a complete jackass like Ty Cobb can be in the Hall of Fame, the least we can do is let Pete Rose get a round of applause.

Baseball hates me

I love baseball.  It may not be fair for me to say that, because I really am more of a passive fan (at least compared to the die hard fans I know).  Maybe it’s because my team is lousy and 1000 miles away.  Maybe I’m just not that big of a baseball fan.  Regardless, I love baseball.  Baseball, however, does not love me.

Baseball’s unlove for me began when I was just a wee lad.  Little League was like being in heaven.  The dirt, the grass, the Big League Chew.  Nirvana.  However, baseball did not see fit that I should be any good at the sport I loved.  Through most of the 7 years that I played, I generally got the requisite 2 innings in the field and one at-bat.  It wasn’t until my last year that I got to play regularly (in the infield, no less!).  Even then, I couldn’t get a hit for anything.  I think I ended up batting around .225 that year, which would be acceptable if I were a professional, but in Little League .225 is just plain lousy.

Eventually, I had to stop playing.  Not because of any serious injury, or because I didn’t want to.  I had to stop playing because I wasn’t any good.  Now, nobody came up to me and said “Ben, you’re a chump, stay clear of the diamond.”  It was obvious, though, that you needed to be a good player to keep playing in the next league.  Those teams traveled, and there was no rule stating that each player must get playing time.  I was heartbroken, but that’s life.

Once I became and adult and made actual money, I could afford to take the occasional trip to see a Major League game.  Apparently, baseball hasn’t forgotten me.  I’ve attended five MLB games in my lifetime (it would be better if the Orioles moved to Indianapolis or something) and my team is 1-4, including a four-game losing streak.  Last weekend, I went to two games.  The White Sox beat the Orioles in both.  On Sunday, as I was driving back home, the Orioles decided to win.  Thanks, baseball.

Yesterday afternoon, as I’m trying to figure out what to write about, I find out that Mark Buehrle of the White Sox is pitching a great game.  So great, in fact, that it ends up being a perfect game.  The perfect game is a very rare feat.  Buehrle’s outing last night was only the 18th in the major leagues, dating back to 1880.  Twenty-seven batters faced, and 27 retired.  The stamina, skill, and sheer luck required to perform such a feat aligns so infrequently.  Of course, the cause was aided by teammates, including an amazing catch by DeWayne Wise.

Of course, when I watched Buehrle pitch against the Orioles last week, he had to have a routine 7.1 inning showing giving up a run and eight hits.  I mean, if my team is going to lose anyway, can’t we at least be on the losing end of something special?  Oh, that’s right: baseball hates me.  Thanks, baseball.