Simply Enforcing the Rules Can Fix the Game
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Perhaps you are, as I am, a stickler for the rules in sports. If you’re not, you should be. Sports may be an arena for individual expression and achievement, but without consistently enforced rules, expression and achievement are really quite meaningless. There is little more frustrating than watching the rules of an NBA game warp and expand like a paramecium in the final minutes of a game involving a marketable superstar, or seeing a referee give a top boxer benefits of the doubt he’d never give a journeyman at the bottom of the card. Sports may be entertainment, but when giving the crowd what they paid to see becomes more important than applying a steady framework by which to judge competitors, everything becomes a bit more meaningless, and thus less entertaining.
Baseball, for all its problems, doesn’t really have to deal much with this one. Umpires tend to give top pitchers more leeway on borderline calls, and even occasionally on ones that aren’t borderline.They can have a similarly generous definition of the strike zone for top hitters; and everyone’s seen rookies and loudmouthed players get some clearly bad calls.Really, though, the sport offers nothing to compare to the ability of an NBA MVP candidate to, in certain circumstances, do everything short of punch an opponent in the face and not draw a foul, and this is one of the many underlying reasons for baseball’s broad and enduring appeal.
One of the problems the game does have, though, is the unwritten rulebook, and the mutual agreement among players, managers, and umpires that certain rules will simply not be enforced. If it doesn’t undermine the actual integrity of the sport — the key to that is consistent application of the rules — it does undermine its balance.
Think of the last few games you’ve seen, for instance; in one of them you almost certainly saw the phantom double play, where the pivot man didn’t actually touch second base but got the call anyway. Mainly this happens when the umpire judges that the pivot man could clearly have touched second base but simply chose not to do so, and the reason this call is made is that forcing the defender to touch the bag even when it’s just a formality exposes him to injury from the oncoming runner.
This makes enough sense, but it slightly alters the game in balance of the defense at the expense of offense. In itself this is probably a good thing, but should the conditions of the game change and tilt radically toward pitching, as they someday will, this will become incredibly irritating, as exciting rallies will constantly be snuffed out by defenders not within five feet of the bag.
Worse by far are what I’d say are the two least commonly enforced rules in the game — the rulebook strike zone and the rule on catcher’s interference. Something really needs to be done about both.
The problem with the strike zone is immediately obvious. For all the talk about the Questec system, the commissioner’s office enforcing a consistent strike zone, and so on, what goes unaddressed is the real issue of the high strike. Watch a few games on television and you’ll hear announcers talk about umpires giving the pitcher the benefit of the doubt on pitches coming in at the belt a few times, as if they were borderline calls. They’re not. The rulebook is quite clear on the matter: The top of the strike zone is the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the pants, roughly around the letters.
As an experiment, just assume a regular batting stance and measure the space between the top of your pants and the midpoint between the top of your pants and your shoulders. For most people, you’re talking about around eight inches. All the controversy over whether or not officials should be calling pitches at the belt strikes completely glosses over the fact that more than a half a foot is routinely lopped off the strike zone. Forget steroids; if you want to alter the dynamics of the game to encourage a bit more pitching and defense, this is the place to start.
Arguably worse is the non-enforcement of the rule on catcher’s interference. Again, the rulebook is quite plain: “The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score.The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.” The shenanigans in which many catchers routinely partake — blocking the plate while waiting for the ball to come in from the outfield or the cutoff man — completely subvert this rule, and take place because umpires don’t make the call.
The end result of this is that catchers are forced to put themselves in dangerous situations, blindly blocking the plate from an oncoming full-speed runner, while catchers like Jorge Posada and Mike Piazza who tend to shy away from this dangerous practice are put at a competitive disadvantage. All of which is very bad.
Anyone who watches the game much can come up with some rule changes that would make the game faster, safer, more efficient, and more entertaining. As in any sport, though, the most important thing to do is the most basic: Simply enforce the rules that are already on the books.The more it’s done, the better.