Barry Saunders

Play ball! And take my tips to improve the ballgame – Saunders

Around midnight during my first winter in Indiana, as my editor and I tried to cross icy Broadway Street with heads down to avoid being pelted in the face by perpendicular precipitation, he turned to me and said, “Only six more weeks to spring training.”

As if by magic, that phrase instantly brightened my outlook and seemed to make the rest of that miserable winter and subsequent ones a bit more bearable. You know – ac-cen-tu-ate the positive and all that.

Three feet of snow? Only eight more weeks to spring training.

Fifty-four degrees below zero wind chill? Only five more weeks until pitchers and catchers report.

Even the most thin-blooded, chionophobic of us must admit that this past winter in North Carolina was anything but unbearable, and not only did we make it to spring training – which heralds the beginning of baseball season – but baseball season started this week.

How come I’m not dancing in the street, then?

Because the goofballs who run baseball are fixing to ruin what in the past was the Great American Pastime. (It has been supplanted as that by the sport of lobbing politically inspired insults at each other.)

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league’s rules committee think both that baseball games take too long – they do – and that young people’s attention spans are too short to enjoy the leisurely, pastoral game. (Well, tough.) Beginning this season, as a way to speed things up, they’ve done away with the intentional walk. Upon a signal by the manager to the umpire, the batter just trots down to first base.

In the words of Teddy Pendergrass in the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes classic song “Be For Real,” I’d just like to ask Commissioner Manfred one thing: Is you for real?

Yes, sadly, he is.

Ditching the intentional walk as a way to speed up baseball games is the sports equivalent of the person you see at Golden Corral who eats five plates of pot roast and mashed taters – just me? – washes it down with a diet drank, yet can’t figure out how come I’m not losing weight.

An intentional walk, according to some statistics, is only issued once every three games and takes about one minute, so any time shaved will be negligible. Not only that, but we forfeit the chance to see the pitcher accidentally chunk one over the catcher’s head to the backstop.

There are way better ways to quicken the pace of games than abandoning the intentional walk. Why not prevent batters from stepping out of the batter’s box to scratch, spit or adjust something after each pitch? And give a time limit to how long between pitches a pitcher can lick his fingers, rub the ball or contemplate the wonders of the universe.

Or limit batters to one scratch per at-bat and pitchers to one lick per batter. By my calculation, that would cut 14.5 minutes per nine-inning game.

How about preventing managers from over-managing and changing pitchers after every batter? If a manager changes pitchers in a game, make the pitcher have to face at least three batters.

The best way to speed up the game, though, is an idea my buddy Gordon – a former semi-pro pitcher – and others suggest: broaden the strike zone, thereby making batters have to swing at hittable pitches. How much it would be broadened can be worked out later, but I’d say anything between the batter’s knees and eyebrows is a strike.

Speaking of strikes, if the strike that cost fans the 1994 World Series hadn’t already made me less of an MLB fan, this would have: when the Yankees and Giants faced each other in a meaningless regular season game several years ago, the main reason to tune in was to see two of the most dominant players of the era – Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds – face off against each other.

They never did, though, because Clemens – on orders from manager Joe Torre – hit Bonds with the ball his first at bat and intentionally walked him the next two times. Why deprive fans of a chance to see two of the greatest players ever face each other?

Because, Torre explained afterward, “I’m not in the business of entertaining people. I’m here to win games.” The 55,000 people booing at Yankee Stadium on that bright Sunday afternoon disagreed.

Torre, after he retired as the Yankees’ skipper, offered to accept the post of commissioner if it were offered. Thank God, for baseball fans’ sake, it was not offered.

But hey, I’m available. And the only way I would allow the intentional walk in a game is if fans and opposing players also get to cluck like a chicken whenever a pitcher is too scared to pitch to a batter.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9