©1999 San Francisco Chronicle 

LEAVE IT ALONE/Many changes since the '20s have hurt baseball's essence

Many changes since the '20s have hurt baseball's essence

Bruce Jenkins
  Friday, April 2, 1999

For nearly a century, baseball has worn on the purist's soul. The sport has seen constant change, adjustments and technical advancements, prompting the knee-jerk reaction that it has a brand of conscience, changing right along with American society.

With the 1999 season at hand, we submit a contrary view: With a single exception -- opening its doors to all races -- baseball never needed to do anything. If it had stayed exactly the same since the early 1920s, when Babe Ruth and a livelier baseball shared a precious bond, it would be just as wonderful today. In fact, it could be argued that nearly all of the so-called ``improvements'' have been detrimental to baseball's essence.

That's why so many people feel it's the greatest game of all. You don't have to touch it. Just let everyone in the neighborhood play, and you're set for life.

We'll allow for some handy amenities, like sturdy leather gloves, pine tar and pure strains of wood, but that's about it. And remember, as you consider these arguments, forget how the changes affected you personally. Think only of the game in its purest form.

Night baseball: You can't say this without being laughed out of town, but here it comes, anyway: Terrible idea. The game is best played, and most appreciated, in daylight.

``But I work in the daytime.''

Well, there you go with the personal stuff. Get over it. In the old days, people managed. If you were there, you remember the beauty of a daytime World Series. Everyone knew what was happening. The whole nation talked about it. So you may not have seen every pitch; like things are any better today? East Coast adults fall asleep around midnight (what's that, the bottom of the seventh?), and their kids never had a chance.

Polyester uniforms: Just horrid. Heaven help the overweight guy. Give me the old cotton look. Way more stylish. Tough hang in the heat, but nobody complained. And with new fabric came splashy new colors -- almost invariably a disaster. Compare a long-established franchise's new uniforms with the original; virtually every time, you want to turn back the clock.

Artificial turf: Worst development in history. No explanation needed.

Multipurpose stadiums: Never worked. Not from the first day. Riverfront Stadium, Three Rivers, the Vet? Absolute travesties from the word go.

Domed stadiums: It's not even baseball inside those awful contraptions. It's damn near another sport entirely.

The designated hitter: Made for some lively arguments, but it hasn't helped the game. There was never a need to change the rules. Only an idiot would demand more scoring or take the bat away from anyone in the lineup.

Perfect example: A year ago, in the Giants' home opener, Orel Hershiser stepped to the plate in a first- and-third, fourth-inning situation with the game tied 1-1. You simply wouldn't have wanted anyone else up there. Not Charlie Hayes or Paul Molitor or Jimmy Foxx or Hank Greenberg. Only Hershiser. The man fancies himself an athlete. Let's see what he's got.

Franchise Movement/Expansion: This is where I have to put aside my own interests. When the Dodgers moved to L.A. in '58, my whole life changed. That one event dictated my future in sportswriting, and I wouldn't trade a minute of it. Still -- tough break. Franchises moved on occasion, but essentially it was the same look for decades on end. The symmetry was exquisite. Rosters were solid, extremely difficult to make. And unlike today, there was little room for marginal, you've-gotta-be-kidding pitchers. The big thin-out has made a discouraging difference in the caliber of play.

Free-agency: We don't argue the human-rights issue. People should be able to work where they want, move freely between employers. Just not in baseball, that's all. Oh, drop the sympathy: These guys have always made good money and enjoyed fabulous lifestyles. Bound to their teams like slaves, they played hungrier and were more tough- minded. Nobody strutted around with a guaranteed eight-year contract. Renegotiate? Are you kidding? You had a lousy year -- take this pay cut. Moreover, players only left their teams via trade. Infinitely more satisfying for the fans.

The relationship with television: Bottom line -- we get to see all the games. But television had no right to rig the postseason into a prime-time show, and the endless commercials (as opposed to the old 60-second break) are the biggest reason why modern-day games run so long.

Expanded postseason: It's all very nice, with a ton of meaningful games, but there was nothing like the raw desperation of a September stretch drive, where only one team survived -- and got the World Series as a reward. I'm sick of the word ``postseason,'' anyway. There's a new ``postseason'' record every five minutes. Somebody breaks one of Mickey Mantle's cumulative records because he got about 80 more at-bats.

Relief specialists: Without question, this has improved the caliber of pitching and rewarded managers who truly know their personnel. Teams see a starter for six innings, a flame-throwing artist in the seventh, a wacko junkballer in the eighth, and a precise assassin in the ninth. It's a blight on romance, though. Part of the American work ethic is to finish what you start. Not so long ago, you'd see Spahn and Marichal heading into the 10th inning together, Gibson batting for himself so he could keep battling Koufax. Complete games were a badge of honor, the sign of a real pitcher. Today, the stat means nothing. Give 'em 7 1/3 good innings, hell, you're a genius. By the time it's over, you're wearing a robe with your feet up on the sofa.

The Players Union: Complete joke. I've seen packs of rabid coyotes who acted more like real union people. Again, the players are lucky to be playing a kid's game for money. Every time they have a say, they screw it up. They should have no rights at all.

The Umpires Union: Just a laughable mess. There should be no security for an umpire who consistently blows calls or acts like a confrontational punk in a crisis. He doesn't keep his job. He doesn't have some insufferable buffoon defending him in the papers. He doesn't work the World Series because it's his turn. He's out looking for a new line of work.

Interleague play: Yeah, whatever. Some of the matchups are intriguing. But you can't be serious if you're relying on these games to keep you interested, and the World Series loses some of its special quality if the two teams played each other in June.

Removing the human element: This is a major problem in football, where quarterbacks can't call their own plays, and people just can't wait for those computer printouts to pop out of sideline machines. Basketball has become a hopeless maze of assistant coaches, some of them actually holding up signs to signal the next play, and players can't think on their feet to save their lives.

Baseball has acquiesced to a degree. Many managers rely on career head-to-head matchups fed to them by computer, and some even insist on calling every pitch. But the game is at its best when some pitcher says, ``Hell with that, I'm going with the changeup here,'' and strikes the guy out on his own initiative. Or when the printout says your first baseman is 1-for-10 against today's starting pitcher, but the manager plays him anyway. ``I saw the hit,'' he says. ``Got a real tough slider and raked it up the alley. That's good enough for me. The computer can take a hike.''

Funny thing about baseball. Even after all those changes, it has retained the rich, pastoral feel of a family picnic. It used to be easy, though. You merely surrendered an afternoon and let the game wash over you. Today, you need a critical new ingredient: Your imagination.

Bruce Jenkins can be reached via e- mail at



©1999 San Francisco Chronicle