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BASEBALL

Operation — save baseball: Here's how The World-Herald would fix Major League Baseball

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Operation — save baseball: Here's how The World-Herald would fix the Major League Baseball

The World-Herald sports department's version of "Operation." What would we change, if anything? What pieces could we remove without damaging the game, or hitting the sides and bringing the bonnnnnnkkkkkk of failure.

To appreciate Major League Baseball is to appreciate the long game. One bad week — even five bad weeks — doesn’t matter.

It’s a seven-month, 162-game regular season. There is no clock, no time limit, no mercy rule. The game ends when it ends. (Often to the chagrin of sports writers and copy editors on deadline.)

That said, the world is picking up its pace. Many of us soak up information in this digital era immediately. We’ve seen the video, caught the highlights and are on to the next thing five minutes ago. That’s one reason baseball is struggling to keep up, at least if attendance and youth participation are measures. MLB’s average attendance per game dropped 4 percent to 28,830 — the lowest since 2003 — after 14 consecutive seasons topping 30,000. Attendance was down for 17 of the 30 big league teams last year.

That’s not to say there aren’t other factors, like the awful weather last April and May, but the league and sport are taking notice. Major League Baseball knows it needs to lure new, younger fans while keeping the faithful followers happy. But how? Is a game that’s played at its own speed in this fast-paced environment enough for the next generation?

Enter The World-Herald sports department. And the board game “Operation.”

Since none of us are doctors — that I know of — or MLB commissioner — yet — it was a little safer to implement our ideas on a board game. We looked to remove components from our version of “Operation Baseball” that held the game back.

What could be done, if we had the power? What would we change, if anything? What pieces could we remove without damaging the game, or hitting the sides and bringing the bonnnnnnkkkkkk of failure.

No, this isn’t another story about pitch clocks and mound visits and shortening the time of games.

But these are our thoughts on improving a game we all care about — without killing our patient.

Fix: The DH

DH

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chris Archer falls to the ground after striking out.

Since 1973, with the addition of the designated hitter to the American League, Major League Baseball games have been played under two sets of rules.

The prospect of having a designated hitter in both leagues came up this past winter during discussions of possible rule changes to improve the game, and the time has come for the National League to get in line with the American League — and the NCAA, National Federation of State High School Associations and many international leagues around the world — and adopt the designated hitter.

It is absurd that at its highest level, baseball is played with two major rule differences.

Would fans be willing to accept a change where the NBA’s Western Conference adopted a 4-point line with the Eastern Conference not adding it as well? Or if the NFC passed a rule that required middle linebackers to also handle all kicking duties while the AFC allowed kickers and punters to do the kicking?

Neither of those leagues, nor any other major professional sports league around the world, would suggest having its games played with two sets of rules. Baseball shouldn’t be any different.

One reason for adopting the designated hitter in the NL is that pitchers just aren’t very good hitters. According to Jonah Keri of CBSsports.com, during the 2018 season, pitchers posted a combined batting average of .115, with a combined on-base percentage of .144 and a combined slugging percentage of .149.

Often, a pitcher’s plate appearance involves trying to bunt or ends in a strikeout. It would be better to get someone in the lineup who can focus on hitting every day, something pitchers rarely are able to do in between starts. Batting and running the bases makes pitchers more susceptible to injuries that are less likely to occur when they are just pitching.

St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright missed all but a few weeks of the 2015 season because he tore his Achilles tendon running the bases. Wainwright is just one in a list of pitchers who were injured while batting or running the bases. The designated hitter would help pitchers avoid unnecessary injuries.

And with a DH, pitchers in the NL might be in the game longer. There are occasions every season where a pitcher is doing well but gets pulled for a pinch hitter the second or third time through the order. Managers need runs and are willing to sacrifice a good pitching outing for offense.

With a designated hitter in the NL, managers don’t have to make that decision, and instead could leave the pitcher in longer.

National League teams are at a disadvantage when it comes to roster construction without a designated hitter. Players like David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez, Nelson Cruz and others were never able to consider playing for teams in the NL because they did not have a position on defense to play. This gives AL clubs a decided advantage.

It would go a long way toward improving the game if that were to change and both leagues played with a designated hitter.

— Andrew Stem

Fix: Fan, player safety

Fan safety

The Kansas City Royals were among the MLB teams to extend netting to protect fans. Netting has been extended to the outfield end of both dugouts at Kauffman Stadium.

On Aug. 25, 2018, Linda Goldbloom went to a baseball game.

She and her husband, Erwin, took their normal seats at Dodger Stadium, in the loge level behind home plate. With two other family members, they took in a game. Linda — a mother of three, grandmother of seven and longtime Dodger fan — was celebrating her 79th birthday and 59th wedding anniversary.

In the ninth inning, a foul ball sailed over the protective netting behind the plate and into the loge level, where it struck Linda’s head. She was taken to a hospital. She was unresponsive for three days. She died Aug. 29.

It was the first death caused by a foul ball at an MLB game in nearly 50 years, and it came toward the end of a season that started with all 30 major league teams extending the netting around home plate to the far ends of both dugouts.

That move came on the heels of a September 2017 incident at Yankee Stadium — where, at the time, the netting extended only to the beginning of the dugouts — in which a young girl was hit in the head by a 105 mph foul ball and suffered serious injuries.

Incidents like this are nothing new. In 2015, a Red Sox fan was struck in the face by a shattered bat. In 2011, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, a 4-year-old girl suffered a skull fracture after a line-drive foul ball struck her in the eye.

Last year, progress was made to better protect fans with the extended netting. But more could — and should — be done to keep fans safe.

Perhaps the league can make the protective netting taller. Or, it could follow the lead of Japan’s NPB league, in which protective netting extends all the way to the foul poles and workers blow whistles to alert fans whenever a ball leaves the field of play and heads for the stands.

Of course, fans are not the only ones in danger when a ball comes screaming off a bat.

Players can also find themselves in the line of fire.

Pitchers, who on every pitch step toward home plate from a mound just 60 feet away, have very little time to react to hard-hit balls and can suffer serious injuries.

Among pitchers who have been struck in the head by line drives, Aroldis Chapman and Alex Cobb were carried off the field on stretchers. J.A. Happ suffered a skull fracture. Matt Shoemaker, in 2016, needed emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma. And in one of the most serious cases, Daniel Poncedeleon, while pitching in Triple-A, required emergency brain surgery for a life-threatening injury after being struck in the head by a ball in 2017. (In 2018, he threw seven no-hit innings in his MLB debut.)

To help prevent more injuries like these, pitchers should be required to wear helmets.

Few pitchers have worn the padded hats that were approved in 2014 or the sleeker, visor-like helmets that replaced them in 2016. The reason: They look funny.

But it’s time to spurn style in favor of safety.

Head injuries at baseball games — to pitchers and fans alike — are largely preventable. So let’s do everything in our power to prevent them.

— Zach Tegler

Fix: Unwritten rules

Unwritten rules

Jose Bautista tosses his bat after hitting a three-run home run during Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series.

We all know some of the most memorable sports celebrations.

Tiger Woods’ fist-pump.

Michael Jordan’s shrug.

Deion Sanders’ high step.

Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose.

Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue (sorry, Husker fans).

Multiple end zone dances.

Jose Bautista’s bat flip and home run trot against the Texas Rangers in the 2015 ALDS.

Wait. ... That one led to a brawl at second base.

In 2017, San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland plunked then-Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper for, well, having the audacity to admire a pair of home runs in the 2014 NLDS.

“I can’t really blame Bryce for what he did,” teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t know if I would really enjoy getting hit for something — I don’t really know what he deserved to get hit for.”

Yeah, me neither.

The Giants won the World Series that year, by the way. So Strickland has a ring and still felt the need to police the game — three seasons later. Even then, Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said: “It’s part of the game.”

We defend a 100-mph fastball thrown at a batter’s head because his home run trot or a dirty slide irked the pitcher.

We don’t need players policing the game. Abolish the unwritten rules and let the athletes show emotion.

We’ve already seen positive steps in the right direction.

Before the 2018 postseason, MLB aired an ad featuring current players denouncing the anti-bat-flip culture.

“Don’t stop and stare. Don’t flip your bat. Respect the jersey,” as Giancarlo Stanton admires a home run, Carlos Correa tosses his bat, Mookie Betts flexes and Yasiel Puig wags his tongue after a headfirst slide.

Puig, now with the Cincinnati Reds, was a fan favorite with the Dodgers for his energetic style.

In 2016, Harper wore a hat stating “Make baseball fun again.” So it probably goes without saying that he enjoyed Bautista’s bat flip.

“That was just a huge situation,” Harper told ESPN in a 2016 interview. “You have a whole country behind you. And being able to show an emotion in the playoffs. ... I mean, I have no idea what I would have done if I had hit that homer. I have no clue. So I enjoyed seeing it. And I think Major League Baseball enjoyed seeing it. They put it everywhere, so they must have.

“What an incredible moment for baseball, just as a fan of the sport,” he added. “I mean, how many NFL or NBA or Olympian or any athletes — they all know about the Bautista bat flip, because it’s incredible, because it’s out there. He put it out there. It’s fun. The emotion was amazing.”

As hall of famer Ken Griffey Jr. said at the end of the MLB ad: “Let the kids play.”

Remember, sports are supposed to be fun.

— Jake Anderson

Fix: Florida

Florida

Since 2012, the Rays were last in the American League in attendance all but twice — when they were second to last. This isn’t a small market. It’s in the top 15 in the U.S. Nor is this a bad team.

Fans have said Tropicana Field feels more like a warehouse than a ballpark. I submit that’s an insult to warehouses.

How can the dome and its maze of catwalks continue to turn home runs into outs and infield flies into triples? And why on earth is there a dome? It’s the Sunshine State. People migrate there specifically for the weather.

To be fair, the team has tried to build a new stadium. The problem is no one wants to pay for it. And that’s because no one cares about the team. It’s apathy, from fans and the organization.

Since 2012, the Rays were last in the American League in attendance all but twice — when they were second to last. This isn’t a small market. It’s in the top 15 in the U.S. Nor is this a bad team.

Tampa Bay boasted Cy Young winner Blake Snell and went 90-72 last season, despite jettisoning stars Chris Archer and Evan Longoria, among others. But the team wasn’t trying to make a playoff push at the trade deadline.

How many fans in perennial cellar-dweller markets (say, Cincinnati) would love to have a 90-win team? Or a team at all?

And Tampa Bay isn’t alone. While 28 other big leagues teams try to put a good product on the field, not far away in Miami, the Marlins prove to be the most willing team to trade its best players.

After trading J.T. Realmuto this offseason, ESPN calculated that of Miami’s top 25 all-time players ranked by WAR (including Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera and Christian Yelich to name a few), the team had traded 23.

Not to pick on Florida, but what’s up? Why does the state have two teams that no one cares about while other markets that would embrace a club — Montreal, Charlotte, Portland, anywhere in Mexico — don’t?

The Marlins have two World Series titles and the Rays have a World Series appearance. Fans in many cities — Cleveland, Seattle, Washington — would sell their souls for that. But in Florida, that doesn’t even sell tickets.

— Kristin Donovan

Fix: Free agency

Free agency

Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Matthew Klentak, left, shakes hands with Bryce Harper, center, as agent Scott Boras looks on. Harper and the Phillies agreed to a $330 million, 13-year contract. 

Manny Machado was unsigned for 111 days this offseason. Bryce Harper went 120 days.

When two of the game’s top players are at home for the start of spring training, something is wrong with free agency. Teams are making more money than ever but are less willing to put that toward improving their rosters. The league’s total payroll for 2018 dropped, the first time that’s happened from one year to the next in almost a decade.

To fix this, free agency needs to better fit how organizations construct teams. Rosters are increasingly built around younger players, when they are most productive in the careers. To take advantage of this, players need to enter free agency earlier. And teams have to be forced to pay for them.

To get players on the market sooner, baseball should dust off an old idea and adopt restricted free agency. Instead of going to arbitration — like the current system — players with three years of major league service could field offers from other organizations, with their current team able to match those.

Owners tried to implement restricted free agency during the 1994 strike but players rejected it. Now it could fix a lot of their problems.

Most players don’t reach the majors until their mid-20s, which means they won’t hit free agency until their early 30s. That’s right around when teams start valuing them less.

Restricted free agency gives teams the chance to add younger players when they’re most productive instead of compensating them for past performances later.

This also improves the timeline of when teams pay players. A long-term contract could seem more appealing if a player is still in his mid-30s at the tail end of the contract, instead of his late 30s or early 40s. That could be the difference between having a useful contributor or a deal that weighs down a team — like the back half of Albert Pujols’ 10-year deal with the Angels.

But just because teams can spend on younger players doesn’t mean they will. This is where a minimum payroll comes into play.

The NBA has a minimum team payroll and MLB should follow suit. Instead of gutting rosters to lower costs and pocketing the money like the Marlins and Pirates have recently, teams would have to spend on players whether they’re trying to be competitive or not.

The NBA salary floor is set at 90 percent of that season’s salary cap. Since baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, the minimum team salary could be a certain percentage of each team’s revenue. That would mean high-revenue teams have to shell out more but low-revenue teams wouldn’t have to spend unreasonable amounts to keep up.

If teams are required to spend, hopefully they’ll try to get the most bang for their buck by adding players who can contribute, whether they’re superstars or role players.

The problems with how organizations worth billions sign players to multimillion dollar contracts might not seem like something the average fan should care about, but it is. Teams are prioritizing profits over attempting to win games. If that doesn’t change, soon it could lead to a lockout or strike once collective bargaining negotiations heat up.

And more time without baseball is something nobody wants.

— Adam Ziegler

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Kristin is an assistant sports editor at The World-Herald.

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