By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist
Attendance is down in baseball, though the sample size is small because the season is still young. What caused the drop depends on who you listen to. Unusually cold weather is surely one culprit, and escalating ticket prices are likely another. Teams tanking before the season even began might also be an issue, with fans unwilling to spend money to watch bad baseball. Then again, maybe the game itself is to blame.
Baseball has changed, and not for the better. Games last forever, pitchers don’t last at all and everything is run from spreadsheets. Meanwhile, the sacrifice bunt is almost extinct, the shift ruins the basic concept of outs and complete games are rarer than scheduled doubleheaders. To many, the game has become little more than a glorified home run derby, where pitches throw as hard as they can, batters swing as hard as they can and the team that hits the most balls over the fence usually wins. With that in mind, here are some changes designed to make baseball great again:
GO SHIFTLESS — Baseball is meant to be played with two infielders on one side of second base, two on the other. Simple as that. Make it a rule, and make them have at least one foot on the infield dirt. If you’re going to be thrown out on a ground ball to right field it should at least be by the right fielder.
INSTANT REPLAY — Get rid of instant replay. Yes, just dump it. It ruins the flow of the game and eliminates way too many fun scenes of managers kicking dirt and arguing with umpires.
FEWER COMMERCIALS — This is almost mandatory, if baseball is ever to get a handle on the length of games. One fewer commercial in between innings would shave nearly 10 minutes off the average game, a lifetime in today’s attention-challenged world.
THREE’S THE CHARM — Every pitcher should have to pitch to at least three batters, no exceptions. This would not only speed up the game but force managers to think a little more instead of relying entirely on analytics and fixating on single matchups.
OHTANI EFFECT — Make each team have a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani. The player must pitch at least once a week and be in the starting lineup on at least two other days to hit. It adds a nice twist, and what fan can’t remember Little League, when the best pitchers were also almost always the best hitters?
BULLPEN CARTS — These were fun for a while in the ’70s, but so were pullover polyester uniforms and multipurpose stadiums. Let’s face it, relievers don’t want to embarrass themselves by riding to the rescue and the carts serve as nothing more than an advertising ploy. A better use for the carts would be to parade the starting pitcher around the field in a ride of shame when taken out after being shelled.
FIX THE BASEBALL — Home runs are at a record level, which isn’t a bad thing by itself. But when Bryce Harper shatters his bat and still hits a ball 406 feet over the right-centerfield fence, something is wrong with the ball. ‘Fess up, MLB: Admit the ball has changed and do something about it.
SACRIFICE BUNT — Give players credit for a hit every time they successfully sacrifice. It may not bring back the sacrifice bunt entirely, but it should ensure it still has a place in the game.
STRIKE ZONE — The official strike zone is basically the letters to the knees. Enforce it, and pitchers will throw more strikes. Enforce it, and batters will swing at more pitches. Both are good things.
FEWER RELIEVERS — Limit the number of relievers a team can carry at any given time. The Dodgers currently have 13 pitchers on their roster, eight of them relievers. That means there are only 12 position players, which eliminates a lot of strategy over the use of pinch hitters late in the game and encourages managers to micromanage pitching staffs.
TEAM CHEFS — Get rid of them. If hot dogs were good enough for Babe Ruth, they’re good enough for today’s players.
DOUBLEHEADERS — Bring them back, and don’t charge fans separately for each game. Each team should be required to schedule at least four doubleheaders a year. Use the days saved to begin the season in April instead of March and maybe there won’t be so many postponements because of weather. There’s more, but that’s a good start. Baseball doesn’t need to reinvent itself, but it does need to change. The reward will be better games, and more fans in the stands to watch them.