By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 17, 2009; D01
My holiday gift came early. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced Tuesday, to the surprise of many inside the sport, that he had appointed a 14-man special committee to fix the sport. Of course, Selig didn't say "fix." His group will just "analyze ways to improve" the sport. In other words: fix.
After the various embarrassments of this year's postseason, piled on top of a recession-plagued year with sinking attendance, MLB has decided to get serious about correcting its problems, many of which have festered for years. From excessively long games to bad umpiring to World Series games in November to the intractable DH rule, Selig says, "There will be no sacred cows."
With three seasons left before his term as commissioner is over, Selig is determined to do all he can to put the game "on the field" in as good of shape as possible as part of his legacy.
"We're not just reacting to things in October," Selig told me Wednesday. "I've been thinking about this for years."
The proof of his seriousness is in the superb quality of his committee.
His group includes four managers who've at some point won World Series: Tony La Russa (St. Louis), Jim Leyland (Detroit), Joe Torre (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Mike Scioscia (Los Angeles Angels). "You guys are on the field. You live this every day. We need your input," said Selig, and the four have already been batting ideas among themselves for two weeks.
The committee also includes elite executives such as John Schuerholz of Atlanta and Andy MacPhail of Baltimore as well as owner representatives like Paul Beeston (Toronto), Bill DeWitt (St. Louis) and Dave Montgomery (Philadelphia). Frank Robinson, who has studied issues like slow play, is on board.
These are baseball's brand names. Any issue on which they offer a consensus proposal will almost certainly be adopted by the sport. If this sounds like the NFL's powerful Competition Committee, it should. And it's about time.
"We're open to talk about anything," said Selig, confirming that issues such as pace of play, quality of umpiring, expansion of instant replay, November World Series dates and some surprisingly fundamental rule changes are all fair game.
For example, to reduce excessive use of specialty relievers and speed up the game, could you change the rules so a pitcher would have to face at least two batters? "Nothing wrong with that," said Selig, not endorsing, of course, but sounding enthusiastic.
The committee's first brainstorm session will be at the owners' meeting (Jan. 13-14) with all GMs invited. Expect some changes by next year. Others may take a year or two. " 'Expeditious,' is the word," said Selig. At least an in-depth process is finally underway.
So, let's get busy and fix this sport. Here are 10 places to start:
-- Cut 15 to 20 minutes off the average time of a regular season game. Everybody knows this is baseball's elephant-in-the-room. The game is too slow in total time and too sluggish while in process. This doesn't just alienate "the young" or "the old." It drives anybody crazy who has a life. When revenue drops in an industry, folks are suddenly open to new ideas and common sense.
-- I've "timed" every facet of the game. Okay, I'm a nut. But I'm right. The average "mound visit" wastes 60 to 70 seconds. Ban 'em all. Middle-aged guys stay in the dugout. Mike up the pitcher and a coach. Talk all you want. Use a crackberry. But no visits.
-- Putting a clock on mid-inning pitching changes is a must. If it only takes 150 seconds between innings, there's no excuse why "waving for the left-hander" should burn more than three minutes.
-- Sorry about "God Bless America" at the seventh-inning stretch, but it needs to go. It was a fine idea after 9/11. But it has served its purpose. And it wastes two minutes.
-- Yes, of course, wave the hitter to first on an intentional walk.
-- A huge time saver, since every relief pitching change eats about four minutes, would be curtailing the plague of relief specialists who now face only one hitter. This isn't "core" to baseball. It evolved. Then metastasized. Change the rules. A relief pitcher must face two hitters. The effect: more offense, and better pace of play, in late innings.
-- Stop the insanity: Don't award home field in the World Series on the results of the all-star game. At least go by "better record." The history of the all-star game is a series of long 15- to 20-year streaks of dominance by one league. The last thing any sport needs is an arrangement that reinforces the imbalance between leagues or conferences. You want to hide it.
-- Make sure no game is ever scheduled for November again.
"Nobody is more aware of this problem than me," said Selig.
Then solve it.
First, never again delay the start of the MLB season to accommodate the World Baseball Classic as was done last year. The WBC is nice, but it can't drive MLB's schedule.
Next, have less off-days built into the postseason. Selig's all over this. Just go back to the way it was a couple of years ago.
-- What will never happen is cutting the 162-game schedule. "That idea gets zero votes" from owners," Selig said. Lost games mean lots of lost revenue.
Is there a compromise? Could every team schedule one doubleheader per month -- a day-night, split-gate affair?
"That's an example of the kind of things we have to talk about," Selig said. "We're going to have to go outside the box."
-- Finally, hanging in the air after so many umpiring mistakes in this postseason is the issue of instant replay. As long as Selig is boss, don't expect to see much more of it in the regular season than currently exists. Over 162 games, most baseball people believe the proper attitude is, "It all evens out. Live with it."
However, more use of replay in the postseason appears to be an open subject. Modern fans are driven nutty by the idea of a pennant being decided by an incorrect umpire call that millions of TV viewers realize is incorrect within a minute. Selig gets that.
The next couple of years should be a rich opportunity for baseball to fix -- sorry -- to "improve" itself.
With its new committee and Selig's wide "best interests of the game" powers, the sport can take a broad and deep look at itself. Other constituencies, especially the union, will have their proper say in time. But for the first time in baseball, a group of the most respected people in the sport is looking squarely at the game's biggest problems. And they have the commissioner behind them.