Pretty is What Changes

Sometimes, change in baseball is for the better. (via Staff Sgt. Jason Duhr, U.S. Army)

In early February, there were several reports (among them this one from ESPN’s Jeff Passan) that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association were discussing a number of possible rules changes. The two sides had booted around bringing the designated hitter to the National League, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, the expansion of rosters to 26 men with a limit on pitcher spots, and more.

As with almost everything about Major League Baseball, an institution that always has made a virtue of moving at geologic speed, the discussions were frustratingly inconclusive. In fact, their purpose might not have been to reach a conclusion; rather, the conversation was the thing. Throughout Passan’s article, there is the suggestion that the talks represent a modus vivendi, a conversation whose main purpose is to keep the sides in communication and facilitate later, more urgent conversations:

In typical bargaining sessions, dozens of ideas are offered, considered and placed on the back burner, so the likelihood of a handful of these proposals being ratified, let alone all of them, is unlikely, according to sources. Still, as MLB and the union seek to find a place of understanding amid a winter chill that has fractured already-tenuous relations, the mere discussion, sources said, is considered a positive.

Well, maybe. As Winston Churchill said, to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war, but taking the mere fact of conversation as a positive presupposes the luxury of a leisurely approach to problem-solving in baseball. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes the cliché, but time breaks everything.

The question is not if baseball should change or when it should change, but what and how immediately can baseball do it? As national interest in the sport diminishes and the 30 teams become of largely provincial interest, as the demographic makeup of fandom turns grey, Major League Baseball confronts the paradoxical possibility of existing as a sport that, presently, still can attract millions but is only of tertiary importance to the national conversation.

It seems impossible that these two conditions can coexist for long. Of course, predictions of baseball’s demise are as old as baseball and, moment by moment, increase in their inaccuracy. We make a mistake in mocking them, because they were incorrect only in the timeliness of their prophecy.

In James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, which takes place in 1884, the elderly mother of the main character, the real-life pointillist artist Georges Seurat, is bewildered and discomfited by Paris’ changing skyline:

Now look across there, in the distance. All those beautiful trees cut down! For a foolish tower! How I loved the view from here.

Presumably (with a bit of artistic license taken to shave a few years), the old woman is referring to the construction of the Eiffel Tower, which began to rise over the Champ de Mars in 1887—which itself was once an open field without the boundaries that now contain it. (George tells his mother he doesn’t think there were ever trees there, itself a comment on fantasies of a better times that never were.)

Coincidentally, the oldest surviving photograph we have containing the image of a human also was an observation of Paris. Taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838, the photograph of the Boulevard du Temple shows a streetscape that ceased to exist within 15 years of the photo’s taking, as, no doubt, did many of the shadow-people fleetingly captured by the camera’s slow exposure speed. Through Daguerre’s intervention, they acted out their future status as ghosts for then-unborn viewers who were themselves the specters of their own futures. It’s likely in many cases, their landscape vanished faster than they did, as too will ours—as is happening every day, as borne out by the Eiffel Towers of a degraded age, the shopping mall.

During the same 19th-century period in which Paris was first being photographed, wrought-iron towers were rising, and the creation of something resembling modern baseball was being galvanized by the Civil War, the United States saw the rapid rise and fall of another spectator sport, pedestrianism. This was the great sport of marathon power-walking. As Matthew Algeo wrote in Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, though forgotten today, walkers were among America’s first celebrity athletes:

The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals…and their images appeared on some of the first cigarette trading cards, which children collected as avidly as later generations would collect baseball cards. The sport opened doors for immigrants, African Americans, and women, affording those underprivileged groups unprecedented opportunities for status and wealth. Less laudably, pedestrianism also gave professional sports its first doping scandal…In many ways, pedestrianism marked the beginning of modern spectator sports in the United States.

Dead now, pedestrianism coexisted with the foundational figures of modern baseball—Cap Anson, Roger Connor, Dan Brouthers, Tim Keefe and other future Hall of Famers competed with the walkers for a share of the culture. What helped kill that sport then is what is damaging this sport now, the sense that not everyone was trying to win. In pedestrianism, this feeling manifested because races were fixed by gamblers (a reasonable suspicion that also afflicted young baseball and continued to do so for years thereafter). For baseball today it arises from the perception, as MLBPA head Tony Clark put it on February 18, of the “increasing number of clubs [that] appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

With endurance races that lasted for days and pushed participants to the brink of death, pedestrianism had something in common with the Great Depression-era fad for marathon dancing, the grueling competitions that were rendered in all their horror in the noir novel and film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Like marathon dancing, the inescapable brutality of the game made competitive walking a source of ambivalence; something with mortal consequences perhaps can’t properly be called a sport. In both cases, legislation attempted to mitigate the danger to participants but simultaneously reduced the appeal to hardcore fans—apparently some of the fun was watching competitors push themselves to the edge of death.

It may now seem like a foregone conclusion that society would not tolerate the crueler aspects of pedestrianism, with that game playing the role of the deselected neanderthal to baseball’s homo sapien. Alternatively, it may seem as if the damaging revisions to pedestrianism might serve as a cautionary tale to those who would alter baseball’s rules. Neither of those results was foreordained. After all, baseball too was part of a Darwinistic struggle that required just the right circumstances, including an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society, a working class with leisure, and the creation of edifices to hold it, to push it to the top.

In Baseball in the Garden of Eden, John Thorn lists baseball’s 1830s competitors, including horse racing, yachting, tenpins, pedestrianism, boxing, and canine and cock fighting. In the 1930s, that list would have replaced some entries with movies and radio, as well as rising sports like football or basketball. Today the list would be more different still and would include, in all its manifold distractions, the Internet. In response to these different challenges for attention, baseball has made adjustments and must continue to make them. The Darwinistic struggle has not ceased. If pedestrianism, which lacked a large, governing body like Major League Baseball, made or was forced into making the wrong choices to ensure its survival, that is an argument for baseball to make careful choices, rather than an excuse to make no choices at all.

Inordinate delay would carry similar risk. It may seem counterintuitive to shout, in the words of Too Much Joy, that to create we must destroy, but in fact there is such a thing as creative destruction. It’s only when we ignore the lessons of Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple and treat the world too much like a museum that we risk losing that which we hold dear.

The dead make many claims on the living, passing to us our systems of government and religion though the authors died hundreds or thousands of years ago. To ensure that we continue to honor their vision, they created institutions of belief that inculcate each succeeding generation in the beliefs of those who came before. These beliefs are not treated as choices. We are given far greater latitude in our choice of entertainments. This is only fitting, because the one thing the dead can’t force the living to do is to pay $100 a head plus parking to stare at a bunch of people running around in their pajamas while waving sticks at a stitched spheroid. They can’t even force the living to watch it on television more or less for free; Netflix calls out.

In 1908, a quiet British ex-banker published a quiet novel about some animals living more or less quietly on the banks of the Thames. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is half an account of the feckless Toad and his dangerously transient obsessions, half a set of short stories about a water rat and a mole who spend their time “simply messing about in boats,” eventually get to meet God, and inspire the first Pink Floyd album.

An almost instantly beloved children’s book (though, as with many great works of children’s literature, it succeeds at an adult level as well), the property eventually found its way to Walt Disney, whose animators drew the Toad chapters and presented them alongside an adaptation of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the two-in-one 1949 film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The Toad segment, which features a charming narration by classic British screen-villain Basil Rathbone, loosely adapts the story of Toad’s vulnerability to being caught up by fads, in this case a mania for the then-new technology of automobiles. The film was commercially successful and, split into two parts, was often revisited on Disney’s eponymous television show.

Six years later, Disney opened his redefinition of the amusement park, Disneyland. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was an opening-day attraction, a low-tech but entertaining dark ride in which guests travel on old-fashioned cars through two-dimensional vignettes from the film, steer into the path of an oncoming locomotive, and (spoilers) die and go to Hell—which, as you always suspected, is populated by pitchfork-wielding weasels.

Despite the fact that the ride was mostly plywood and black light and was not connected to one of Disney’s major animated characters, guests liked it. Indeed, they liked it so much that when Disney opened Florida’s Walt Disney World in 1971, Mr. Toad was not only an opening-day attraction there as well, but the designers doubled the ride capacity by adding a second track. Rather than replicating the first track’s beats, the second track took guests through a different set of scenes before delivering them to eternal damnation—and thenceforth back to the queue area.

This last was apparently a problem for the extravagantly grasping managers (avaricious even by that company’s standards) who ran Disney in the late 1990s. As was true of many early Disney rides, Mr. Toad did not force the departing rider to exit through the gift shop (just Hell). In October, 1997, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Disney was planning to end the Wild Ride. In a moment almost literally out of Ray Davies’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” (“God save Donald Duck” etc.), the impassioned but ultimately futile “Save Toad!” movement was born. “This was not the first time Disney has closed a ride,” the Washington Post reported, “but park officials acknowledged no other closing has provoked as much clamor.” For Disney fans, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was tantamount to the lost moment when New Yorkers failed to save the original Penn Station.

And they were right, if only because the replacements (an anemic Winnie the Pooh ride and gift shop and a vast, dingy transit basement, respectively) were vastly inferior. Those outcomes could be judged beforehand, from plans and promises; not all of the effects of a change to baseball are so easily discerned ahead of time. More broadly, then, the intended Toad saviors were wrong for the same reason freezing the game in its current state would be wrong. Baseball, as a static continuation of its present shape, would eventually be diminished in the same way as an amusement park that continued to exist as a 1955 (or 1971) edifice. It would slowly lose relevance, as did, say, Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, whose mix of new and antiquarian attractions couldn’t overcome the declining state of the neighborhood around it. (In 1964, it was sold to one Fred Trump, who, failing to have the land rezoned for housing, spitefully demolished it anyway.)

No popular entertainment can become a museum of itself and survive. The Smithsonian has both the corpses of extinct animals and Archie Bunker’s chair under glass. A small cadre of us observe these and specimens like them with reverence, but even we then turn our eyes towards the next new thing.

It is unlikely that too many American children of 2019 know Mr. Toad; even those adults who board the surviving Wild Ride in Anaheim might not know exactly why the attraction is in Fantasyland, alongside rides dedicated to the more enduring Snow White, Alice, and Peter Pan. (In Orlando, Toad and Mole have small, semi-hidden tribute appearances in the successor Pooh ride, while, more poignantly, Toad himself was added to the rear of the Haunted Mansion’s pet cemetery.) It is for earlier generations to know and care until they are no longer capable of doing so. The film was released 70 years ago this October. The ride’s Orlando outpost has been gone for over 20 years. The book is on shelves, somewhere far away from Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. That is the way of things.

No one likes to see a part of the culture they enjoy change. Listen carefully for the sound of the early 1980s, and you can hear white-suited disco dancers wailing about wanting to put on their their their their their boogie shoes despite all the disco clubs going punk. Step into a pentagram, and Ty Cobb himself may appear to scream in your ear about the decline of place-hitting and the rise of the home run.

Cobb wasn’t right. He wasn’t wrong. He might have been both, or neither. Our limited perspective prohibits us from knowing when something has evolved into its final and/or optimal state. It’s possible nothing (or no one) ever gets there.

This is an anxiety-provoking thought. The key to relaxation in the face of relentless change is to accept that time may bring good changes and it may bring bad, but it’s going to bring both regardless. Rage (if you must), but then roll. As R.E.M. argued, even if it’s the end of the world as you know it, it’s possible to feel fine. Bring on one of a strictly limited number of relievers and the first of the three batters he will face.

References and Resources

  • “Disney Fans Fought to Save This Wild Ride… And Lost,” Theme Park Tourist.
  • “Fans Are Hopping Mad as Toad’s 27-Year Ride Ends,” The Washington Post (September 3, 1998).

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kyle Sharamitaromember
5 years ago

It’s always a delight to read your work Steven!

5 years ago

Love Goldman’s writing.

Chesh Jacobs
5 years ago

Indeed, to reform is conservative. How deeply and in what tone shall we sigh? Perhaps it is better to peacefully decline to sigh if we cannot reasonabky expect to influence the matter. Regardless, in all things there is some essential matter, the reform of which heralds a new species. What of baseball’s matter is essential? Is that not truly the debate?

Famous Mortimer
5 years ago

This was a really interesting article, thanks.

5 years ago

For a dirty European like myself, the best reference point I can give for this is soccer.

Out of all major sports that I can think of, this is the one that has changed the least over the past 150 years, with games today very similar to the first football games. Different fads and styles continue to come and go throughout the years – attacking vs defensive football, possession based vs counter attack etc. – but for the most part any imbalances have been corrected naturally.

However, whenever rules needed to be fixed the have been. Whether that’s introducing yellow/red cards and later video refereeing, or subtle rule changes to stop negative defensive play in the late 80s, soccer has made small changes to rebalance the sport and keep it as entertaining as it has been in the past.

Baseball should keep this in mind when it opens up the rulebook, and be clear about what the intentions of any changes are. Is it seeking to rebalance an element of play that previously wasn’t an issue (20 second pitch clock)? Is it trying to eliminate a gameplay issue that could be solved naturally (banning the shift)? Or is it chasing after an audience that doesn’t exist, changing the core of the game to create new fans (automatically placing a man on second base)?

5 years ago
Reply to  josh99

Prescisely this. Bill James said it in the Historical Abstract- Basketball introduced the shot clock, and football introduced pass interference, to force players to stop screwing around trying to beat the system and play. I still think James’ rule- you may change pitchers once, then only if injury occurs, an inning ends, or a run scores- goes a long way to fixing baseball ills.