Major League Baseball is making plans to ban something I call The Groan play. If the ban clears all the bureaucratic hurdles, it won’t be a minute too soon.
The Groan Play?
It is used by a pitcher when there are runners on the corners. He fakes a pickoff to third before turning around and making a half-hearted lob to first base. Whenever it fails to surprise the baserunner at first – and I’ve never, ever seen it surprise the baserunner at first – I groan.
Hence, The Groan Play.
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It was because of The Groan Play that former pitcher Rick Sutcliffe became a serial time-killer. I still can hear the pain in the voice of Harry Caray, the Cubs’ late Hall-of-Fame broadcaster, describing Sutcliffe’s fake pickoff to third and half-hearted lob to first.
“Aww, c’mon Sut,” Harry would grumble. “There’s a hitter at the plate. Throw it to that guy! Yeesh.”
Beginning next season, according to a proposal approved by the Players Rules Committee and supported by both MLB executives and the umpires, The Groan Play will be called a balk and, thus, eliminated. I see this as progress.
Baseball, as great a game as it is, should not be beyond some rulebook tweaks to make it an even better game.
Toward that end, I’ve got some suggestions.
• Limit the number of times a pitcher and catcher can confer on the mound to, say, once an inning. They need to make sure they’re in cohesion with their signs? There’s a place where the pitcher and catcher can talk over these things. It’s called the dugout.
• If a hitter loses his grip on the bat and it helicopters into the stands, he’s out. Little Leaguers are called out when their bats are not properly dropped, and those are just kids learning the ropes. A professional hitter should be able to control his bat.
• If a hitter’s bat shatters, he’s also out. I know, big-league bats are wooden, and wood breaks. But a hitter has an almost unlimited variety of bats he can choose – ash, maple, thin handles, thick handles – and some are more durable than others. Thin-handled sticks, for instance, generate power by increasing bat speed but are susceptible to shattering on an inside fastball.
When a catcher’s mitt makes contact with a bat, the batter takes first base per catcher’s interference. It’s a sound rule, but nobody sustains a life-threatening injury when a mitt impedes a bat.
But when a bat shatters – when exploding shards find the pitcher and the infielders ducking for safety and clearly too distracted to make a play – it’s just business as usual. How crazy is that?
If a “batter’s interference” call is enforced, hitters will be more prone to using bats that don’t shatter on impact.
• Change the rule about a dropped third strike giving a batter a chance to reach first. I’ve never understood the logic of rewarding a hitter who has failed. I’ve never understood how an essential tenet of baseball – three strikes, you’re out – has an asterisk attached. (*You’re out unless the catcher fails to hold on to strike three.)
The idea, I suppose, is to prevent pitchers from throwing junkballs in the dirt on two-strike counts. But a hitter who bites on a two-strike junkball in the dirt does not deserve a race to first base.
Here’s a proposal: Regard the dropped third strike as a foul ball. The pitcher is guilty of throwing a wild pitch, or the catcher is guilty of a passed ball, but either way, the batter who just struck out doesn’t end up on first base until he earns first base.
The 1941 World Series famously turned on the dropped third strike of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen. Instead of losing a game that would’ve evened the Fall Classic at 2-2, the Yankees – with nobody on in the top of the ninth, and two out – pushed four runs across the plate to take control of a Series they won the next day.
Mickey Owen was a four-time All-Star and a Navy veteran of World War II. After his playing career he worked as a scout, opened a baseball school, and served, for 17 years, as a county sheriff in Missouri.
The New York Times headline for his 2005 obituary: “Mickey Owen Dies at 89; Allowed Fateful Passed Ball.”
Dumb rule. Change it.
• Score fly balls lost in the sun as “team errors.” The absurd tradition of counting routine fly balls as hits affects statistics on two fronts: It inflates the ERA of pitchers who succeeded, and inflates the batting average of hitters who didn’t.
• Finally, a rule regarding style: Starting pitchers who walk off the mound to a standing ovation after a reliever has been summoned must either acknowledge the applause, or face a 50-day suspension.
How difficult is it to put two fingers on the bill of a baseball cap and tip it an inch or two? It’s a universal gesture meaning “thanks,” and requires much less energy than faking a pickoff to third, before lobbing the ball to first.
“Sometimes,” a losing starting pitcher typically laments when he can’t pinpoint the specifics of what went wrong, “you’ve just gotta tip your hat to the other team.”
No, you don’t. The hell with the other team.
Tip your hat to the fans who stood up and cheered for you.