By John Burbridge firstname.lastname@example.org
There was a time when baseball was two words — “Base” “Ball”.
This was back during the game’s infancy. We’re talking pre-Civil War era.
If you ever have a hankering to travel back in time, take in a vintage base ball game. They’re popular in pockets around the country, including Northwest Indiana where the Deep River Grinders have ruled the roost since forming in 1991 … or would that be 1858?
Rules from the latter date are employed for the Grinders’ games, which disallow sliding, swearing, spitting, base stealing, bunting, leading off and arguing with the umpire, who — in tune with the theatrical setting these novelty contests invoke — is often decked out with a top hat and ringmaster tuxedo.
Other vintage rules forbid gloves for fielders as well as for strikers (hitters). First basemen, second basemen and first basemen must play within five feet of the base they’ve been assigned, and outfielders may only play straight-away. Umpires have the authority to levy 25-cent fines — big money back then — if the aforementioned position players cheat just a little NSE or W. The game, however, wasn’t completely shift-free as the “rover” (what today would be considered a shortstop) was free rove around both sides of the infield.
Well short of cutthroat, base ball was a gentlemanly game. Hurlers (pitchers) didn’t throw lane-changing sliders and/or chin-music fastballs. Instead, their lightly tossed offerings were underhanded while trying to abide to the striker’s request of where he’d like the ball placed to best accommodate his wheelhouse.
During breaks in the action at Deep River Grinders’ games, Gentleman Jim Basala, who often serves as the umpire, would conduct question-and-answer sessions with the cranks (fans) in attendance. He would explain why a ground ball that bounded well out of fair territory before reaching third or first base is still in play if it had been hit into fair territory right off the bat. He would also explain why runners legging it down to first base needed to stop on a dime on the bag if not advancing any further to avoid being tagged out.
These were several early flaws in the game that were eventually ironed out during the subsequent century and a half.
This begs to wonder … considering “Base” “Ball”’s long evolution, is there any further room for improvement for the game?
The late great Earl Weaver would sometimes muse about how a grounder hit to the shortstop — or “rover” — fielded correctly and followed with a good throw will get a hustling baserunner by a step and a half most every time.
“I’m amazed how they came up with the perfect dimensions and distances,” Weaver would say.
These dimensions and distances and rules have come forth from a 170-year-old wrought process that has shaped the game into what can be considered its ultimate form. Sure, they recently allowed pitchless intentional walks to speed up the game and instant replay that, conversely, tends to grind the action to a halt. But the most significant alterations have already been made.
As for the younger American-bred sports — basketball and (American) football — they’re still experiencing growing pains. Just about every year there are new wrinkles to their respective rule books. Some to the consternation of “old school” fans — a.k.a. the “real” cranks.
Recent changes have been instituted to protect quarterbacks and receivers unable to protect themselves, and to prevent post defenders from clogging up the lane while allowing guards to take over the game.
There will likely be more forthcoming changes to basketball and football. Some permanent. Some temporary. But if I could impose one universal rule change to both sports for the better, it would be that only players on the court or in the field — not on the bench or sidelines — are allowed to call timeouts.
At some levels both sports have flirted with such a rule. The National Federation of High Schools allowed for only players to call timeouts until it gave the power back to the coaches in 2004.
College basketball allows only players to call timeouts during live-ball action, but ruled three years ago that coaches may call timeouts during in-bounds plays with their team in possession.
Especially at the high school and college levels — where sports are extensions of the classroom — giving players the sole responsibility of calling timeouts could only aid the learning process while building leadership skills.
Too often when a pressured ball handler gets into trouble in basketball, his or her coach will bail them out with a timeout called from 50-odd-feet away. That’s a decision the addled player — or one of his or her on-court teammates — should have to make.
Such a setting will likely add more instances of conflict, beratement and remonstrance between coach and player. But chances are many of these players are going to be in situations during their adult lives where they will have to make quick and crucial decisions on site while going over the heads of non-present superiors and later accept responsibility for them.
I’m sure not everyone will agree with my proposal of stripping coaches of their timeout calling abilities — most likely coaches. But maybe a few Kansas City Chiefs fans will concur.