With the exception of basketball, every major sport we know and love today is the result of a previous sport yielding to a rule change or new gameplay mechanic that so fundamentally altered the game it evolved from that an entirely new sport was born. Rounders became baseball, soccer generated rugby as a spinoff, which then grew into American football, and ice hockey is what field hockey became when it moved to Canada and lived through a few winters there.
In the independent Atlantic League, Major League Baseball is testing some rule changes that are so weird and wacky that the game itself is beginning to resemble Calvinball from the old “Calvin and Hobbes” comics.
Case in point: an experimental rule allowing players to “steal first base,” which happened for the first time Saturday during a game in Waldorf, Maryland.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Tony Thomas made history with his run to first base after a pitch went past Lancaster Barnstormers catcher Anderson De La Rosa in the sixth inning:
That theft of first base was made possible by a new rule that a passed ball or wild pitch is, functionally, a dropped third strike, but only if the batter wants it to be (unless, of course, it was an actual dropped third strike).
That is to say, if the batter remains in the batter’s box, like a baserunner staying on first base rather than trying to steal second, no play is created and no out is risked.
But once the batter leaves the box, it’s ollie-ollie oxen free, let the madness begin and woe betide the catcher who cannot retrieve the ball in sufficiently short order to then throw the batter out.
Blue Crabs broadcaster Andrew Bandstra said some players have been hesitant to steal first because it’s scored as a fielder’s choice and thus lowers their batting average.
“A lot of guys weren’t so interested in doing it, but that has caused catchers to be very lackadaisical,” Bandstra said, according to The Washington Times. “They don’t sprint back to get a passed ball with nobody on. They just kind of watch it.
“Tony Thomas decided that he was gonna take advantage of it.”
Thomas said he “tried to find a way to get our team on base, and the opportunity presented itself. It wasn’t something I thought about going into it. But when I saw the ball stuck underneath the backdrop, I knew [they] had no shot at getting me out at first base, so I took off and went.”
— SoMD Blue Crabs (@BlueCrabs) July 14, 2019
As USA Today points out, this rule adds a layer of strategic depth to baseball by creating a risk-reward choice. A batter facing a shift, for example, could simply bunt the ball down the line into unoccupied infield territory and easily snag an infield hit, but so far hitters have been stubbornly pulling balls right into the shift for easy outs because they want that chance at a home run.
Which, speaking of defeating the shift, the Atlantic League has something for that too. A batter who bunts foul on two strikes is supposed to be out, but a new rule allows the batter to get away with it the first time. It is only on the second unsuccessful bunt into foul territory that the batter is declared out.
This should, in theory, make it easier to defeat the shift with the bunt as you don’t have to get it right the first time.
Other ideas to make their debut in the Atlantic League include “robot umpires” — effectively, letting something like the PitchF/x system used to show home viewers where the ball crossed the plate serve as an arbiter of balls and strikes, taking both the human error of a bad call and the more insidious tendency of some umpires to draw strike zones that look like gerrymandered congressional districts out of the game and making the rules the same for every player, every at-bat, in every game.
Baseball has also tried pitch clocks in hopes of getting pitchers who usually take between-pitch breaks that could be confused for rain delays to throw the baseball and keep things moving.
Topping it all off, pitchers are also finding themselves required to step off the rubber before completing a pickoff throw, which should, in theory, give baserunners sufficient time to react that they can lead a lot farther out and steal a lot more bases as a result.
But the idea of a batter stealing first? Purists will say “that ain’t baseball.”
Maybe the purists are right. Maybe what we’re witnessing is, like enterprising Americans taking rugby and adding things like downs and forward passes, the dawn of a whole new sport.
Whatever it is, it’s not likely to evoke any neutral opinions.
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