With his tenure as the game's czar expected to end after the 2012 season, Selig stated that the new version of baseball will begin with the 2013 season, giving franchises and players time to prepare for the drastic changes ahead. "We're going to change the way the game is played on the field," Selig declared. "The rules will be different, and so will the way they are enforced. We can freeze everything that has happened in baseball history up to that time, and let people spend the rest of their lives sorting it out if they wish. Meanwhile, the rest of us--owners, players, and fans--can move on to the new version which will create its own history and records."
At the winter meetings, Selig and company hashed out sweeping changes in the game, starting with its organization. The current two-league, six-division system will be replaced by four eight-team leagues, arranged along geographical lines. The four league winners will participate in the playoffs; in the first round, the team with the best record will face the team with the worst record.
The new season will consist of 160 games. Each team will play 16 games against each league rival. The remaining 48 games games will be played against the eight teams from another league, with the pairings rotating from year to year. Doubleheaders will be scheduled for nine Sundays plus the three national holidays, cutting the regular season by two weeks. The first two weeks of the season will be played in the warm-climate cities, even if it means starting the season with some inter-league series.
"The new streamlined schedule, plus limiting the post-season to two best-of-seven series, should please the fans," Selig said. "Starting in warmer climates will mean fewer April postponements, and ending the World Series by mid-October should make it more likely that the most meaningful games of the season will be played in what we think of as baseball weather, not hockey weather."
The changes also addressed one of baseball's perennial problems, namely the owners' inability to avoid overspending. "There will be no salary cap," Selig announced, "but we will limit all contracts to two years. That's right. Teams will no longer be saddled with ridiculous long-term contracts for players who can't play any more. We are also doing away with the practice of one team paying the contract for a player who has been traded to another team. How that conflict of interest has existed for so long is a travesty. Players can be signed for one year or two years, that's it. If every season, or every other season, is a 'contract year,' players won't be able to loaf."
Marvin Miller, who runs the players' union, endorsed the new system on several counts. Yearly bidding wars will keep salaries relatively high, and players--especially younger players who are currently tied to their team for several years with no resource besides salary arbitration--will have more flexibility in playing where they want to play. In addition to new jobs being created by expansion, rosters will be increased to 26 players, another boost to the work force and a trade-off for the long-overdue elimination of the designated hitter.
All of these organizational changes, however, pale in comparison to the new look for the game on the field envisioned by Selig and the owners. "We're making major changes in the basic game of baseball," Selig beamed, "trying to maintain a reasonable balance between offense and defense while making sure nobody confuses this game with the old one. Some things won't change--nine men on a side, nine innings--but we're going to build even more on the game's sacred number: nine."
Indeed, "9" will impact the basic dimensions of the game. "Budball" will now feature a distance of 89 feet between bases and 59 feet from the pitcher's rubber to home plate. In addition, each team will get 29 outs in a nine-inning game. The "extra" two outs will be at the discretion of the manager of the team at bat. Do you use an extra batter in the early innings with the bases loaded, or do you wait until the late innings if the game is on the line? Those extra two outs aren't sacred. If the defensive team turns a double play with two outs, it can take away one of the extra outs. Losing an out will also be also a penalty for a manager getting ejected. More on that later.
"We'll be making a lot of changes, some of which favor the defense and some the offense. Obviously the key change is shortening the pitching distance," Selig conceded. "This is going to give the pitcher an advantage, especially with his fastball, though it will cut down a little on the room for a curveball to break. They'll need a faster pitch with a break, which means the spitball. Ford Frick tried to bring back the spitball fifty years ago, and we're going to do it. The truth is that pitchers have been throwing spitballs all along, and we've been allowing it, so it's time to rid ourselves of the charade that we're stopping it."
Selig pinpointed the current rule prohibiting pitchers from "going to their mouths" while standing on the pitching mound as the silliest farce in the game. "All it means is that they have to walk onto the infield grass to moisten their fingers. It's just a waste of time. Not only that, a pitcher can stand on the mound and wipe the sweat off his forehead or his neck to achieve the same effect without breaking the rule. So why pretend? Let 'em throw a wet ball. Of course, they'd better be able to control it."
That brought Selig to the next rule change: batters hit by a pitch get two bases. Hit a batter with a runner on second, and now you have runners on second and third. Hit him above the shoulders and it's three bases. Break a bone and it will bring a two-week suspension. However, a batter who leans into a pitch and "allows" himself to get hit by it will be out, and no padding on elbows and arms will be allowed except for a limited number of games when a player is returning from a specific injury.
Other new rules relating to pitchers are:
- No more intentional walks. Pitchers must pitch to all batters.
- Relief pitchers have to face at least two batters, unless they record two outs during the first batter's at-bat. This will reduce the parade of relievers which slows so many games down, and will encourage managers to encourage their pitchers to retire both right- and left-handed batters.
- No more fake pickoffs. If a pitcher steps off the rubber, he has to throw to a base. This policy alone should speed up games by several minutes.
- Only three warmup pitches between innings. This will move the game along faster and hel pitchers save their arms for pitches that count. Currently, a starting pitcher who throws 80 pitches in six innings has also thrown 48 warmup tosses. Cut out 30 warmups, and more starters will be able to pitch into the 7th and 8th innings.
- Only the catcher will be able to visit the pitcher on the mound, and only once per inning.
Only a couple of things will be different regarding baserunners. Strategies for stealing bases should remain stable, with the shorter distance the runner has to cover compensated for by the reduced distances of the pitch to home and the catcher's throw to a base. "We'll see how that goes," Selig said. "If the balance shifts dramatically one way or the other, we'll do something. We can put limits on the number of pickoff attempts, or we can limit the size of a runner's lead. Stealing should remain an important part of this game."
The biggest change for runners will involve double-play attempts. "We have to close up the loopholes at second base," Selig declared, "if only because the shorter distance is going to mean that the runner from first will arrive there sooner." The "phantom play" will be eliminated, with the rule requiring the fielder to have his foot on the base when catching the ball strictly enforced. The runner trying to break up the double play, however, will have to slide with at least one foot crossing the bag. "In other words," Selig explained, "no more flinging yourself four feet wide of the base to take out the fielder while stretching a finger out to graze the bag. If you can get yourself to second base in time to take out the fielder with a good, hard slide across the bag, good for you. We don't want to discourage hustling. But if the fielder receives the throw in time to move away from the bag, he deserves to make that throw without a runner who's already out exposing him to injury. It's going to be tougher to turn two anyway. Give 'em a chance."
Some of the biggest changes in the game will involve officiating. Balls and strikes will be called automatically by Questec or whatever the state-of-the-art machine is at the time. This will eliminate the need for pitchers and batters to adjust every day to each umpire's version of the strike zone. A pitch in a certain spot will be called the same way in the first inning and the ninth inning. "Consistency and fairness are the goals," said Selig, adding that "relieving the umpire of the burden of making a split-second decision on whether a 96mph fastball is on the black or three inches outside will allow him to focus more on his other duties, like judging check swings and whether batters are trying to avoid getting hit by the pitch."
More importantly, all calls will be subject to instant replay. However, managers will not be allowed to argue. In fact, they won't be allowed to leave the dugout at all. To make a pitching change, a manager will simply call time and wave his pitcher off the mound. To challenge a call, he will call time before the next pitch and throw a red flag out of the dugout. "Most of the time," said Selig, "it will be obvious what the issue is. If not, the home plate umpire will go over and ask. There won't be any arguments. Players on the field won't have to argue. If they disagree with a call, they merely have to indicate it to the manager in the dugout, who will already have someone watching replays somewhere who will let him know whether he has a legitimate beef."
There will be no limit on the number of challenges a manager can make. However, if he loses two challenges, he is automatically ejected from the game, and his team loses one of its extra outs. If a coach is subsequently put in charge, he doesn't get a free ride. One lost challenge and he's gone too. "The idea is to get the calls right," Selig insisted. "If the umps make five mistakes that go against the same team, they shouldn't be penalized for having to make five challenges. But they can't abuse it or they're gone."
Another wrinkle in the instant replay rule will counter critics who insist that the process slows the game down, especially for fans at the ballpark who are forced to sit around while someone in a booth somewhere figures out what just happened. To make up for that, for each minute taken up in reviewing plays, the protesting team's entire roster must remain on the field after the game signing autographs for the same period of time.
"All in all," Selig beamed, "we think it will be a faster, more streamlined game if we can stop all the time-wasting and get more action on the field." He admitted that the key unknown is how the 59-foot pitching distance might affect the game's balance. "We think that the pitcher's advantage will be balanced first of all by the shorter distance for the batter to run to first base, and by the infielders being stationed closer to the plate, making it easier to hit the ball past them. But we'll see. The important thing is that we're trying."