|The New League|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on September 09, 2009
Just a few months ago the New Jersey Devils, years removed from last seriously challenging for a championship, re-hired Jacques Lemaire -- but his neutral zone trap won't work again. After losing an entire season to a lockout in 2004-2005, the NHL, having lost most of its (American) fan base and facing extinction, finally put obstruction tactics out of business. The league made several major rule changes -- eliminating two-line pass offsides, penalizing a team for icing by not permitting it to change lines, widening the area behind the net, regulating the size of goaltenders' equipment -- that all were aimed at opening up and speeding up the game.
That was just one example; fairly major rule changes get made in the NBA and the NFL every couple of years, too. Every major sport's governors tinker with the rules from time to time, trying to improve the quality of the entertainment they're delivering -- except Major League Baseball. Major League Baseball reveres its rulebook with an almost religious fervor.
And that's its weakness.
I don't mean its weakness relative to other sports. I mean that Major League Baseball, because of its refusal to change anything except its public relations on performance enhancing drugs, is, I believe, particularly vulnerable to competition from a different league.
If you're going to run a league playing the same sport as an already entrenched league, there is only one rule. It's so important that it dwarfs all other considerations.
You MUST offer a different product from your much larger competitor, within the same basic framework.
It still has to be recognizable as the sport you're presenting, of course -- but it needs to be different enough in the way the game is played on the field that even a casual fan can quickly tell the difference, and can relate it to his buddies in a sentence. The American League, way back in 1901, presented itself as the family-friendly baseball league; it outlawed the various forms of ruffianism that dominated National League baseball at that time. It almost instantly surpassed the National League in popularity. The AFL was a faster-paced, more passing-oriented game than the NFL of the 1960s presented; it was highly successful. The ABA. Canadian or Arena League Football, the latter of which is now defunct but was modestly successful for a while. Even right now, looking at Ultimate Fighting Championship's meteoric rise to displace boxing as the American bloodsport of choice is instructive.
I'm convinced that, if properly funded and with its rules set up to foster a different brand of baseball than Major League Baseball is selling -- not just different, but more exciting for many fans and athletes -- it could take off. It wouldn't overtake Major League Baseball, but it would do well enough to keep itself in business, and ESPN wouldn't be able to ignore it for long.
I'd like to propose that league to you today.
I don't know what to call it; I've sat on this idea for a few weeks now trying and failing to come up with a suitable name. Probably it would start in a particular part of the country, like most minor leagues did, and might name itself accordingly, but I doubt it; when a league's plan from its inception is to attempt to compete directly with the established major league in that sport, it almost always names itself federally: The American League. Before that, the Union Association. The Federal League. The United States Football League, and the World Football League. American Football League; American Basketball Association. With baseball coming up with a suitable name is tricky; both American and National Leagues are already taken (unlike the other major sports) and Federal League, the other attractive option, has already been tried. There's no law against using the name 'Federal League' if you want to, but one presumes the financial backers of such a league wouldn't want to give it a name vaguely associated with failure, even if it was long ago.
So for now, pending a better idea coming in, we'll just call it the New League. Now let's discuss the rules and the effects we intend them to have.
Firstly, let me make clear that we're starting from Major League Baseball's rules and working from there. Anything not addressed in this space should be assumed to be remaining as Major League Baseball currently governs it. The bases are still 90 feet apart, the batters' box and foul lines are still as usual, the ball is still white and the bats are still wood, etc. It's still fundamentally baseball. Everything we discuss below are rules unique to the New League that make it different from Major League Baseball.
RULES GOVERNING THE FIELD OF PLAY
Each Club must maintain its outfield fences at a minimum distance of 350 feet to each foul pole, 390 feet to the gaps, and 440 feet to center field.
Each Club must allow for no more than 30 feet of foul territory along the baselines, no more than 60 feet behind the plate. In the event seating cannot be placed that close to the field, an appropriate fence must be constructed to restrict the size of foul territory.
The pitcher's mound shall be located 62 feet, 6 inches from home plate. It shall be 10 inches off the ground, and the slope of the mound shall be uniform and toward home plate.
Maintenance of the playing surface shall be the responsibility of the League, and each Club shall pay an appropriate amount set by the League to provide this maintenance. Natural grass fields shall be kept cut as short as possible. (Turf fields are allowable, in the unlikely event any Club wishes to use one.)
RULES GOVERNING ROSTERS AND SUBSTITUTIONS
Each Club shall maintain an active roster consisting of 23 players. The 15 day and 60 day Disabled List shall operate as they do in Major League Baseball.
No pitcher may be substituted for until either (a) he has completed the inning in which he entered the game, or (b) he has allowed two runs chargeable to him (i.e., not inherited runners.)
The manager may use a Designated Hitter to bat in place of the pitcher if he so chooses.
There is no draft, of course. Any Club may sign any player to a contract that it chooses and is able to.
RULES CONCERNING EQUIPMENT
The bat handle may be no less than one inch in diameter. Any batter determined to be using an illegal bat shall be called out and ejected from the game.
No padding or protection of any kind may be worn by the batter on any part of his arms except optional batting gloves. Any batter determined to be wearing illegal protective devices shall be called out and ejected from the game.
RULES CONCERNING OFFICIATING
There shall be four umpires calling all games, one assigned to each base.
The strike zone shall extend the width of the plate and from the batter's armpits to the bottom of his knees. Existing technology shall be used to determine balls and strikes*; the home plate umpire shall announce the result.
* I don't know enough about the specifics of the technology the TV networks, Questec, and such use, but certainly it's there.
A replay official, assigned by the league from the pool of umpires, shall be present at all games and shall have instant replay tools available to him at all times. Upon the home plate umpire's request, the replay official shall take no more than 90 seconds to review and make a final, binding ruling on the following: (a) Fair/foul calls; (b) Home run/not home run calls; (c) Out/safe calls at home plate.
Official Scorers shall be employees of the League and shall be assigned by the League.
RULES CONCERNING PLAY ON THE FIELD
Each Club is alloted one timeout per game, 90 seconds in length, to be used at the manager's discretion. Except during a Club timeout, no manager or coach is permitted to leave the dugout at any time, except that the manager may enter the field to make substitutions without using his Club's timeout. Any manager or coach unlawfully entering the playing field is subject to immediate ejection and fine by the League.
An umpire may call timeout at his discretion at any time; however, no umpire shall call timeout unless a player on the field is under obvious duress.
The delay between innings shall be no more than 90 seconds.
Once the batter has entered the batter's box and the umpire has signaled for the at-bat to begin, the batter may not step outside the batter's box until the at-bat has concluded. A batter determined to have stepped outside the box shall be penalized one strike, and called out if there are already two strikes against him.
From the moment he receives the ball from the catcher, the pitcher is alloted 15 seconds to take his next action. The 15 second clock shall reset when the pitcher throws a pitch, throws to a base or steps off the mound. The clock shall be operated by a League official in the League booth, and shall notify the home plate umpire when it has expired; the home plate umpire shall then declare the ball dead and award a ball to the batter.
A pitcher may step off the rubber without throwing to any base and thus reset the 15 second clock once per inning, and once he has determined not to throw to any base, he shall immediately return to the rubber. The 15 second clock shall resume the moment the pitcher touches the rubber.
A pitcher may throw to a base other than home only twice per inning, except that successfully putting a runner out shall not count against him. Each subsequent throw to a base without putting a runner out shall accrue a ball for the batter.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF THESE RULES?
Very simply -- the New League will play fast-tempo baseball. With the mound moved back slightly and the strike zone called honestly by lasers, the New League will feature fewer strikeouts (because of the thicker bat handles and mound being moved back) and fewer walks (because of the real strike zone) than Major League Baseball, and also many fewer home runs (because of the thicker bat handles, the fences being so far away, and the real strike zone basically eliminating the opposite-field home run). The result will be many, many more balls in play. This is a good thing for many casual fans -- home runs, strikeouts and walks are passive things that involve players walking or jogging about. Balls in play are active things that involve players running, throwing and catching -- in short, being athletes. Athleticism will be premium in the New League; teams will of necessity seek the most athletic players they can find. Defense will be much more important than it is in Major League Baseball.
Another set of rules (batters not being permitted to step out of the box, pitchers not being permitted to dawdle or waste time throwing to bases, pitching coaches not being permitted to come out and waste time so a reliever can warm up, pitching changes mid-inning being restricted), to borrow the quote from Bill James, whose idea many of those rules are, tell the players and managers in no uncertain terms to "stop messing around and play baseball." I am amazed Major League baseball refuses to address its obvious problem of there being far too much standing around doing nothing during games. It's almost invariably the first reason cited by fans of other sports for why they don't care for baseball.
The New League will be so much faster-paced than Major League baseball the difference will be instantaneous and eye-popping. I expect scoring levels in the New League will be about the same as Major League Baseball's -- few home runs, true, but many balls in play and a huge field will result in many more hits and 8-5 type scores -- yet their games will usually be completed in two and a half hours, sometimes less. This is a good thing.
Some of these rules will likely need to be tweaked as we go along, but that's okay. Do you know how much the National League tinkered with its rules during the 1880-1895 period? All the time. For a while it took nine balls to walk somebody, and for a year they tried having a foul ball on two strikes count as a strikeout. (Scoring evaporated, as you might expect.) Anyway, we won't need to do anything that drastic, but we might discover that two feet's distance from the mound to home plate is not enough to make a difference -- or perhaps even that it's too far. But that's fine; we can alter the rules as we go to bring about the kind of baseball we want, which is baseball chock-full of singles, doubles and triples.
23 man roster instead of 25 -- the effect of that is also simple and predictable. It will discourage specialization, which once again is a good thing. Players with several skills are fun to watch, generally more so than a player with only one skill; that kind of player is only fun to watch if the one skill is absolutely awesome (Ryan Howard's power.) There will be less substituting, driving up the value of players who don't need substituted for in any obvious situations.
What kind of players will the New League attract? Aside from the same sorts the indy leagues already employ, there's real potential here for the New League to catch on quickly enough to draw some real athletes -- guys who don't play MLB but might wash out of the NFL or NBA, very fast, very athletic guys who otherwise don't really know how to play baseball but certainly have the athleticism do. The quality of the players will of course be nowhere near Major League Baseball's -- but that in no way means the sport itself can't be just as or more entertaining. (Example: High school football.) My opinion is that there are plenty enough athletes going around to populate the New League with relatively cheap players who play the kind of fast-paced baseball the New League plays -- and not only that, but it could land some real prospects too. A guy like Gorkys Hernandez, a 21 year old uber-athlete center fielder in the
I also suspect the New League could do very well seeking out and recruiting the best Latin American athletes, the price tags on which are still very low by baseball standards.
There are many other logistics to creating a new baseball league that are beyond the scope of this article and beyond my expertise anyway. What cities would you play in, for instance? Well, you'd play in some of the same cities Major League Baseball does -- New York could probably support three teams, and if I was starting a baseball league I'd definitely put two teams there. Chicago can support another team, Philadelphia can, you could probably succeed in Pittsburgh if you put a team that wins once in a while there, and AAA Cities like Buffalo, Columbus, and Trenton would be likely targets -- and that's just in the northeast. There's no lack of cities capable of supporting a strong independent league team, and though they might try, the Major League owners would not likely be able to stop them from moving in. They can stop another Major League team from entering their territory and trying to sell the same product under the same brand name (Major League Baseball) -- but there's no law I know of that will help them chase out competition selling the same product under a different brand name. There are Nathan's hot dog stands all over New York, but Nathan's can't stop you from opening Monte Cristo's Hot Dog Stand there and competing with them.
Anyway, I'm sure the Yankees would fight tooth and nail to keep an independent league team the hell out of New York, and obviously they have a lot of resources -- so unless the New League has very strong financial backing, it may not be worth its while to fight its way in. But I would certainly want to try, because putting teams in the big markets will go a long, long way toward getting your product noticed -- and, to at least a large subset of American sports fans, the New League would be selling a better product than Major League Baseball, simply by virtue of its players running around while Major League players are standing or jogging around.
So, anyone out there got a couple hundred million bucks and looking for a business idea?