Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2019

Change Is Always Hard For Some

Is nothing sacred? That is the question jousting fans are asking this week, following word that the English Heritage Trust, the British charity that manages over 400 historical monuments and buildings, including a number of medieval castles, is testing video review technology for jousting tournaments held at its sites. The idea is that a sport in which competitors charge at each other on horseback at speeds up to 30 miles per hour and score points by striking the shield or helmet of their opponent with a 12 foot lance will gain more accurate scoring if it doesn’t rely on the vision of the tournament’s referee, officially known as the Knight Marshall, to correctly judge the location of every hit.

Those readers who think the idea of 21st century technology being employed in support of a 14th century martial game is On Sports and Life’s idea of a joke should consider that the Trust has taken up the campaign of the International Jousting Association, which has been trying for more than a decade to have jousting included in the Olympic Games. Given that next year in Tokyo the Summer Games will include medals for trampoline and rock climbing, the success of that effort is surely only a matter of time.

Clearly jousting has come a long way since those ancient days when the king alone chose the winner. On the bright side, there are probably fewer bodies to bury at the end of each tournament. Still fans of a sport that dates back seven hundred years are likely to be wedded to the game’s traditions, and thus might not take kindly to change. Which means it’s probably best if jousting faithful, in whatever numbers they exist, are not told about what’s happening on the fringes of another sport this season.

By comparison baseball is positively newfangled, having been played in a form today’s fans would recognize only since the Civil War era, meaning the bloody American conflict and not the War of the Roses. But just like the jousting faithful, many fans of the Great Game are steadfastly resistant to change. Yet while the traditionalists are numerous, their voices are but a distant murmur compared to the loud cries of various paid pundits who have decided that baseball must take steps to speed up play and attract younger fans or face certain demise.

Over the last two winters MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has responded to these demands by suggesting a variety of possible changes to both the rules and less formalized procedures of the game at the major league level. Manfred’s ideas have sometimes been made formally, while others have appeared to be little more than out loud musings to a member of the press. But so far, the changes implemented have been minor. There is, at least in theory, less time allowed between innings and for a relief pitcher to warm up. Once in the batter’s box, hitters are supposed to stay there rather than stepping out and going through a routine of adjusting their batting gloves or helmet or whatever between every pitch. Except for an injury or to make a pitching change, visits to the mound by a catcher or pitching coach are now also limited. This tinkering has slightly reduced the average length of a major league game, though the time saved is often lost to that most modern of game delaying events, video review of an umpire’s call. Jousters take note.

In pursuit of more radical change, this season Manfred found a willing guinea pig in the clubs of the Atlantic League. The Atlantic is an independent minor league which last year celebrated its 20th anniversary. The league currently has eight teams, most of which are located along the eastern seaboard, thus giving the Atlantic its name. Without formal ties to MLB or any of its teams, the league is typically a home for young players not quite good enough to attract even a minor league contract offer from an MLB franchise, and for older players, a few of which have major league experience, hoping for one more chance at The Show. It is best described as a league where fading dreams refuse to die.

But the Atlantic’s lack of affiliation has made it a perfect laboratory for testing potential changes. MLB doesn’t have to worry about negotiating new rules with the Players Association, and the consistency of the game across all the affiliated minor leagues is maintained. For the league itself, the three-year agreement with MLB to test various new rules ensures a shot of always welcome publicity.

So, this year in little ballparks from New Britain, Connecticut, down through Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland to High Point, North Carolina and the one outlier outpost in Sugar Land, Texas, Atlantic League teams are playing a slightly different version of the Great Game.

A robot umpire, a more colorful term than radar technology, is being used to call balls and strikes. Unless the side is retired or there is an injury, pitchers are required to face at least three batters, and mound visits aren’t just limited, they’re eliminated. Infield shifts, the bane of many fans, are restricted by a rule that requires two infielders be positioned on either side of second base. Home plate remains unchanged, but the other three bases are all bigger by three inches per side. One foul bunt is permitted with two strikes, and, as of midseason, batters are now allowed to steal first base if it’s open and a pitch gets away from the catcher.

That last one, introduced after the league’s recent All-Star Game, has quickly gone to the top of the traditionalists’ hate list, despite not being that radical. The rule simply expands to every pitch of an at-bat what a hitter can already do when a third strike is dropped. But the heated reaction to the change is a reminder of how hard it will be to implement many of these proposals in the majors.

Yet individually the changes all seem small, and even collectively they don’t make Atlantic League games unrecognizable to any baseball fan. If they help to speed up the game, and perhaps add a touch more traditional offense, meaning hits and base running strategy, it’s hard to see the danger to the sport’s integrity.

On the other hand next season the Atlantic League may experiment with moving the pitching rubber back two feet from the 60 feet 6 inches it has been from home plate since the Great Game’s earliest days. Now that would be radical. Next thing you know jousters will be using pool noodles instead of lances.

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Responses

  1. I had to laugh at your idea of Jousters using pool noodles. Perhaps they could reduce injuries and liven up the Tournies by switching to Shetland ponies (not as far to fall).

    We have been to several Pacifics’ games over the last few years where they used a Robo Ump. Eric Byrnes brought the Pitch/FX system to the park and it was a wonderful experience.

    Change is hard in any field, but it is a constant force of Nature.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I knew you had seen the Robo Umps in action. The union for the men in blue may not like it, but I suspect we’ll be seeing it in big league parks within the next few years. As for the Shetland ponies, as soon as I find the address for the Heritage Trust I intend to pass that excellent suggestion on!

      M-


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