Don Mattingly had endured the worst and best of the summer of 2020, having navigated a coronavirus outbreak in his clubhouse and also leading the Miami Marlins to their first postseason in 17 years. He went home after two rounds. Thoughts of the game, the season and all that came with them still fresh, he turned on his television to learn how it would turn out.
Baseball pushed through the health, competitive, labor and economic uncertainties well enough, proving itself ever resilient if not unflawed. It crowned a champion most agreed was worthy and legitimate. coronavirus cases diminished as players and other personnel grew familiar with and more dedicated to the protocols and lifestyle demands. On field, a series of rules adjustments — some subtle, others rather more drastic — were viewed as necessary given the national climate and in some cases lauded for their cleverness.
In the end, the players seemed weary and the owners let it be known they’d lost small fortunes because of the empty ballparks across the 60-game season, but they’d survived it. The vaccine was coming on the other side of winter and if we turned our heads just so and narrowed our eyes we could see a game that seemed, again, normal.
In the context of the games themselves, the nine-inning mini-dramas, the parts that comprise the whole of what the game was and is and would be, that should be comforting. Mattingly wondered, however. He was not alone.
“I watched a lot of the playoff games after we were eliminated and quite honestly it was a little hard to watch,” he said. “There was nothing going on. Innings go fast. Strikeout, strikeout, home run, a run. It was hard to watch. It tells me we have got to find a way to make our game move. And I don’t mean play faster games, I mean more action. I think that’s the way that we can create a better game and a better game to watch.”
A season played on the skinniest edge of a fungo bat, conducted alongside a series of mostly temporary regulations and resulting in a further amplification of three-true-outcome ball got Mattingly thinking about not a return to normal, but an advancement to better.
“Every time you do [a new rule] everybody complains — it’s changing the game, it’s changing the world — and then two weeks later nobody’s talking about it,” he said. “I’m just for anything that creates that action and makes our game a better game to watch.”
In a sign baseball is more open to change, major-league managers say they are in favor of permanently adopting rules implemented during the 2020 season — including the universal designated hitter, free baserunners during extra innings and the expanded postseason — according to a poll of 20 taken last week. Many added they would be agreeable to broader changes, including the banning of defensive shifts, in part because of lessons learned about the game — and themselves — from the summer of 2020.
Across 20 conversations, most of them Zoom calls, managers were reminded of the five rules instituted for ’20:
Universal designated hitter
“I certainly have been bullish on the old-school pitcher hits,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But I liked the DH. I really liked it.”
A runner placed at second base in each half of extra innings
“I think we’re getting some good, positive responses from our fans on that,” Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “There’s an excitement. I’ll tell you, from the dugout, it happened in our first series of the season. It was, like, wow, this is turning up the volume a little bit here. It was different, but it was exciting.”
“The seven-inning doubleheaders I’ve always thought makes a ton of sense for the health of the players, especially when you play them in the minor leagues,” Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said. “Why not just bring them into the big leagues? It’s a long day. You can really cash in a staff and a bullpen, strictly because of some weather problems. I think everybody’s on board with that.”
“I didn’t think I’d like the seven-inning doubleheader, I didn’t think,” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You know, because it’s more of a, you know, coming from an era of macho-ism, kinda. I mean, let’s see who’s the strongest here, mentally and physically. But, you know, when I look back upon it, it really served no point, other than being macho. You know what I mean? It wasn’t good for the players and it wasn’t good for the game.”
“I like that one,” Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black said. “Whether it’s 16 teams or 14 or whatever works, I do like the added clubs in there. I think it lends itself to more teams in a pennant race. And I like the two-out-of-three scenario as opposed to a one-game wild card. There’s a lot of variables along with that, if we have to knock 162 down a little bit to make this work in October.”
Three-batter minimum for relievers
This rule was established prior to the original regular season and intended to improve pace of play, enforcing the minimum except for cases of injury or the inning ending sooner.
“I never got over the three-batter minimum,” Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I haven’t gotten over the three-batter minimum yet.”
“The three-batter rule I thought would be extremely detrimental,” Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “It turned out to be not that big a deal. We challenged our pitchers to be versatile. You want to get both sides of the hitters out. There’s ways to escape that with the end of an inning. Again, I haven’t had the anxiety of bringing a guy in going, ‘Man, I hope he gets this lefty out before Mike Trout.’ Or, ‘I hope he gets this guy out before Mookie Betts.’ There’s some danger in that that I haven’t experienced yet.”
Which rules should stay?
The managers were asked which of those rules, regardless of season composition, they would make permanent. The first four rules received overwhelming approval — 19-1 or 18-2 — for continued usage. The three-batter rule was prefered by a 12-8 vote, though many managers granted it did not speed the game’s pace and admitted their own bullpens were less affected.
(Those rules, other than the three-batter minimum, which commissioner Rob Manfred unilaterally implemented per the collective bargaining agreement, would require agreement from the players’ union.)
The follow-up question: Which of the rules did you assume before the season you would dislike, but came to appreciate?
Eight managers mentioned the extra-inning procedures, six the universal designated hitter and five the three-batter minimum. Some managers said they’d warmed to more than one — or all — of the rules.
“I think that’s just human nature,” Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “No matter how open-minded we all want to be, when you hear something that’s completely out of the realm of normal, I don’t care who you are, part of you is thinking, ‘Ugh, I don’t know if that’s going to work.’ You’re not super excited about it. But ultimately most of them worked out fine and I think we’re going to continue to see these kinds of changes in the game and most of them I think are going to function just fine.”
In some cases, rules were favored with minor adjustments. In extra innings, for one, six managers believed that runners should be granted after the 10th or 11th innings. One — Maddon — said that if there were going to be free baserunners in extra innings, then bullpens should no longer be held to three-batter minimums.
The most creative proposal came from Rockies manager Black, who, in regard to the designated hitter spreading to the National League, suggested allowing the DH for as long as a starting pitcher is in the game. When the starting pitcher is removed, subsequent pitchers must hit for themselves or be hit for, thus dampening the recent trend of openers and bullpen games.
On the whole, and perhaps surprisingly, managers embraced the twists in a sport that often seems stuck in its past. People are slow to consider and/or accept change. Baseball seems slower than most. Maybe that’s because it is happy with itself as is. Maybe — the conclusion goes — that’s because older men, and older men run the game, are less inclined to see the game as anything other than what it always was, the version they played and loved and protect with every smoldering glower.
In 2020, the baseball community — owners, players, managers, coaches, league, union, media and fans — were forced to commit to something not a lot different, but a little different in a lot of areas. As a result, perhaps, not every future proposal will be met as an attack on the soul of the game.
“It’s a balancing act, right?” St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “You want to keep the integrity of the game and we hold onto it with our dear lives, but you look around our society and that’s all it does is change. And our game has changed probably more internally with the metrics and the analytics and the measurables more in the last five to seven years than it had in the previous 145. So, the game has changed and evolved — right, wrong, we can have that debate as well — but as far as the rules changes, I thought it was good. I thought it was smart to somewhat experiment during a shortened season and I do think we’ve got some things that have some teeth to them.”
Now, seven-inning doubleheaders and an additional postseason round did nothing to alter a game that has narrowed to the arms of guys throwing 98-mph fastballs and the back legs of guys trying to hit those 500 feet. First off, there are those who enjoy that game. The Home Run Derby during All-Star festivities is immensely popular. But, that also is the game Mattingly conjured, the one that has marginalized defense, baserunning and bat control, what he called “action.”
On a recent call with 30 managers, Manfred was lobbied by at least one to deaden the baseball. There are those who believe defensive shifts are detrimental. Others would support lowering the mound or moving it back. Not every idea would have merit. But it suggests a willingness to have ideas, to offer them and to live — if only briefly, if necessary — with the consequences. The game does not seem quite so untouchable as it did just six months ago, because the people in and around it were moved to examine their own biases and assumptions during an exceedingly trying summer.
“Going into it, and I can only speak on my personal feelings, I kind of looked at a couple of them [and thought] that didn’t make sense,” San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “But then to kind of see it play out and be able to digest it after the year’s done and understanding, you know what, there were some things that we all learned. And I think there were some things that made the game more exciting. So I would say, in general, I’m guessing, the majority of people are more open-minded.”
What must be answered is not how today’s managers or players feel about it, but what today’s fans think of it. After a season in which they weren’t allowed into ballparks, heading into a season that could be the same, what brings them back? Is baseball fine as it is? Is it as good as it can be? Is change necessary? Even acceptable?
“What we tend to always do is we have an opinion on it,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Or we’re shocked. We’re outraged. And then we generally get used to it and we function with it and it’s OK. So whatever we choose to do I’m kind of on board with it and ready to roll with it. I think we’re getting to a place in the game actually where we know there’s some things that probably need some changes. Unfortunately everybody has an opinion on how to do it and that’s going to be the hard part. And we’re probably going to have to try some things that might not work and we’ve got to be OK with some things. Maybe we put in a rule and, eh, it wasn’t a great rule, maybe we should take that out. I think that’s OK. I think we know there’s some things that should and can be done to improve the game.
“I would like to see more action in the game, I guess. I don’t know if I would go as far as to call the game boring, the playoff games especially. But I do think more action. We can get more action into the game. More balls in play. So, if we can get more balls in play then I think different players will be on the field, because it will put a greater emphasis on speed and defense. One will kind of follow the other. But it’s going to take something pretty substantial and pretty big to really get more balls in play, I think. And it’s probably going to take multiple rules changes, not just one thing.”
More than any commissioner in history, Manfred welcomes the notion of change. In the 2019 season, batters in the independent Atlantic League were stealing first base. Robot umpires called balls and strikes. Shifts were illegal. Also, the pitcher’s mound was to be set back by two feet, though that was scrapped when the league discovered pitchers would be largely unwilling to sign with the league. Manfred already has limited mound visits and promoted the implementation of a pitch clock.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m a traditionalist, when you go in that vein. But, I don’t know that where the game’s at is actually the tradition that we all grew up with. The game has changed. The tradition we all talk about, being traditionalists, I’m not sure that tradition is there anymore. It’s a different game. And I think probably a lot of us, we’ve been subjected to change ever since July 3. When things completely were different, when we went back to camp in this COVID era. So we’d better have been able to change. We better adjust to it, because it’s what we lived. You’re right, since we did experience things and we were forced to look at it in a different vein, that, you know what, maybe it’s not too bad and it will help the game and it will get it to where, you know, we’re concerned in our game about the popularity of it, people liking it, the action. As we all kind of sit back and we’ve talked about all that, it’s because it’s things we haven’t talked about for years. And the conversations are completely different than they used to be.”
Simply, Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin said, “Change is abundant now, in every walk of life. And if you don’t embrace it you get stuck in the mud. So, you know, again, we had quite a few rules changes last year, they worked out well and I think it lends to me being a little more onboard with more changes.”
Maybe that’s all Mattingly could hope for, for a sport that scouts itself as well as it scouts each other, that seeks what it could be rather than what it’s always been, or what it has become.
“I think as far as rules go in general, I think we’ve got to continue to be progressive in MLB,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to put a product out there that people want to see, that has action and continues to hold our attention. So anything that we’re doing as far as rules, I think we have to be open-minded. I watch it in the NFL, you watch the rules change, you watch it in the NBA. The games are going to evolve. Obviously you don’t want to change the core of the game. But I think we have to be open-minded to change, to make this a product that people want to see, also.”
More from Yahoo Sports: