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Mudville: June 13, 2024 2:59 am PDT

Mounds of Hell

Big changes are coming to baseball come August 3rd, and word is, no one in the Atlantic League is happy with what’s about to go down.

That’s the day the mound will be pushed back a foot to 61 feet, six inches. Good luck, pitchers. Good luck, coaches who have to work with their pitchers. Good luck, catchers adopting to such a change. Hitters, you now have more time to react.

Those who have spent their lifetime in baseball, pitching at 60 feet, six inches, and coaching pitchers at that distance will have to go with the new experimental game, Rob Manfred’s test laboratory.

It figures to be a mound of trouble for the pitchers.

Pitchers already are being tested in this league with the individual league leading ERA being 3.38. The 10th best ERA in the league is 5.40. Yikes. Games are already long, 3:20 per game. This change figures to make longer games with the longer pitching distance and already the total of walks per game are high in the league – at 10.5 per game.

There are eight teams in the league and the league ERA is 5.87. The Long Island Ducks are the only team to have an ERA under 5.00 at 4.71. By the way, the mound has been at its current distance since 1893. No more. If this flies here, will it be coming to the major leagues?

August 3rd is also the day they will get rid of catchers flashing signs to the pitcher, which has been a part of baseball for literally forever, in another experiment in another league. No more fingers flashing, no more of the pitcher staring in for the sign. They will be testing an elaborate experimental electronic transmitting system from catcher to pitcher in the Low A West minor leagues.

“If MLB really wanted to do the Field of Dreams game right, they would have no replay, no exit velo readouts, no anything but baseball from Shoeless Joe Jackson’s day. Just highlight the game.”

Just another way to destroy the romance of the game and take away the human element. Catchers will strap a 12-button transmitter to their wrist and pitcher and catcher will have a receiver in their cap and helmet. The Low A West used to be the Cal League before Manfred’s unimaginative minions changed the name in the reimagining of the minor leagues this year that included eliminating dozens of affiliations, and has untold numbers of minor leaguers inexplicably living out of their cars.

One Baseball, indeed.

Way to take care of your most loyal fan base, Commish – the minor league fans. But at least the clubs that survived get to see a lot of experimentation. It will be interesting to see how pitchers and coaches react to moving the mound back one foot. Will injuries increase? Will command decrease? Will it really make a huge difference? We are about to find out as baseball continues its wacky ways.

Change is everywhere.

This Friday was the same day the Cleveland Indians announced they will become the Cleveland Guardians after this season. Yuck. Please don’t send me any comments about how cool it is they are reaching back into the Art Deco stone mason history of Cleveland as a way to honor the city with the name Guardians.

I’m too busy watching the classic Major League to care.

“The Indians win it! The Indians win it!”

The Guardians name and logo looks like something out of a semi-pro lacrosse league. Can’t wait until the Guardians play the Angels. Have Curtis Sliwa throw out the ceremonial first pitch in his little satin jacket. Right now, Cleveland is the Guardian of the 15th best record in baseball.

The Indians will go down with two World Series titles, the last coming in 1948. The Indians beat the Boston Braves that year. Ironic. This year will make it 73 years since Cleveland won a World Series.

The Guardians of losing continue.

There has to be a better logo in the works to honor these iconic monoliths.

What’s done is done and if you are a baseball fan, this all comes along with the territory these days. It’s as if Manfred wakes up every morning and says, “How can I destroy another part of the game that once was America’s Pastime?’’ At this point, there is no reason to get upset at any of the moves that are being made anymore by MLB. They’ve already diluted what used to be a thinking man’s game of extreme athletic skill to a game of robots run by the You Know Who.

From the robotic Velocity Throwers on the mound to the robotic Launch Angle swingers at the plate to the robotic Shifters in the field, they are a collection of chess pieces placed on a board. Coaches don’t coach. Managers don’t manage. They can’t actively criticize players, how dare you hurt any player’s feelings or invade their safe tablet-filled spaces; no, let the kids play.

Robots on the mound, robots at the plate, robots in the field and of course, robots umpiring games with an eye in the sky to overlook their every move, that’s what baseball has become. So of course it’s natural that there will be encrypted signals from the catcher to the pitcher.

This all came about because the Nerds had to find a way to use cameras and electronic equipment to steal signs, instead of the time trusted and true way of stealing signs from second base or the dugout –  thank you Astros, and I’m sure other teams as well. Wonderful job. If you are going to beat them with technology, you might as well add more technology to the game, and I’m sure it won’t be long before the catchers’ signs are brought to you by some communications company – more money to add to the pot but, remember, this is all being done to speed up the game.

“This passed ball brought to you by Mitel”.

Former major leaguer Jeff Frye of #shegone nation noted, “Who’s going to let the middle infielders know what the sign is??????? That’s kind of important #nerds. I’m sure you don’t understand but what’s new?’’

Baseball hasn’t worked those bugs out.

Jim Kaat

I had to laugh when Jim Kaat, a baseball purist who is such a refreshing pleasure to listen to as he broadcasts games, and Bob Costas, who is pretty much a baseball purist in his own right, were talking about some of the changes in the game Friday night as Alex Cora was once again lapping Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman as the Red Sox were beating Gerrit Cole and the Yankees on MLB Network.

Kaat, to his credit, said, “The art of the game is deteriorating.’’

It sure is.

Like some of these wonderful changes that speed up the game.

Kind of similar to the original idea of Instant Replay, which was instituted to save umpires from having to live with a horrible call, like maybe Jeffrey Maier reaching over the fence into the field of play in the postseason, or a pitcher losing a perfect game on a terrible call or a foul home run called fair.

You know, important stuff.

Now replay is used for every “gotcha” call imaginable. And while we are at it, don’t you just love the Martha Stewart oven mitts baserunners wear?

Just wait until the automated balls and strikes come to the majors sooner than you think. That will be a dandy. But again, there is no sense getting upset about any of the changes, baseball is determined to go down this path to re-invent every aspect of the game.

There are still some enjoyable aspects of the game they have yet to ruin, but who has time to watch a whole game anyway? And for those in Cleveland, it’s not like the Guardians are ever going to win the World Series with their steadily decreasing payroll. The Dolans are guarding their money.

With shiny objects like trade deadlines and wild cards and Spin Rate and Velocity (“That ground ball to shortstop was 104 mph!’’) and yeah, the batter was out by three steps – make that six steps if it’s Giancarlo Stanton running – and circus events like the Yankees and White Sox in the Field of Dreams game August 12, the fans will find a way to amuse themselves. Maybe they should play the game with baseballs that have the same specs as those from 1919.

If MLB really wanted to do the Field of Dreams game right, they would have no replay, no exit velo readouts, no anything but baseball from Shoeless Joe Jackson’s day. Just highlight the game. And while you are at it Commish, announce before the game that Jackson is eligible for the Hall of Fame and then put out a money line on what the vote totals might be when he is officially on the ballot – because his lifetime ban has been lifted since he’s been dead for 70 years.

That’s a win-win.

Every week as baseball grasps at straws on bizarre ways to change the game, you think it can’t get any worse. And it does. The great thing about this “new’’ idea of transmitting information to the pitcher by a device is that it is not new at all.

Jack McKeon did this 59 years ago. His had a communications system built for his AAA Vancouver Mounties, B.C., where a small receiver was dropped into an inside pocket of the pitcher’s jersey. From the dugout, McKeon would use a transmitter to instruct the pitcher on calling pitches, pickoffs, all kinds of information. He had the system cleared by league officials and even filed the proper paperwork with Canadian authorities.

The one and only Jack McKeon.

“We used it as a teaching tool,’’ McKeon told The Story this week. McKeon, as is his nature, also had some fun with the setup. Before his team went into Spokane the following week, the owner of the Spokane club called him and they concocted a scheme where equipment would be placed near the Spokane dugout to try to intercept McKeon’s broadcasts to his starting pitcher Gerry Arrigo.

“The owner happened to own a radio station, so he had a player sitting outside the dugout with the headphones on and all this electronic equipment,’’ McKeon said. “The local media played it up too. If they had the right crystals, they could have picked me up – but they didn’t.

“We wanted to do fun things to draw people and make it an enjoyable evening,’’ McKeon said. “Every town we went into the newspapers played it up: ‘The Kids from Outer Space are in Town Tonight.’ In San Diego I went to an auto shop downtown and had them put an antenna on a helmet and I coached third base with that thing sticking up on my head.’’

When George Bamberger was knocked out of that game and McKeon had to take him out, the fans let him have it: “Hey Bamberger, you tuned into the wrong station?’’

This all happened in the glorious Pacific Coast League. McKeon understands change, but baseball is losing its personality and that bothers him.

“The human element was in the game at so many levels, whether it was the umpires who booted a player or a manager who made a bad decision, the people had something to talk about, now it’s all Robot Baseball,’’ McKeon said. “We had fun.’’

McKeon was a minor league legend, spending 17 years in the minors, everywhere from Missoula, Montana to managing in three minor league cities that eventually got major league teams: Atlanta, Denver and Dallas-Ft. Worth. He managed 16 years in the majors.

He has seen it all and has a special place in his heart for minor league fans.

“How about these good minor league towns that lost baseball now,’’ he asked. “I feel sorry for the fans. Minor league fans are the greatest. And I feel sorry for the older people in different areas of the country who love to go to a game.’’

Jack McKeon and George Bamberger - working the airwaves.

McKeon, 90, is still a scout at heart and has been a special advisor to Nationals GM Mike Rizzo since 2019, the year the Nationals won the World Series. When he watches today’s game he sees so many lackadaisical plays. “Nobody worries about winning anymore… they don’t want to hurt the players’ feelings,’’ McKeon said. “We can’t let pitchers pitch too long, we need 14 pitchers so they can go one inning at a time. In the Pioneer League in 1958 McKeon said he managed with a 17-man roster, not 17 pitchers. “And this was a good strong league.’’

One of his pitchers in 1958 happened to be a 19-year-old lefty named Jim Kaat. That season Kaat finished 16-9 with a 2.99 ERA, pitched in 39 games with 30 starts. Over 223 innings he struck out 245 batters. Kaat finished with 15 complete games. Those days are long gone.

In fact, a Yankees minor league pitcher was firing a no-hitter last week but was removed with two outs in the fifth inning. He didn’t get the win. It’s all about the pitch count now, not the learning, not the winning.

For Jim Kaat, the work endured as he went on to have a fabulous 25-year Major League career, registering 283 wins and 237 losses with a 3.45 ERA. He pitched 898 games in the majors. He threw 31 shutouts and even collected 17 saves. “We didn’t need to have bullpen days,’’ McKeon said of that 1958 season or any minor league season. “If a guy got knocked out in the second inning, he had a day off and then he came back the next day.’’

Before he took over managing the Marlins in 2003 and beat the Yankees in six games to win the World Series, McKeon was an advisor to then owner Jeffrey Loria. There was a situation when a relief pitcher breezed through an easy inning, throwing only about 10 pitches, was removed and the next reliever was crushed. Loria called McKeon, who was watching the game at his home in North Carolina. McKeon asked why the first reliever was pulled and was told by Loria they didn’t want him to get hurt.

“Let me tell you something,’’ McKeon fired back with some tough love. “The best thing that could happen to this staff is if some of those guys did get hurt.’’

McKeon got the last word, taking over the Marlins and pushing all the players a little bit harder than they had been pushed before and Loria got his World Series championship. “Today’s pitchers are like firemen,’’ McKeon said. “One day on, two days off, if they pitch two days in a row, one day off.’’

As for this pitching world of velocity over command, McKeon said that is how players make money with the current mindset of the front offices. “If you can throw hard, you can make a lot of money, it doesn’t matter if it goes over the plate or not,’’ McKeon said. He remembers sitting in the box one day with the Marlins with front office personnel and they were all excited when a young reliever entered the game, throwing gas.

“First pitch was 98,’’ McKeon recalled, “and they were like, ‘Wow, 98.’

“Next pitch, 99. ‘Wow, 99.’

“Next pitch, 97, ‘Wow, 97.’ ’’

McKeon turned to the Big Three and asked a question.

“What’s the count?’’

The answer came back – 3-0.

“What good is all that velocity,’’ he asked them. Fair question.

That was years ago, and now things have only gotten worse. So how can this problem be solved, I asked McKeon?

“It’s going to take a while because they have buried themselves indoctrinating these pitchers to one inning in the minors,’’ McKeon said of current mindset. “Nobody pitches over five innings in the minor leagues,’’ he said of the starters. “I look at all the box scores every day. You rarely see a guy get to seven innings.

“I’m waiting for the first Analytics Team to get fired instead of the manager.’’

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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