The eight-team Atlantic League is in year one of a three-year partnership with Major League Baseball to test out a battery of experimental rules designed to enliven the game. The most successful changes will eventually be implemented by MLB. Photography by Keith E. Morrison

The Off-the-Radar Baseball League That’s Trying to Reboot the Game

With robot umpires and heretical rules changes, can the Atlantic League keep America’s pastime from fading into America’s past?

TThe first thing I noticed was the fat bases. They look like normal bases, square, white, same as the ones many of us rounded as kids, only they’ve put on a few inches around the waist, same as many of us, ballooning from 15-by-15 inches to 18-by-18 inches. They’re dad bases now. Unlike the other experimental rules being tested out here in the Atlantic League, the 18-by-18 bases are primarily a safety measure. The theory is that bigger bases will result in fewer collisions, which could mean fewer snapped ankles. Tinkering with the fundamental dimensions of baseball tends to bring out the rage monster in fans — the word ‘base’ is right there in the name! — but then again it’s hard to be pro-snapped ankles. The dad bases could stick.

When you make the bases bigger, though, something subtler happens, something with the potential for much farther-reaching consequences: they get closer together. In the Atlantic League this season, first base is three inches closer to home. Second base is four-and-a-half inches closer to first.

Among the changes being tested in the Atlantic League are bigger bases. These are 18-inch squares, up from 15.

The next rule change I noticed was the pickoff rule. The new wrinkle that’s gotten the most media attention so far is the introduction of robot umpires, and you might be surprised I didn’t notice them before something as arcane as small adjustments to pickoff moves, but a bit of foreshadowing: The robot umpires were a huge letdown. Suffice to say I didn’t notice them first, or second. Pickoff moves are a tool deployed by pitchers to keep base runners closer to the base, and the change itself is nitpicky small, involving the totality (or not) of foot placement vis-à-vis the pitching rubber. I could explain it but I need you awake. In any case, it’s not what I noticed about the pickoff moves. What I noticed was that there weren’t any. Why even bother? The rule change forces pickoff moves to be so deliberate that only a moron could get caught napping. And that led directly to the third thing I noticed: The base runners were taking bigger leads. A foot further than usual from first base, sometimes more.

Taken on their own, the dad bases and the pickoff move might jostle the game a bit. Put them together, and it becomes more like a shove. The impact is unmistakable: more stolen bases. You can even steal first now in the Atlantic League. If a pitch eludes the catcher, the hitter can take off, no matter what the count is.

“I love it,” said New Britain Bees outfielder Jared Jones. “Always exciting.”

“It’s not helping the game,” said Bees pitcher Cory Riordan. “None whatsoever.”

Pitcher Cory Riordan, the New Britain Bees’ veteran starter, is 33.

“I’m a baseball purist,” said Frank Viola, the former Minnesota Twins and New York Mets ace who won a World Series, a Cy Young Award, and made three All-Star teams during his big league career, and is now the pitching coach for the High Point Rockers of the Atlantic League. “But I do like some of the stuff they’re starting here because it gets you back to a complete game of baseball — the lost arts.”

Twenty-five years have passed since Viola was an expert practitioner of those lost arts, but he’s still got the same mop of curly hair popping out from under his ball cap, the same hangdog mustache, and the same disdain for mincing words: “Some of these rules are ridiculous, though.”

TThere was no sign at the entrance to New Britain Stadium alerting ticket-buyers that they were walking into an active experiment. There was no list of rules stuck into the cupholders. So it’s hard to say if the fans in attendance knew about the experimental rules. It’s hard to say if there were fans in attendance. Weeknights are a tough draw for the Bees, especially a Monday night like this one in August when folks have a choice between sweating through a semipro game or watching the Red Sox fade from the playoff chase in the comfort of their air-conditioned living room.

If you count the players, umpires, and assembled media (singular), there were about 500 people in the ballpark for the opener of this three-game tilt versus the Rockers. The fans were mostly knowledgeable old-timers along with some younger families. But it was also a sleepy weeknight and stadium employees were literally throwing free hot dogs at people. Few people in the stands were laser-focused on the game. It would’ve been easy not to notice when that hitter for the Bees stayed put after fouling off a bunt on strike two. (Isn’t that a strikeout? Nope, not in the Atlantic League. Here, you get one more shot.) Or that the home plate umpire always paused half-a-millisecond longer than normal before he called the pitch a ball or strike. (Wait, is he the robot? No, he is not.) They certainly would have noticed if someone tried to steal first on a wild pitch. But it’s only happened three times all year at New Britain Stadium. Half the time, hitters forget they can run.

The idea is to use the Atlantic League as a science lab, a place to mess around with the sport at a cellular level without jeopardizing any meaningful games.

What all 500 of us had in common, aside from a thin layer of perspiration encasing our bodies, is that we were all lab rats. The eight-team Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, populated mostly by former big leaguers on their way down or minor leaguers slowly making their way up, is in year one of a three-year partnership with Major League Baseball to test out a battery of experimental rules in live game conditions. The idea is to use the Atlantic League as a science lab, a place to mess around with the sport at a cellular level without jeopardizing any meaningful games, or meaningful talent. It’s not a step that MLB has taken lightly, but like so many aging institutions, the modern age has forced a reckoning. We carry limitless distractions in our pockets nowadays, and baseball wasn’t built to compete with that kind of temptation. It’s a game of anticlimaxes, and it’s coming up against a generation of kids conditioned from birth that they can always skip to the good parts. The only solution is to manufacture more good parts.

Each of the new rules is trained at a tiny crack that MLB has identified in the current state of the game, and the question is no longer whether to patch them up, but how and when. The sludgy pace of play. The strikeout boom. The increasing overreliance on home runs. Whatever the perceived problem, the desired solution is always the same: more action. More runs. More athleticism. More stuff. An end to the epidemic of pitching changes, which put games into a sleeper hold the moment things start to get spicy. When the experimental rules operate together in concert, they function like an injection of human growth hormone into baseball’s butt. They’re performance-enhancing rules.

Old-timers and families with young kids comprise a sizable percentage of Bees fandom.

There are two other notable independent baseball leagues, and of the trio, the Atlantic League has the highest average attendance (about 3,500 per game in 2019, higher on the weekends, much lower on Mondays) and average player salary (between $1,300 and $3,000 per month during the season). Historically, though, MLB’s relationship with independent leagues like the Atlantic League has been frosty at best. After all, they are direct competition for MiLB, or Minor League Baseball, a multilevel “farm system” in which all of the teams are affiliated with a major league ballclub and where the vast majority of big leaguers get their start. The independent leagues either feed off the table scraps or catch good players on their way out of the game. This experiment has changed all that, uniting MLB and the Atlantic League in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

“We don’t pinch ourselves anymore,” said Atlantic League commissioner Rick White, “but trust me, for an independent professional baseball league in a world where independent professional baseball leagues have never ever been recognized by Major League Baseball, to have this type of investment, this type of attention is a pretty remarkable thing.” He and his staff, he said, are on the phone with MLB “virtually daily” trading notes and anecdotal observations and identifying unintended consequences, which is just another way of saying they get to have lots of really fun nerdy conversations about baseball.

Viola, the “baseball purist,” is fine with the bigger bases, but he hates the pickoff rule, and the stealing-first rule, which in his view rewards inept hitters. And don’t even get him started about the rule banning mound visits.

“That one kills me,” he said.

Bees outfielder Jared James.

It kills lots of people, which is why it was pretty much dead on arrival. Some of the experimental rules will never get a shot at the big show. Next season, the Atlantic League will move back the pitching rubber 24 inches (!) and I feel confident predicting that this rule will be dead before it even arrives. Some rules will gestate for years and go through multiple iterations before they get called up. One of the most drastic rules on display here, though, has already been blessed by MLB and will be in effect for the upcoming 2020 season: Each new pitcher who enters the game must face at least three hitters or retire the side. No more stopping the game cold for five Cialis commercials so a lefty specialist can come in and pitch to one batter. If he flops, you’re stuck with him for two more batters.

This is a huge deal. The rules have always required pitchers to face at least one hitter, but after that, they can be removed anytime for any reason. Now, for the first time in the history of baseball, there are situations in which you are forbidden from lifting your pitcher. Technically, it’s an amendment to Official Baseball Rule 5.10(g), but whatever you call it, it’s the most significant alteration to the game since the arrival of the designated hitter in 1973. The bonkers part, though, is how few baseball fans seem to know it’s coming next spring. If you’re one of them, your gut reaction to this news is a useful Rorschach test of your baseball identity. Are you recoiling in horror? Or are you intrigued?

A quick note for the recoilers: everyone I spoke with loves this particular rule. Even Viola.

AsAs we all know, millennials kill everything, but one of the generation’s most overlooked victims is the stolen base, and like most things millennials kill, they didn’t mean to do it. In 1982, Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in a single season, which seems impossible, but there’s empirical proof it happened. Last season, only one entire team in baseball stole more than 130 bases. What happened in between was the dawn of advanced analytics. What happened was Moneyball. An army of statisticians marched into the sport and showed us spreadsheets proving, beyond any doubt, that pretty much the worst thing you can do on offense is needlessly surrender a base runner. It’s as close as you can come to taking a run off the board. Unless your success rate is off the charts — unless you’re Rickey Henderson, or close — an attempted steal is probably a poor decision.

“I’m a baseball purist,” said Frank Viola. “But I do like some of the stuff they’re starting here because it gets you back to a complete game of baseball — the lost arts.”

The most galling part about this outlandish claim was that the nerds were right. The numbers kept checking out. All that time, it turned out, we’d been playing baseball wrong. Oops. Stealing, bunting, sacrificing — dumb, all of it, except for a few very precise, begrudging circumstances. Waiting for the perfect pitch, smacking it over the wall, then lumbering around the bases — even if you strike out the next four times in a row — that’s how you win. And slowly, over a decade, it remade the league. “Everything we do is intertwined,” Viola said, “and now it’s like we’ve got a couple little pieces missing, and it’s not the same.”

If you make it easier to steal bases, though — by moving them closer together, by making it harder for pitchers to slow runners down — and the success rate crosses a certain threshold, then the math flips. A bad decision becomes a good decision. Game to game, the impact would barely register. Another stolen base, maybe two. The pace of play would quicken, but you might not connect any of those dots.

Bees infielder Ozzie Martinez.

The most meaningful impact would happen slowly, over several years, as these tiny tweaks around the edges of the rule book begin to have a generational impact on talent evaluation and roster construction. A few inches would be enough to reverse the fortunes of a skill — speed — that has seen its value erode this century. A Moneyball effect would follow. Smart front offices would identify the coming sea change early and start buying low on the next Ichiro Suzuki or Tim Raines or Kenny Lofton. Smart front offices might even be doing this already. They might see these rules coming to Major League Baseball in a few seasons and see an opening to grab an advantage, now, by stocking their farm system with speed as well as power.

By the way, the reports of baseball’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Baseball is fine. Ace pitchers get $25 million a year. Bad relievers — I’m referring here specifically and pointedly to Mets reliever Jeurys Familia — make $15 million. Local sports network money continues to pour in like late-inning runs off Jeurys Familia. MLB.tv is a godsend. My Mets can still capture the imagination of a city with one of their patented rise-from-the-dead late summer runs, followed by one of their patented return-to-the-dead collapses in the fall. The game’s future is also more secure than, say, the NFL’s, which is burning its candle at both ends, with no true footholds outside the United States, and eroding youth participation because it turns out that football is incredibly dangerous. Baseball, meanwhile, is wildly popular across Latin America and parts of Asia, and it doesn’t kill anyone young.

At the same time, there is legitimate fear across MLB that people are losing their passion for the sport. Even its most dedicated fans agree it’s become too bland and flavorless, like the Cracker Jacks I bought at New Britain Stadium, evidently the first box of Cracker Jacks sold at New Britain Stadium since 1776. Bill Simmons, one of the most influential voices in sports, has often made the point on his podcast that baseball is now a regional sport. Fans follow their home teams closely but only track the rest of the league in passing, because it’s just too big, there are few household names and even fewer famous faces, and there’s just too much other stuff competing for our attention.

It’s also not as much fun. Baseball has always been a leisurely game, with isolated bursts of action, lots of strategic pleasures in between, and plenty of time to pee. But with each year the bursts are getting further apart. Too many at-bats are ending in strikeouts or home runs (“true outcomes,” in baseball vernacular), with home runs growing so commonplace that they’re now about as satisfying as pizza — never unwelcome, but if you eat it too often, eventually it’s just dinner. There’s less risk-taking on the basepaths, more warning-track fly balls, limitless opportunities to look down at your phone and never look back up.

White, the Atlantic League commissioner, frequently used the word “restore” when he talked about the intended impact of the rules, and it’s a revealing choice. Not change, or evolve, or improve — restore. The goal, he said, is to “restore some of those virtues that drew us to the game in the first place — running, fielding, great defense, and so forth.” One way to look at MLB’s experiment with the Atlantic League isn’t as some sneak attack on the game’s core molecules but rather as a course correction, a last-ditch bid by baseball purists to restore a century’s worth of equilibrium.

This Monday night New Britain-High Point tilt may not seem like the front lines of a revolution, but that’s why Major League Baseball chose it. There’s little fear of reprisal from baseball purists. Out here in central Connecticut, no one can hear them scream. It’s also an admission that MLB intends to fix baseball at baseball speed. Whereas the NBA would try all this shit on the fly, MLB needs to keep half an eye on the future and 1.5 eyes on the past. In most other modern commercial enterprises, innovation tends to be viewed as a selling point. They wouldn’t treat the Atlantic League’s arrangement with MLB like some hush-hush experiment. It’d get a huge marketing push, mass media saturation. Come check out futureball! It’s almost imperceptibly different than baseball! At a minimum, it’d get sold as a cool thing for baseball’s most hardcore fans to participate in and feel like they’re riding along with the pioneers out into the Wild West.

Instead, it’s like a secret no one meant to keep. The Bees’ assistant general manager told me that the League office supplied them with a brief 30-second video explainer to run on the scoreboard before the first pitch, but somehow I missed it all three nights. There’s so much for baseball fans to feast on here, and yet MLB seems torn between whether to treat this place like it’s MIT or Area 51.

OOkay, some bad news: the robot umpires are bullshit. We were promised robots, and what I saw at New Britain Stadium were, excuse me, not fucking robots. It doesn’t talk. It doesn’t bark out “Steeeeeeeerike ONE!!” in Siri’s voice. It doesn’t look like Wall-E or Johnny 5. It hardly exists in physical form at all. It’s more like an E-Z Pass booth.

The technical name is the Automated Balls and Strikes system, or ABS, but everyone calls it TrackMan, and this is how it works: A radar shaped like a flatscreen TV and mounted above the press box projects a three-dimensional strike zone down over the plate, and if the pitch clips any part of it, the radar tells a server located in the public address booth, which is connected to the home plate umpire via earpiece. The server then tells the umpire in a prerecorded male voice whether the pitch was a ball or strike, and then the human ump tells the world. That’s your stupid robot.

Bees Darren Ford(L) and Zach Collier(R) in the dugout during a game against the Long Island Ducks on August 25, 2019.

If you lower your expectations, though, and dive into the implications, things start to get interesting. TrackMan adjusts to the dimensions of each new hitter, which sounds logical enough, but it gives them an enormous advantage over pitchers. It’s easier to master a strike zone that you can take with wherever you go, from a live game to a batting cage in your backyard, and it’s easier to hit when you don’t have to guess what’s a strike for you and what’s not. With human umpires, strike zones are like snowflakes. But it’s this same subjectivity that puts hitters and pitchers on equal footing. They’re both at the mercy of the umpire, and they’ve both got to work it out as they go. TrackMan is fair in isolation, in the sense that it’d be more precise and consistent than a human being, but it’d be unfair in the sense that hitters would get to use the only strike zone they’ve ever known, and pitchers would have to adjust to a new one with every single at-bat.

TrackMan would be fatal for many of the skills that purists like Viola consider essential to the art of pitching — no more “working the ump,” no more “expanding the strike zone.”

“I never thought I’d say this,” Viola told me, “but I miss the human element of umpiring.”

“The only conversation I have now with the players is the same every night,” said crew chief John Grasso, who was behind home plate for Monday’s game. “The catcher comes out and says, ‘You using TrackMan tonight?’ ‘Yup.’ Every hitter comes up. ‘TrackMan tonight?’ ‘Yup.’ That’s it.”

If MLB had TrackMan in Viola’s day, it would’ve altered the course of his career, as well as some of his Cy Young-winning contemporaries, like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. “I probably wouldn’t have won 176 games,” Viola said. “As smart as they were, you can’t sneak by a robot.”

TrackMan does offer one small saving grace for pitchers, Bees manager Mauro “Goose” Gozzo told me, which is the peace of mind that comes along with the ABS’s clarity and dispassion. There’s no point arguing with a robot. Plenty of world-class athletes have third-grade maturity levels. One less thing to fume about could be a career changer. On two occasions that first night in New Britain, I watched hitters shake their heads after a called strike, and then stop, as if they’d just remembered who (what) actually made the call. For what it’s worth, it’s nice to have this kind of bickering out of the game. One way to speed up baseball is by forcing everyone on the field to shut up and move on.

That part is nice for the umps, too. “It’s bittersweet,” said Grasso. “On the one hand, there are people like me who have been practicing this craft for many many years, and I don’t particularly agree with this but some of them see it as an affront to that craft. On the other hand, it takes a lot of the pressure off the plate umpire.”

There’s so much for baseball fans to feast on here, and yet MLB seems torn between whether to treat this place like it’s MIT or Area 51.

For such a radical device, TrackMan vanishes quickly from notice. In fact, things went back to such complete normality that one of the most normal things suddenly seemed peculiar to me: Grasso kept going into his standard crouch before every pitch. This puzzled me — if he’s not making the call, why does he need to lean in? Was it a force of habit, like NFL scouts who still use stopwatches?

No, Grasso said, it’s mostly because TrackMan breaks a lot. “I mean, it’s running on a wi-fi network,” he pointed out dryly. A couple of weeks ago, he called a Bees game through steady rain, and the system kept flickering on and off. Just the other night he was in Lancaster and TrackMan worked fine the whole game, except for one pitch, in the eighth inning. Grasso didn’t know that, though, until after the pitch. “The only way I know is when I hear the voice in my ear,” he said. “So if I’m not ready to call a pitch, and the system doesn’t call it? We’ve got a problem.”

The robot umpire (on the right) occasionally malfunctions, which means human umps aren’t going anywhere.

For this and many other reasons, the existential threat to umpires posed by TrackMan is wildly overblown. There remain dozens of calls that the home plate umpire must be there to make, calls that a robot can’t make, at least not for the foreseeable future. Tag plays at the plate, hit batsman, catcher interference, fair or foul calls up the baseline. The irony of robot intervention in sports is that robots tend to be slower. Humans are faster than instant replay, and faster counts for a lot, especially in baseball. The job isn’t going anywhere. The identity crisis, though, is here to stay.

“When I was a kid I always thought umpires were my enemy, but I kind of feel for them now,” Viola said. “I think they’re struggling to understand who they are.”

TThe three-batter minimum, on the other hand, the experimental rule that’s coming to Major League Baseball next season — now that’s a job killer.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that baseball’s problem is that the games are too long, but this isn’t true, or at least it’s too simplistic. It’s that the games are too dull, and that even the fun parts have gotten monotonous. “It’s not necessarily about the average time of a nine-inning game,” White said. “It really has much more to do with the tempo at which the game is being played.” A four-hour game that ends 11–7 with two comebacks and four lead changes is not the problem. The problem is the far more commonplace three-hour game with six pitching changes, five runs total, and not a single moment of real tension. Shaving 10 minutes off a game like that would just make it a slightly shorter death march. Those 11–7 games, meanwhile, are laser shows. Imagine how great they’d be if we could eliminate four of the 13 pitching changes.

That’s what the three-hitter minimum is aimed at, and it will have real ramifications on the job market for pitchers. Those journeymen relievers with one unhittable pitch that darts away from righties, the so-called “LOOGYs,” the “left-handed one out guys,” are now the coal miners of Major League Baseball. And yet of all the experimental rules on the menu this season in the Atlantic League, this rule is the only one that earned unanimous positive reviews, from hitters and pitchers alike, because it means you have to be really good at your job. “Love it,” Viola said. “You have to be able to get lefties and righties out. That’s a great rule.” The best pitchers in the world don’t want one-trick ponies and novelty acts taking their jobs. For them, the swifter pace of play is just a fringe benefit.

Power is never going out of style in baseball. No matter how close together they put the bases, no matter how much they dare players to steal, nothing gets the job done like home runs. But the Atlantic League is already seeing the upward impact of the pickoff rule and the dad bases, White told me, and it’ll only accelerate more as base runners acclimate to their good fortune.

All things being equal, MLB would prefer baseball to fix itself than create a rule to do it. Most fans despise the recent defensive innovation known as “the shift,” which is when teams overload one side of the infield based on a hitter’s tendency to hit the ball in that direction, and so MLB has the Atlantic League testing a rule that would stamp it out. If you enjoy the shift, you need to take a long look at yourself. The shift sucks. It turns line-drive singles into routine outs. It deserves to be killed. And yet this rule doesn’t seem to have much momentum behind it, because baseball already has a shift killer: bunting. Not every problem with baseball needs to be fixed by fiat. Want to beat the shift? The defense is leaving half of the infield wide open. Bunt it there. Keep doing it, and eventually, they’ll stop shifting.

Strategy, counter-strategy. Leave the rule book out of it.

BBefore we get too fired up for baseball’s action-packed future, let’s pour one out for the pitchers. Every tweak to the rule book creates winners and losers, and pitchers have become conditioned to assume that whatever’s coming will not be good for them. Among stat geeks, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” is one of baseball’s cornerstone accomplishments; less well known that is Gibson was one of nine pitchers that year with an ERA below two. The next year, MLB lowered the mound. Five years later, the designated hitter arrived. Pitchers haven’t gotten a break since, and it’s starting to dawn on them that they never will again.

“My staff’s been great with it,” Gozzo, the Bees’ manager, said, “but they do make little comments here and there.” The one he hears most often: “When are we gonna get some rules to help the pitchers?”

On the surface, pitchers have made their peace with being Charlie Brown. They wish fans might remember pitchers’ duels a bit more fondly, but the reality is that pitchers tend to remember them happening more frequently than they did in reality. Aces pitch as often as the inning-eaters at the back end of the rotation. It’s also hard to feel too bad for pitchers grumbling about losing strike calls on pitches that… aren’t strikes, and never were. And I’m sorry, but we’ve got to kill off the LOOGYs before they kill us in our sleep.

Bees manager Mauro “Goose” Gozzo.

The specialists won’t be the only ones who suffer. The unintended consequences won’t just be theoretical. Many of these rules would cause pitchers’ numbers to suffer for a few years before fans, and maybe some front offices, understand why. That lag will cost players money. It will cost some of them their jobs. Oakland Athletics lefty specialist Ryan Buchter told Sports Illustrated in March that the new rule was a literal attack on his ability to feed his two-year-old daughter: “You’re taking food out of her mouth.” That’s maybe a little melodramatic for a guy making $1.4 million this season. On the other hand, Buchter is 32 and this was his first year in the majors after a decade of bus rides and cold McDonald’s for dinner. “I spent 10 years in the minors trying to fight my way to get here,” he said to SI, “and now that I’m finally here, I’ve got a guy telling me I might not stay long because of a rule change.”

Riordan, the Bees’ veteran starter, is 33 and he never quite made it to the majors. His longtime agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, is now the general manager of the New York Mets, but Riordan topped out at triple-A ball. Now his elbow barks after every start. His fastball tops out at around 86, which is not fast, and his success depends on pinpoint control. Nibblers like Riordan, though, will get devoured in the TrackMan age, and he knows it, which is partly why he’s retiring after this season. Meanwhile, flamethrowers are getting plucked out of the stands, like that kid who went viral for throwing a 96 mph fastball at a ballpark radar-gun machine. The next day, Mr. Moneyball himself, Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, offered him a minor-league contract.

It’ll take some time, but eventually, the three-hitter minimum will get a name that pays tribute to one of its early victims — the Jeurys Familia Rule, with any luck — some sacrificial lamb whose career got cut short by his inability to get lefties out. Soon we’ll adjust to the new normal, and we’ll acclimatize what now constitutes All-Star caliber statistics.

Baseball likes to evolve at a glacial pace, but the glaciers are melting. Every so often a rule change jumps straight into the big leagues, like lowering the mound, which no one was proposing in the spring of 1968 and then a year later MLB fell in love with it overnight like a bunch of goddam hippies. The DH first appeared at spring training in 1969, though, and didn’t reach the big leagues for five more years. It could take three years to introduce bases that are three inches bigger. An inch per year would be a blitzkrieg by baseball standards.

Institutional inertia is not the only hurdle. Robot umpires will have to get past the umpires’ union. They will, though, just like instant replay did. The MLBPA opposed the three-batter rule, but the commissioner’s office rolled over them by making a few tiny concessions on unrelated stuff. They’ll just make bigger concessions for TrackMan. The dad bases will have to get through the players’ union, but it’s hard to imagine anyone going to war over a sincere effort to keep players safe.

As baseball fans, it is our solemn duty to get briefly and irrationally uppity over potential rule changes. We’re supposed to lament the decline of the pitchers’ duel. We’re supposed to bitch for a while about the perversion of America’s pastime. And then once we get that out of our system, we’ll love it when someone steals 100 bases again. We’ll lose our minds when Pete Alonso wins a playoff game not by crushing a home run but by dropping a perfect bunt up the third baseline. It won’t be baseball like it used to be. It’ll be better.

Devin Gordon is a freelance writer for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and GQ, and he is currently at work on a history of the Mets for HarperCollins

Get the Medium app