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Passed Time

Some observers look at how they believe the sport has lost its luster and offer ideas on how to jazz it up

June 19, 2011|David Wharton

A big part of Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" deals with bygone years when the sport truly ranked as America's favorite pastime.

Baseball towered over rivals such as college football and boxing in that golden age, and it had yet to feel a pinch from the upstart pro football and pro basketball leagues.

That isn't the case anymore. Burns, who grew up playing Pony League in Delaware, has watched an increasingly fast-paced, high-tech culture rush past his languid game.

"We are living in ... a world where everything is reduced to a tweet, where everyone is on their cellphones all the time," he said. "We see that baseball requires our attention."

As the season stretches on, so does the annual debate over whether the sport needs another update, something beyond interleague play and the designated hitter. The Times turned to an array of voices -- creative minds, lifelong fans, all of them watching from outside the major leagues.

Their recommendations ranged from predictable to far outside the batter's box.

"The game has to be more accessible to a wider variety of people," said Peter Pucci, an award-winning choreographer whose work has incorporated baseball along with other athletic themes. "I think the owners are missing the boat."



Some folks believe that major league baseball needs a makeover


Home runs do not entirely satisfy Bob Jacobsen. He would rather watch singles and doubles and runners trying to steal. "When someone hits a home run, that's a wonderful 10 seconds," he said. "But you can cheer for 10 minutes while they try to figure out how to get a guy home from second."

The University of California physics professor thinks he has the science to encourage more of this action: Shorten the base paths, move the pitcher's mound back 15 feet and widen the foul lines roughly 10 degrees.

Jacobsen can guess what purists would think of his suggestion.

"They would hate it," he said.

But with more room for grounders and line drives to sneak past infielders, he envisions a game of speed and strategy where managers -- and fans in the bleachers -- ponder when to steal or call for the hit and run. There would be more chances for what Hank Aaron called baseball's most exciting play, the triple.

Stadiums would have to be reconfigured, home plate shifted closer to the fences. The major leagues might have to switch to a ball whose weight and hardness caused it to leave the bat faster, yet travel shorter distances.

"I go to A's games and I'm not seeing as many people in the stands as I used to," the professor said. "If you want to get more people to follow baseball, it probably has to change."

"When was the last time a major league team had a promotion that made you smile?" he said. "That's all been lost with the big money, the big stadiums."

Veeck was an unpredictable entertainer, hiring Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," to perform between innings and holding a "Disco Demolition Night" that started a riot at Chicago's old Comiskey Park.

His legacy endures in minor league ballparks across the nation, the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears presenting a monkey riding a dog and the Brooklyn Cyclones holding "Bellies & Baseball," with a Lamaze class in center field and lifetime season tickets to any woman giving birth during the game.

With its endless parade of bobblehead and rally towel nights, Shelton says the big league game "is being marketed all wrong."

Peter Pucci, a choreographer, has a similar thought. Each summer, he takes his family to Cape Cod League amateur games where they can sit close to the action and kids run the bases afterward.

He wonders if the major leagues can recapture some of that intimacy.

"The game has become so corporate," he said. "It has lost its innocence."


Who remembers when Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns, sent 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951? Ron Shelton does. The "Bull Durham" director worries that baseball has lost the sense of showmanship and innovation that marked its early days.


The prospect of altering baseball takes Charles Fazzino in different

directions. The pop artist, whose hand-painted batting helmets have been displayed at recent All-Star games, recalls growing up in the Bronx and

going to Yankee Stadium.

"The smell of hot dogs, the beautiful green field," he said. "You have a lot of time to sit there and experience everything."

But such restful memories butt up against what he sees now. A generation of kids raised on multitasking. More and more people leaving games before the ninth inning.

"If I would change anything, it would be the stops and starts," he said. "We're in a society where we want things to move a little faster."

Keeping pitchers on a tighter clock might help. Shelton weighs in on this issue, too, suggesting that umpires limit the number of times a batter can step out of the box between pitches.

Still, the director muses, "it's not a made-for-television sport."


Change does not come easily to a game that holds

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