Monday, June 7, 2021

To Save Baseball, MLB Should Legalize Can Bangs

The Pittsburgh Pirates started their stalwart first baseman Kevin Young 125 times in 2001. Young, a Pirate since 1992 save a one-season dalliance with Kansas City in 1996, was now a grizzled 32 years old, in his penultimate full season with the club, and was creaking and groaning around the bases like a piece of antiquated machinery. For some reason he tried to steal a base fifteen times, and he got unceremoniously thrown out on eleven of those attempts. Young played for a putrid Pirates team that lost 100 games that season, and he was their fourth best qualified hitter with a .232/.310/.399 line. This diminished 2001 version of Kevin Young is the closest statline I could find casually scrolling around baseball reference for the past 25 or so seasons to what Major League Baseball players are currently hitting.

Major League Baseball is in a hitting crisis. This is one of many concurrent crises currently gripping baseball; the fact that baseball is circling the drain represents the official line from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who administers the sport like he is gravely overseeing a shareholders meeting for an electric typewriter company in 1994. In this case, baseball doom-sayers have a point: baseball players are currently unable to get a damn hit. They are striking out nearly a quarter of the time they come up to bat, they are putting the ball in play less than ever, and very few of them sport mustaches which you might think has little to do with this but compare statistics of eras when baseball players had rakish mustaches and when they were blooping and bunting it all over the place and I believe you will find a very strong correlation.

To be fair, baseball players face a foreboding gauntlet of challenges at the plate. Pitchers all throw harder and more wicked stuff then ever before and in the course of a game it is likely that they will face several guys throwing 98 with a wipeout slider or a bugs bunny curve from both sides of the plate as teams go to their bullpens earlier and earlier. More aggressive scouting and shifting in defenses has made it harder to get to first on a rare ball in play. And, after a 2019 season that resembled a decadent home run bacchanalia, MLB freaked out and deadened the ball while tacitly allowing pitchers to load it up with space-age synthetic goos that make give the ball a sharper break and make it stick to Yadier Molina's chestplate. It is small wonder that batters are hitting like a collective of 32 year-old glove-first infielders.
Baseball analysts and officials have made proposals to change reliever usage, crack down on illegal Eddie Harris substances, and even move the mound back a foot in an echo of the 1968 "Year of the Pitcher" when baseball lowered the mound height.  But there is a much simpler solution available and that is for baseball to allow teams to electronically steal signs and relay them to the hitting team by banging a trash can.
Sign stealing would help level the playing field.  We have all seen those overlays on the internet where a pitcher throws two or more pitches identically except one is a 98 mph heater that moves and the others take two or three sharp bends and disappear into another dimension.  Hitters must think that is, at least, very rude.  But if players knew to at least look for a breaking ball, they would have more a fighting chance and could strike out less.  Pitchers could be upset about this, but they would have a concrete thing to blame for shitty outings instead of having to succumb to crippling self-doubt that might lead to a form of yips where they are terrified to confront the catcher during a mound visit and start retreating back to the outfield when he comes out to tell him some important information such as if he throws two more like that he is going to walk someone.
MLB officials can do what they had, until recently, done with sign stealing which is to look the other way and have a hearty chuckle at the ridiculous Wacky Races-style cheating endemic to the sport.  This solution would allow teams to devise even more devious and tech-savvy sign stealing regimens that they are probably doing right now like using devises to transmit signals under the uniform with the type of wires that Chicago aldermen use in order to entrap other aldermen as part of a plea agreement with the FBI when they are caught stealing a Burger King or by hitting a wobbly piece of aluminum with a baseball bat.  It would take awhile for anyone to catch on, but by that point baseball may have entered a new offensive era with players spraying hits around the diamond and teams chasing the New Inefficiency which is no longer 6'7" beard guys who all throw 97 but squat, ungainly knuckleballers and fans will be so excited that they won't care.

Looking forward to a new inefficiency as teams 
rush to sign the schlubbiest relievers possible. 
If anyone reading this is currently in graduate 
school in the humanities, the next time someone 
brings up Foucault, I urge you to say "oh you mean 
Steve Foucault, the closer for the Tigers in 1977?"
But given Rob Manfred's obsession with emerging from a mountain like a Baseball Moses to announce that he has saved the sport by proclaiming that teams must use their relief pitchers in alphabetical order, I suggest that the most likely course for baseball to organically bring in sign stealing is for Manfred to allow teams a set number of Legal Can Bangs they can execute in high-leverage situations.  In this case, the manager could waddle from the dugout (actually, research shows that managers are younger and tend to be fit instead of being geriatric paunch-monsters that are so thoroughly grizzled that they appear to have been removed from a sarcophagus, but this is yet another Crisis in Baseball that remains unaddressed) and make a can-banging gesture that signals to the umpires and the crowds that it is time to bang some cans.

The Legal Can Bang can also bring some needed spectacle to baseball as teams can use all sorts of fanfare to bring out an enormous can either as the grounds crew drags it out or it is driven in on a custom vehicle modeled on the drum truck from Mad Max; it can even slowly emerge from a platform underneath the field while the sound system blares the Venga Bus song.  The can can be struck by an overly serious team employee wearing a polo shirt or even a mascot as the tense battle between pitcher and batter is reinvented as the battle between pitcher, batter, and a triceratops theatrically whaling on a trash can with an oversized novelty mallet.

This Legal Can Bang would introduce an element of excitement, a new layer of strategy, and, most important for Rob Manfred, a new thing that everyone has to keep track of like when a manager has to decide if it is foolish to waste a challenge on if a baserunner lifted his finger off the bag for a moment of time otherwise imperceptible to the human eye but caught by a replay camera that can be analyzed for 25 minutes.  Teams can put the number of remaining Can Bangs on scoreboards next to the fan favorite display for the number of legal mound visits.
Another important element of Legal Can Bangs would be the development of a baroque set of Unwritten Rules about them.  Imagine how delightful it would be for irate managers to grouse about how the other team does not "respect the can bang process" or for players to sniff "it is what it is" when asked if they threw at a batter because they believe the opposing manager allowed Bernie Brewer to karate kick the Waste Management Trash Can to signal an incoming curve ball while comfortably ahead.
You may think that there is a better way to improve baseball's offensive environment than by creating a small-scale Busby Berkeley number around a ritual of hitting a trashcan to signal an incoming pitch type but I guarantee you that whatever Manfred comes up with will be stupider.
There's something slightly embarrassing about recommending a book that is already an acknowledged classic but given that my reaction to finishing W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn was general disappointment in everyone around me whom I've ever known who did not tell me that I should read The Rings of Saturn, I am willing swallow it.  
The Rings of Saturn is about a German man who wanders around East Anglia and ruminates.  He sees some fishermen and it reminds him of an educational film about herring fisheries he saw as a child the and physiognomy of herring and how they emit an eerie luminescent glow when they die and then he is talking about an eccentric landowner who left his entire manor to a woman who prepared his meals on the condition she never speak to him and also this man never bought new clothes and on occasions when he had to leave the house would wander out into 1950s Britain wearing whatever he could find in old trunks so he'd look like a weird Edwardian ghost and every chapter of the book is like that.
The book centers on change and decay.  Many of the coastal towns Sebald discusses fallen into disrepair or are shadows of themselves.  In one case, he discusses the town of Dunwich, which had been built on a piece of low-lying coastline and was taken, piece by piece, by the sea.  This is in the chapter about the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars.  Sebald focuses on the unreal and almost unthinking destruction people have wrought against the world around them and themselves, describing history as "but a long account of calamities."  He was born in 1944, and the horrors of the war remain omnipresent undercurrents throughout the book.  
The Rings of Saturn feels loose and rambling, but all of its digressions seem to take shape at exactly the right time and at the right place.  Sebald writes in long paragraphs, and it is not uncommon to see the foreboding sight of a paragraph taking up an entire page, but he and his translator Michael Hulse never let anything get ponderous and it is easy to get enveloped in whatever narrative he has conjured out of  the sight of an old hotel or the log book in a sailor's reading room that of course he likes to hang out in.
Sebald, I understand, is a major influence on the recently trendy genre of autofiction, which, in my unlearned and unsophisticated view, seems to be a literary style where the author writes largely about him or herself while having the decency to admit that they are making things up as needed for the purposes of literary merit or legal deniability.  For example, it is preposterous to believe that Karl Ove Knausgaard remembers a conversation between him and one of the dozens of people he knows named "Geir" in 1987 when he was doing some adolescent literary brooding but it absolutely opens up a world for him to write about what it felt like for him to brood adolescently and literarily in 1987.  The narrator in the Rings of Saturn is not necessarily Sebald, though the passages correspond to the very specific eerie photographs that he has taken and sprinkled throughout the book.  At any rate, the question of the extent to which the narrator's experiences correspond to Sebald's is beside the point; his own memories are blended with historical memories of places and of people and the art is not in whether Sebald in fact visited a dilapidated Irish manor house where a haunted, ecctentric family showed him slides of how things used to be in case he happened to be writing a book about decay but how these anecdotes fit perfectly with his historical research and observations of nature.  

The Rings of Saturn is not a novel, it is not a travelogue, and it is not even really a series of essays.  It appears at first like an unfocused jumble of misplaced information thrown together like forgotten objects in an abandoned attic, but Sebald makes readers understand that everything is precisely where it needs to be.

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