Editor's note: In the days leading up to Rob Manfred's one-year anniversary as commissioner on Jan. 25, we asked our writers what one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport were starting over today.
The change: Require each team to take infield during the hour before every game.
How it would work:
Nothing happens on the field after the visiting team finishes batting practice roughly 45 minutes before every game. Fans are left to stare at an empty field for almost an hour. Baseball wants to get rid of the dead time in the game, when there is no action? Well, this is the time.
As a young baseball writer in the late 1970s and early '80s, I loved watching teams take infield every night. I especially enjoyed watching the best right fielders in the game throw as hard as they could from medium right to the plate, showing off their tremendous throwing arms. I also loved watching baseball's best middle infielders make double plays, displaying their great footwork and their amazingly quick, agile hands. I could watch Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel -- the best DP combination I've ever seen -- take infield all day.
Many of the players enjoyed it, too. "I love taking infield,'' said Aaron Boone, a former major leaguer.
Indeed. When infield is run properly, with great vitality at game speed, it is like a beautifully choreographed play, everything in sequence, nothing out of place. When Clint Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies in the late '90s, the full infield his teams would take during spring training was breathtaking to watch. The ball never stopped, the players never stopped. It was constant movement. And there were times -- I saw them myself -- when, during a 10-12-minute infield session, the ball was never dropped, never bobbled, on any ground ball or throw.
"That was the goal,'' Hurdle said.
Why it would help baseball:
The game is still great, don't get me wrong. The players are bigger, stronger, faster and better than ever, and they work very hard, especially during their time spent in the batting cage. But when it comes to the finer points of the game, the nuanced parts, today's players are lacking compared with the best players of 25 years ago. I've heard constantly from veteran managers, coaches and instructors for many years that the mistakes made by some players today on defense stem in part from them not taking infield. "I took infield before every game I ever played,'' said Larry Bowa, who won a Gold Glove at shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972 and 1978. "If the tarp was on the field before the game, and we couldn't take infield, I would go to the indoor batting cage and play pepper with a coach. I had to get the feeling of the ball coming off the bat. If I didn't, I didn't feel prepared for the game.''
"I watched infield every night,'' said Phil Bradley, a former outfielder for several major league teams. "I learned [from] watching guys [on the opposing team] throw 20 minutes before a game. Sometimes, I could see that someone wasn't throwing well. I'd think, 'We might have a chance to run on him tonight.' ''
But outfielders today don't throw as well as they used to, in part because they don't take infield, and therefore they don't practice nearly as much at throwing as hard as they can to a target -- in this case, a base. Twenty or 30 years ago, it would be easy to name the best throwing outfielders in the game -- Dwight Evans, Dave Winfield, Mark Whiten, Jesse Barfield, Ellis Valentine, Dave Parker, Vlad Guerrero, Reggie Smith and a dozen others -- without even thinking. You can't do that today because there are so few outfielders who are exceptional throwers.
"Bill Virdon (a great defensive outfielder in the 1960's) is the best outfield instructor I've ever seen, and he used to say that outfielders need to throw to the bases every day,'' said Rich Donnelly, a major league coach for several teams over the past 35 years. "I've seen outfielders [in recent years] throw a ball home, and they hit the third-base coach, or the ball goes in the dugout. It's because they don't throw.''
The Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series because, among other reasons, they were the best defensive team in the major leagues. The New York Mets lost the World Series in 2015 because they lost three games in part because of their defense. Defense matters. And every team would get better at it if, for 10 minutes every night, it took infield practice.
How realistic is it:
It will never happen. Today's players would never allow it. They stopped taking infield (in that half-hour before a game) 15-20 years ago because they found it difficult to, say, take batting practice until 5:30 p.m., then cool down, take infield at 6:30 p.m., cool down again, and then play at 7:05. And yes, the players do put in a lot of work today. They take their ground balls and fly balls during batting practice. Some teams, including the Mariners when they were playing at home the past two years, would take a full infield before batting practice. But it's not the same as taking infield at 6:40 p.m., in full uniform, at game speed. Doing that would engage the fans and give them something entertaining to watch after they enter the ballpark. And it would help make the players even better. But it's not going to happen. And that's a shame.