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What a relief: With new pitcher rules, MLB takes game back from managers

Baseball is a sport. Major League Baseball is an entertainment entity.

The product we buy, through tickets and cable TV costs, is meant to entertain us. It’s here for us. The reason the Cubs are worth a reported $2.9 billion and the reason Bryce Harper has a $330 million contract is you, the paying customer. Without the paying customer, there is no money. And without the money, Harper is flipping back his hair during pickup games at the park.

That has been lost in the hand-wringing about the three-hitter reliever rule that will go into effect in 2020. It mandates that each reliever must face at least three batters (unless he finishes an inning). It’s in response to managers using one reliever to face one hitter, then making a pitching change, which has turned late innings into chess matches. Breaking news: Chess isn’t a spectator sport.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is against the new rule and any other rule that affects strategy. His argument is that the ability to strategize is sacrosanct, that it’s in the game’s DNA and that to take it away is to erode the game’s foundation.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon takes the ball from pitcher Jon Lester in the sixth inning of a game against the Tigers last season. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

But his concern, while noble, misses something even more fundamental: If MLB forgets about entertainment value, it will die.

There is nothing more distracting than the sight of a manager walking to and from the mound as if he were feeding a parking meter that has a five-minute limit. Very few people pay for tickets, parking, concessions and team apparel to watch the manager. Very few people who turn on their TVs to watch a game do so in feverish anticipation of seeing a manager walk on and off the field.

Imagine going to a movie theater. Imagine that five times in the final half-hour of a very suspenseful film, the director walks into a scene, yells ‘‘Cut!’’ and makes adjustments as the cameras roll. There certainly are people who would love to see how a movie is made and who would enjoy watching actors go in and out of character. But most of us would prefer to find out who killed the guy who has the knife in his back, with the maximum amount of suspense possible.

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That’s a crude comparison, of course, because managers have been interrupting games for decades. But not like this. Not as often as they have been of late. Last season, the average number of relievers per team per game was 3.4. The result is a halting, laboring product that appeals to strategy nuts and fathers who have groomed their sons to be left-handed relievers capable of getting one left-handed batter out.

The rest of us are either asleep or throwing things at our TVs.

This isn’t about Maddon, though there are few managers who seem to enjoy walking to the mound as much as he does. I sometimes wonder whether his goal is 10,000 steps a day on his pedometer.

This is about the future of a game that is losing fans.

There’s nothing wrong with a gentle sport that moves to its own rhythms. But the leisurely pace of baseball has given way to a slow and tedious slog. The average length of a game in 2018 was 14 minutes longer than in 2005. Let the players play. Let the managers stay in the dugout.

And let real pitchers pitch. It’s why I love another new rule for 2020: Position players will not be allowed to pitch in a game unless their team is ahead or behind by at least six runs or unless a game goes into extra innings. Managers sending third basemen to the mound, although good for a few laughs, is an insult to the idea of competition. It says: ‘‘We’re down by six, and the odds say we’re not going to win. Therefore, in the name of saving our relievers for another day, we’re going to wave the white flag. In other words, folks, you’re not watching ‘Rocky.’ ’’

It’s a rip-off to fans who would prefer that their team at least give the appearance of trying to win a game,
no matter how faint the chances seem to be.

The new position-player rule will take another bite out of the idea that the managers are the show. They aren’t, no matter how prominent a role analytics have in the game. The players are the show. If the idea is to bring in younger fans, the answer isn’t a manager walking to the mound; the answer is more excitement.

It’s possible the ship already has sailed and a generation has taken a look at baseball and found it lacking. But it’s also possible the game can be saved from itself. What a relief that would be.