- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Over in the world of helmets and clipping penalties, the NFL changes some kind of rule -- or two -- every single offseason. Baseball, on the other hand, continues to operate under essentially the same rules it used in 1926, give or take a DH.
Well, we're all for stability -- but Babe Ruth is dead. So we've spent the last week polling two dozen players, general managers, scouts, agents and broadcasters to see if there are any baseball rules they would like to see changed, updated or amended with three sticks of dynamite.
We now present the best of what they proposed. But the good news is, you also get to vote in our SportsNation poll.
Use instant replay
White Sox GM Kenny Williams says he would love to "give our manager one of those little challenge flags." OK, baseball can't use replay for everything. Nobody wants to wait 10 minutes to confirm a foul tip. But replay would work great to decide whether balls are fair or foul, out of the park or off the wall. And why not? Nobody uses long division if they have a calculator handy. Technology marches on. Use it.
Stay in the box
Why have a batter's box if we're going to let hitters march around between pitches as if they're in the Rose Bowl Parade? We'd allow a hitter to step out once per at-bat to regroup -- but that's it. Other than that, the hitter has to keep one foot in the box for the entire at-bat, or it's an automatic strike. And if both feet are in, the pitcher had better be ready to pitch, or it's an automatic ball.
Establish visiting hours
Some managers and pitching coaches spend more time on the mound every night than their starting pitcher. Enough already! Padres GM Kevin Towers proposes a limit of five visits per game by managers and coaches (not counting injury visits when accompanied by a trainer). If a game goes extra innings, everybody gets two extra visits. And there should be a one-minute limit to any visit. Are we the only ones who watch some of these interminable mound conventions and think about the wedding-gift mound scene from Bull Durham?
Toughen up the save rule
All saves are not created equal. So naturally, we got a bunch of suggestions aimed at pampered closers. Our favorites: Relievers shouldn't get a save unless they face the tying run. And relievers shouldn't get a win if they blow a save. But nobody should ever again be allowed to earn a "save" in a 26-7 game.
Ban the fake-to-third, throw-to-first move
If it were up to us, we'd wipe out the balk rule entirely, since 50 percent of all balks are essentially examples of umpires trying to demonstrate how smart and attentive they are. But if we're going to keep it, then please make that horrendous fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move a balk. We don't care if the pitcher is on the rubber, off the rubber or lying in a deck chair. That move deceives runners more than all but about six balk calls we've ever seen.
Three pickoffs and you're done
Speaking of pickoffs, two of our poll-ees suggested that pickoff throws be limited to three per runner, per base. Think of the dramatic possibilities after a pitcher had used up his second move. Would he dare use up that (gasp) third throw, knowing it would be an invitation to the runner to take a 40-foot lead on the next pitch? Or were those first two throws a set-up, daring that runner to guess there's no way he'd make that third move -- and get picked off? Sounds like fun to us.
Five for fighting
Hockey and football teams are allowed to deactivate players for a specific game. So here's a baseball variation suggested by one club official who prefers to remain nameless: Limit a team to five relief pitchers per nine-inning game. Obviously, all limits are off in extra innings, but this could be a change that works for everybody: It would be a guaranteed night off for that tireless right-hander who had already pitched three straight days. And it would spare us the thrill of the in-and-out bullpen parade -- left, right, left, right ... oops, we're out of pitchers.
It takes two
In the same vein, Brewers GM Doug Melvin suggests that when no one is on base, a relief pitcher should have to face a minimum of two hitters instead of just one. Nothing worse than a 1-2-3 seventh inning featuring three different relievers.
Let's not see you in September
Our buddy Peter Gammons rants about this every year, and he's right: Why do teams play with a 25-man roster all year and then, in the most important month -- September -- get to expand the roster to 40? If September provides a club with the opportunity to check out a Francisco Rodriguez or a Brandon Phillips, fine. If it allows a team to add a backup catcher or extra bullpen arm, no problem. But when it's hard to tell the Tigers' active roster from the Lions' active roster, that's going too far. Shrink that September roster to 30 -- tops.
Unify the numbers
Once upon a time, baseball had two separate and distinct leagues. They had their own offices. They never played each other. For a while, they even had their own rules. But now -- in an age of interleague play, one umpiring workforce and no league offices -- it's time to consolidate the stats. Was there anything more ridiculous last September than those scoreboards, newspapers and official stat sheets showing Bartolo Colon's record as 10-4 (his record just as an Expo), when everybody knew he was 20-8? If a player gets traded from one league to the other in midseason, count all his stats -- not just the stats in the new league. While we're at it, can we retroactively give Mark McGwire that 1997 home run title he should have won (when he led the major leagues with 58, but made the mistake of hitting 34 of them in Oakland before getting traded to the Cardinals in July)?
Waive the waiver system
As long as we're on this subject, another constructive proposal by Doug Melvin would make the waiver system more like the draft. Now, if a player gets placed on waivers by an AL team, all the other AL teams have to pass on claiming him before even the worst team in the NL gets a shot at him. If we're striving for competitive balance in an interleague age, shouldn't that system be trashed? Give teams an opportunity to claim a player according to their record -- worst teams first, regardless of league. Or alternate leagues like the draft. But to give the Yankees first shot at a player who could legitimately help the Pirates is absurd.
Erase the runner's box
A bunch of players grumbled about the continued existence of that "runner's box" along the last 45 feet of the first-base line. In theory, the runner is supposed to stay within the lane of those two lines. In reality, said Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, "if the runner stays in the runner's box, he can't actually ever legally touch first base." Plus, said Texas' Doug Glanville, that lane "is in foul territory. So as a right-handed batter, you have to run across the field to get foul, then loop back to touch the base, which is in fair territory." If it's interference, it's interference. Do we really need that line to establish whether it is or isn't? And let those right-handed hitters cut across the grass to get to the line while we're at it.
Define the true meaning of sacrifice
Marlins utility dynamo Andy Fox wonders why hitters don't get a sacrifice when they hit a ground ball to the right side to move a runner -- or when they hit a ground ball with the infield back to score a run. Good question. We've seen scorers give sacs to guys who clearly were bunting for a hit. So why wouldn't they have the discretion to give "sacs" to guys who obviously are hitting a ball to the right side to advance a runner?
Dump the designated pinch-runner
If we're trying to speed up the game and make it more athletic, why defeat both purposes by allowing some half-crippled pinch-hitter to pinch-hit in a blowout, then have to pinch-run for him? Another cool Doug Melvin idea would ban pinch-running for a pinch-hitter -- unless he represents the tying or go-ahead run. Besides moving the game along, it would force managers to save certain hitters for certain situations, knowing they couldn't get them out of the game if they reached base. Strategy: good. One-dimensional hitters: bad. That's our motto.
But add the designated fielder
Doug Melvin (who obviously needs his own column) also proposes adding a minimum-salaried 26th roster spot for a "designated fielder." This guy would make the minimum -- but would never be allowed to bat (all season). Unlike the DH, the DF wouldn't play the whole game in the field. He would be a defensive specialist who would go into a game late and occupy a lineup spot -- except that when his turn came up, you'd have to pinch-hit for him. So he'd be the defensive equivalent of the closer. He'd just move around a lot more.
Ban all body armor
Baseball did a great job last year of cracking down on all those hitters heading for the plate in football pads. But it's time to go further. Unless a guy has had a broken bone in his hand or arm within the past five years, or a deep bruise (authenticated by the surgeon general) within the past 30 days, no armor whatsoever should be permitted for any hitter. Sorry, Barry. Even you.
Invent the "team" error
When a 40-foot pop-up lands in the infield between four different men wearing the finest gloves money can buy, don't you just hate it when that's scored a (chuckle) "hit?" When a routine fly ball in the alley drops between two outfielders who forgot to call it, doesn't it curdle your blood when the hitter gets a (gasp) "double?" Absurd! If a ball should be caught, it should be caught. And if it isn't, it's an error -- even if it's a "team" error. Case closed.
Enforce the batter's box
This, technically, isn't a rule "change." But explain to us again why some hitters are allowed to rub out the back line of the batter's box and camp out practically in the catcher's lap. We don't get it. If we're not going to enforce that batter's box, why waste the chalk? And on a similar note, if a hitter wants to stand so close to the plate that his elbows are actually in the strike zone, he forfeits the right to take his base if he gets drilled. And the umpire would announce that before the pitch.
The phantom must go
There's nothing more "phantom" these days than the "phantom" tag of second base on a double play. Two different club executives grumbled that middle infielders are now allowed to roam farther and farther off the bag while "turning" two. So we risk hearing from the heavily funded Shortstop Lobby by proposing: No more phantom tags. If you don't touch the base, you don't get the out.
No more Saturday night games
A prominent GM who prefers not to get fined says it's time for all weekend games to be played in the afternoon, to make this sport as kid-friendly as possible. Since we work for a network that seems to enjoy Sunday nights, we'll make an allowance for one national TV game every week. But that's it. The same GM wants no night games starting after 7 p.m., and no postseason games starting later than 8 p.m. sharp -- all in the name of re-infusing kids with the love of baseball. Yeah, there would be short-term money lost. But we would make it back when the next generation pours through the turnstiles. We promise, Bud.
No more out-of-the-baseline rule
Retired first-base magician Rico Brogna proposes there should be no such thing as a runner going out of the baseline. Let him run anywhere on the field if he wants. Imagine that crowd roaring as the runner on first runs around the outfield while the runner who was on second attempts to score. Imagine the drama as the team in the field tries to decide whether it's worth chasing the runner and conceding the run or getting the out. It could be baseball's version of the Stanford Band Play.
Farm out the Brewers
The last labor deal should have had a minimum payroll to force lousy teams to try to get better. But since it didn't, one GM had an idea that's guaranteed to work: The team with the worst record in baseball every year gets sent to Triple-A. We're assuming some team from Triple-A -- or at least the Northern League -- would have to be promoted to the big leagues to fill out the divisions, but we're willing to negotiate. Now that would get their attention at Miller Park, huh?
No win, no welfare
Or here's a variation on that same theme, from an anonymous agent: If a team has three consecutive losing seasons, it loses 50 percent of its revenue-sharing payout and all of its welfare check from the luxury-tax pool until it gets above .500 again. That might force the Pirates, Brewers and Tigers into Chapter 11. But if it didn't, we bet it would sure speed up their rebuilding programs.
Get the fans in the game -- literally
One final Rico Brogna proposal: Make fan interference legal. Fans couldn't actually leave the stands, of course. And any nets, traps or other contraptions not fitting the definition of "baseball glove" would be prohibited. But otherwise, make fans feel like more a part of the action than ever before (and boost sales of those front-row seats) by giving them the right to field any ball, fair or foul, that shows up near their seat. What sport has ever been fan-friendlier than that?
Ban Thunder Stix
One club executive pleaded with us to get baseball to outlaw the pre-game dispensing of any giveaway item which, if waved, banged or pounded, could cause significant permanent hearing loss. And after living through last October in Anaheim, our only possible response to that is: Huh? What's that? Say again?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
From using instant replay to adding a designated fielder, Jayson Stark proposes 25 rule changes.