Bring on the Chaos
I have a motto, one that I communicate to my kids as well as anyone I work with, and one that has served me well for over two decades: “Try never to make the same mistake twice.”
Because, in the words of Billy Joel, “We’re only human, we’re supposed to make mistakes.” Mistakes are, for my money, the number one way to learn anything. Try, do, screw up, figure it out, move on to the next one. In my career, I have learned more from deals, or provisions, or contracts that I messed up than any that went perfectly well. We have to feel that pit in our belly; we need to have a sleepless night or two; we have to get red with embarrassment when malfeasance is made public. These are the teachable and learning moments. They suck. And we wouldn’t wish them on anybody. But they happen. And we learn and we grow. And then we resolve never to make that same mistake again.
So, when a Red Sox – Braves spring training game ended with a “Clock Off” (h/t Mike Ferrin), I could not have been happier. For those of you who missed the biggest story of the first week of the spring (other than Manny Machado’s $350M and Gavin Lux’s shredded ACL), Braves second baseman Cal Conley came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the score tied. He ran the count to 3-and-2, and then got called out because he was not in the batter’s box, ready to hit, when the pitch clock struck 8 seconds. Never mind that Red Sox catcher Eli Marrero was standing (not crouching) at that moment, the rule is that the batter must be ready. Per MLB, the correct call was made. And because the teams had decided against extra innings, the game ended in that most unconventional manner.
The announcers proclaimed, “This is mayhem…this is baseball in 2023.” In fairness, it is hard to tell if the announcers were being derisive or just descriptive. Either way, I don’t care. Bring on the chaos. Let every game from now until March 29th have a moment of uncertainty; let there be pitchers and batters violating the pitch clock; let there be infielders with their feet on the outfield grass; let there be players taking a running start to field their position. And let the umpires call a violation on each and every occasion. That is the only way they will learn. Let them make mistakes, and then try never to make the same mistake twice.
When MLB announced the new rules, and further decreed that they would be implemented from day one of spring training, some people lost their mind. Even if they were inclined to abide by the changes, some players and fans thought a slower implementation would be better for those who have been playing one way their entire lives. I disagreed then, and disagree now. And, from the looks of things on fields from Florida to Phoenix, players are getting comfortable, and the rules are having their desired effect.
Other than baseball purists who want players wearing wool and traveling by train, who doesn’t prefer games ending in roughly 2½ hours? Other than those same purists, who cares what happens in a meaningless spring training game where players who won’t sniff the big leagues this season are pitching, catching, and hitting in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth? Let chaos reign for the next four weeks. Let’s get it all out of our systems. Let the players have a moment of embarrassment. Machado – and his $350M contract – was the first player to take a called (not thrown) strike under the new rules. Do I think that is the last time he takes one of those? Probably not. But maybe Jake Cronenworth or Xander Bogaerts saw that and thought to himself, “Never going to happen to me.”
Same for pitchers. On the first weekend of the spring, over sixteen games, there were 35 violations, 27 by pitchers. Did they all learn their lessons? I doubt it. But maybe/hopefully, their teammates did. Some pitchers, like the Guardians’ Cal Quantrill, have made an adjustment and sped up their routine. New Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen, one of the players for whom the pitch clock was implemented, has been working all off-season to speed up his delivery, including changing his double-swivel to get going quicker. He seems excited, not exercised, by the new challenge. These are athletes who can change their arm angle or their grip on the ball after a single bullpen session; there is no reason they can’t learn to pitch a smidge more quickly.
Spring training used to be about getting players into physical shape. This year it is about getting into mental shape – dealing with the new rules. Let the players make all sorts of mistakes; let the umpires make all sorts of mistakes; let the announcers proclaim mayhem or bedlam or anarchy. That way, when the games matter, when there is something to play for – be it in April or October – everyone is on the same page…and on the same clock.