Many years ago, the great sports essayist Red Smith made an offhanded observation about baseball and the measurements of the field.
“Ninety feet between bases,’’ Smith wrote, “is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.’’
That’s 90 feet, not 89½.
Doc Adams was rather precise when he and baseball’s other founders drew up the dimensions of the diamond. Adams’ Laws of Baseball, considered the Magna Carta of the game, specified 30 yards between bases. It’s right there in the third paragraph of the document in Adams’ own handwriting. And 30 yards translates to Red Smith’s 90 feet.
Now, however, the proprietors of baseball who love to tinker with the sport, are experimenting with some new rules in what is left of the minor leagues. One of the most dramatic is in Triple-A where the bases with be expanded from the 15 square inches that has worked forever to 18 square inches, effectively reducing the distance between bases from 90 feet to 89½.
Now six inches isn’t much, unless you’re blessed with the speed of a Rickey Henderson, who is the all-time leader in steals with 1,406 – nearly five hundred more than any other baserunner. If the bases were six inches closer, there’s no telling how many bases he would have swiped.
Baseball’s bosses are also introducing another wrinkle, hiding it in Low-A ball since it is rather outrageous. This one allows pitchers two pickoff throws to first base per plate appearance. If the runner gets back each time and the pitcher tries a third one, it better result in an out or else it is ruled a balk and the runner gets to advance to second base.
This will make runners bolder when stepping off from the 18-inch square base, measuring their lead, tempting pitchers to throw over to keep the runner honest. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game of catch me if you can. And you get three chances to catch me, or else I get second base.
Management seems obsessed with awarding second base at no charge. Remember the extra innings rule that puts a runner at second to start every extra inning, a bit of foolishness that upsets the natural nature of the game.
Somewhere Rickey Henderson, who is 62 years old and in the Hall of Fame, is looking at 89 1/2 feet between bases and the runner-friendly two-chance pickoff rule and licking his chops, probably wondering if he might be able to make a comeback.