MLB Spring Training 2023: ‘Normal’ Baseball is Back … Or is It?
The Stream's Tom Sileo reports from Florida on rule changes for the upcoming MLB season.
There are few things I enjoy more than sitting in the sun-soaked stands at a Spring Training baseball game. The atmosphere is relaxed and the smiles on the faces of almost every spectator are as bright as the Florida and Arizona skies.
This past Sunday’s Washington Nationals home opener against the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros was no exception. It was a beautiful day filled with sunshine, cold beverages, hot dogs and happiness.
The best part was that for the first time since 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic and last year’s ridiculous MLB lockout – everything at the Nats and Astros’ shared Spring Training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, was back to normal. Well, almost everything.
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For the 2023 season, Major League Baseball has introduced a pitch clock in an effort to speed up the pace of games. While the new rules are apparently going to be in place for the regular season no matter what, Spring Training is serving as a guinea pig for the sport’s new rules, which sound fine on paper but appear much different in practice thus far.
To say things have gotten off to a rocky start would be an understatement. On Saturday, the first day of Spring Training, a game between the Braves and Red Sox ended in a tie when Atlanta hitter Cal Conley was assessed an automatic strike for apparently not being set in the batter’s box. Since the count on the batter was full and there were two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, the game came to a surprising and confusing conclusion when the umpire decided that Conley had “struck out.” That meant Boston escaped a bases loaded jam and the game was suddenly over. Ties can only occur in Spring Training.
While watching the end of that game on TV was confusing enough, I can’t imagine how baffling it was for fans in the stands. Actually, I can. Having just attended a Spring Training game on Sunday, I can tell you that I was just as confused by the new rules as the fans sitting around us in our section.
The new pitch clock rules are listed here, but MLB has to do a better job of explaining them to fans, especially those who pay to attend a game. Spring Training ballparks are smaller and most fans can at least see the umpire’s hand indicate a ball or strike pitch clock “penalty.” That will change in a big way once regular season games start being played in much larger stadiums. The current confusion will only get worse.
I also think I can safely speak for the vast majority of lifelong baseball fans in saying that a non-exhibition game should never end on a ball or strike penalty. If the new pitch clock rules are here to stay, they must be reimagined as soon as possible to avoid the fiasco that will surely follow. Between the 2017 Astros cheating scandal, the silly 60-game 2020 “season” and allegations of MLB “juicing” baseballs to increase home run totals, the last thing the sport needs is another controversy about the legitimacy of competition.
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Regardless of the new rules, baseball is a great game that’s even more beautiful in February (yes, February!) and March in Florida and Arizona. Taking my daughters – including our youngest, whose name is inspired by the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals – to these games has been a highlight of every spring since we moved to the Sunshine State seven years ago.
If you don’t live in a Spring Training state, make plans to travel to Florida or Arizona this year or next. I promise you won’t regret it.
Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is the author of the recently released Be Bold and co-author of Three Wise Men, Brothers Forever, 8 Seconds of Courage and Fire in My Eyes. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.