Diehards in sport like things the way they are. Radicals are always trying to change the rules. The traditionalist in me sympathizes with the diehards, but the innovators' ideas make sense often enough to keep me from stubbornly insisting, as I used to, that rules are rules and damned well ought to be left alone.
For instance, I was upset a few years back when college football did away with the tradition of allowing only one extra point after a touchdown. But I must admit that the new option—run or pass the ball over the goal line for two points—has become one of the most attractive features of the college game. Baseball's designated-hitter rule was yet another change that bothered me—it still does—but because every baseball-playing group seems to use it, except for the National League, it must be a welcome addition.
Even I have begun to propose changes. Let's take pro football's extra point. Because the pros apparently believe that it's Nature's Law to kick for the point (no one ever tries to run), how would it be if bonus points were given to the kicking team if it chose to make its extra-point try a more difficult one? What if a team lined up 15 or 20 yards farther back, so that the kicker had to make it good from between the 25 and the 30? That's a lot harder. It ought to be worth two points. That extra extra point could make a big difference in a close game. Add another 15 yards, and let a kick from beyond the 40 be worth three points. Those bonus tries would add spice, especially in the closing seconds of a tight game.
Another pro football idea: change sudden-death overtime so that a team has to win by at least six points—by a touchdown or two field goals (send that man to his room who protests that three safeties will do it, too). Six points would require the receiving team to drive the length of the field and cross the goal line in order to win—or else kick the easy field goal, hold the other team and then kick a second field goal. This is a much harder but much fairer procedure and would bring a fillip of uncertainty to what too often seems an inevitable conclusion.
August 17, 1980
Baseball rules are pretty solid, and my only suggestion has to do with the intentional base on balls, the dullest thing in the game. We don't want to do away with it, though, because it's a legitimate stratagem, nor do we want to make it automatic, waving the batter to first base without a pitch being thrown. But why not liven things up a little by permitting the batter to step across the plate and swing at the ball? He'd have to wait until the pitcher released the ball before he could leave the batter's box, but because the catcher is allowed to leave the confines of his box, then why shouldn't the batter, too? The possibility exists that the pitcher might cross him up with an honest hard one across the plate, which could hit a too eager hitter. You wouldn't want to venture out of the box unless you're sure the pitch is going wide of the plate. If you make a mistake and get plunked in the ribs, you lose. You don't take a base, and the pitch is called a strike.
If this simple rule change were instituted, the pitcher would have to throw the ball so wide of the plate that the batter couldn't possibly reach it, or else put more mustard on it, or both. Any of these variations could lead to a wild pitch or a passed ball, and because there is invariably a man, or two, or even three, on base in this situation, that would be a very important wild pitch or passed ball. Throw closer and slower and there's the batter, ready to scurry across and smack the ball. The dullest moment in baseball could change to one in which everybody is waiting to see what might happen.
Now tennis. Here's a sport in which a radical "new" rule has worked out splendidly. When Jimmy Van Alen first proposed his sudden-death scoring plan, we traditionalists were against it. But, gradually, all of us began to recognize how attractive it was. The fact that Van Alen's original sudden-death idea has been superseded by the slightly less drastic "lingering death" system isn't important. The change was good. The rule has helped everyone—stars, television, administrators and all of us recreational players whose court time is limited and who want to settle a set before time runs out.
Because tennis is amenable to change, I offer another idea, far less radical than Van Alen's but, I think, eminently sensible. Under present rules a let ball is in play at all times except on the serve. A let ball is usually exciting, generating the sudden need to dash forward to get to it in time. If a let ball is legal otherwise, why not on the serve, too? It would add a delicious note of uncertainty. Morever, it would do away with the absurd judge who sits at courtside for hours, fingers on the net, waiting for the quiver signaling that a serve ticked it in passing.
Basketball is exciting as it stands, and I don't have any new ideas for it, particularly now that the three-point basket has taken hold in the NBA. Because basketball players have grown a foot taller than they were in my day, there is a continuing argument that the basket should be raised to make the stuff shot either impossible or a lot harder. There are good arguments pro and con, but the question of raising baskets on thousands of courts around the country is too drastic to discuss in this article. The same holds for ice hockey. A low-scoring game can be dull, but I see no easy way of encouraging more scoring other than making the cage wider or higher, and life is hard enough for the goalie already. Some say hockey teams should be reduced from six players to five, but the players would scream if that were proposed.
Soccer, too, is low-scoring for American tastes. But purists have been bruised enough by changes already made in the U.S. professional game, notably the "shootout," the one-on-one situation devised to settle matters if a game remains tied after two overtime periods. Players and coaches don't much like the shootout, but it's a clever conception and soccer crowds seem to love it.
The fewer rules a game has, the better it is (golf, which has an enormous code of regulations for such a simple sport, is an exception, as is baseball). The most exciting team sport in the world may be Irish hurling, which often seems to have no rules at all. All you really need to know is the scoring (three points for a ball hit under the crossbar of the H-shaped goalpost, one point for a ball hit over it) and the sanctions the law imposes against mayhem and manslaughter. Yet, despite the hard ball and the ax-handle sticks, the players come through remarkably unscathed, the game keeps moving, scoring is high, the action volatile and, yerra, it's a grand sport entirely!