Two days ago I was in Waldorf, Maryland, to see Southern Maryland Blue Crabs take on the Long Island Ducks. The Ducks and the Crabs play in the “Atlantic League of Professional Baseball,” an independent baseball league sort of affiliated with Major League Baseball and sort of not. There are no formal affiliations between member teams and those in MLB, though players do shuffle back and forth between leagues. You’d recognize some of the names on the rosters. Most prominent among them, I suppose, was the Ducks’ manager, Wally Backman. Yes, that Wally Backman of the ’86 Mets, a few too many YouTube clips, and at one time the manager of the Binghamton Mets.
But it’s really not the players or the teams that provide the interesting arrangement between the Atlantic League and MLB. It’s the rules. You see, the Atlantic League is experimenting with some rule changes, a sort of laboratory being observed by MLB scientists, alterations perhaps one day coming to a big league park near you. Most prominent among these, I suppose, is the electronic wizard that calls balls and strikes. Oh, there’s still a home plate umpire, of course, but he is merely reporting the facts as whispered in his ear by some unseen genie. (It’s like the reverse Wizard of Oz–the one you see is the little old man and behind the curtain is the actual wizard.) Watching the action it’s really not that obvious that there’s a slight delay between the snap of the catcher’s glove and the signal from the ump. Oh, but it does happen from time to time, that a robotic call will come in a bit late and of course it’s never in the home team’s favor. “C’mon, computer!” grumbles the faithful in the stands.
The league utilizes a 12-second pitch clock. That really does zip the game along. That the breaks between innings are only 1:45 instead of 2:05 (or any amount of time)… totally unnoticeable. Ditto 18-inch bases. Eighteen-inch bases? Quick, how big have the bases been for the past hundred years? Well, they’re 15 inches, and yeah, when you stare at them you think, I suppose they look a little bigger. But if I hadn’t known, would I have walked in the stadium and thought what the hell are those giant bases doing out there? Not a chance.
Wednesday I mistakenly reported that the Atlantic League uses a 62.5-foot pitcher’s mound. It does not. That change is scheduled to be implemented in 2020. (Guess I’ll have to go back.) The most jarring change and the most talked about (and viewed on YouTube) is, of course, the theft of first base. Yes, in this league one can actually steal first base. On any wild pitch or passed ball the runner at the plate can advance to first as he would on a dropped third strike. I’ll ruin the suspense–I didn’t get to see one. Oh, there were plenty of opportunities (about every tenth pitch is wild), and you could feel it in the crowd every time the ball went past the catcher. You wanted to see it, you were dying to see it. But alas, it was not meant to be. Are batters just not thinking about it? Or is it really not a good play, metrics-wise? We’ll let the geeks figure that one out.
A few words on the venue, Regency Furniture Stadium… it’s much cooler than the silly corporate name it carries. Everything about the park is easy: easy to get to, easy to park, easy to get in and out, and once you’re inside the place is kind of a palace as far as minor league parks go. It’s got probably 20 skyboxes—amazing for a minor league stadium—and a bunch of bells and whistles to keep the “experience” folks entertained. A swimming pool (which had paddle boats but no one swimming), a basketball court, jungle gym, moonbounce. (Thankfully I saw no selfie station.) Home run seats? Yeah, if you don’t mind sitting on a grandstand bench. One can walk around the entire field, a luxury I’ve encountered only at the biggest of Triple-A parks. Well done, Regency, well done.
In all I found the experience to be, well, pretty good baseball. The changes to the game are subtle; you are still watching something Doubleday or Cartwright would recognize. The caliber of play is probably AA or AAA, and as stated, the park itself is on par with some of the best I’ve seen. I happened to go to a game that had probably its lightest attendance of the year (11:05 a.m. start accommodating various local summer camp groups), but it was still an event worth blogging about.
One criticism: the Blue Crabs’ mascot, Pinch… totally copied (pinched?) from the Binghamton Mets and its “Ballwinkle.” Ballwinkle entertained B-Mets fans for nearly a quarter century before “retiring” when the team changed its nickname to the Rumble Ponies.
I’d lodge a formal complaint but come on, it’s a fuzzy blue sports mascot… how different can they really be?