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Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to ban defensive shifts

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There's irony in the agenda of Major League Baseball's new commissioner. And he's not making many friends.

"Mom? It's me, Bobby. I'm doing it, mom. I'm taking this game by the balls."
"Mom? It's me, Bobby. I'm doing it, mom. I'm taking this game by the balls."
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The King is dead; long live the King. Bud Selig is officially no longer at the top of baseball's food pyramid. Baseball's new commissioner is Rob Manfred, and he's already making enemies after one day in his new chair. In an interview with ESPN, he had this to say.

"I think the second set of changes that I would look at is related, and that relates to injected additional offense into the game. For example, things like eliminating shifts - I would be open to those sorts of ideas."

To be certain, Manfred outlined what I think are some good ideas. He wants baseball to be more accessible to younger fans, which means things embracing technology and tweaking the pace of play, and that's fantastic.

Games can get to be too long. I'm about as patient of a person as you'll find, but sitting at a nine inning baseball game for more than three hours gets to be a bit much. Besides: shortening the games by a few minutes doesn't rob anyone of a competitive advantage, except perhaps networks and advertisers during Yankees-Red Sox games.

But introducing new rules to erase what smart teams have deemed a competitive advantage seems short-sighted and dangerous to the competitive nature of sports. It's a fantastic example of over-reach from those in charge wanting to mold something into what they think it should be.

As has been made clear in recent years, baseball is not what the men in charge want it to be. There was a backlash against the introduction of new systems of measurement for player evaluation, there's been backlash against players showing emotion on the field, and now the new commissioner - in his first day on the job - believes it is within his remit to ensure the game stays the way he thinks it should be. That should sound familiar to Star Wars fans.

There's a fairly obvious divide between tweaking the pace of play, such as limiting how long batters and pitchers can stall between pitches, and actively telling teams that there are certain things they've been going that they'll no longer be allowed to do. Finding ways to develop a competitive edge is in the nature of sport, whether that's putting a player in motion behind the line of scrimmage to finding ways to isolate a shooter outside the arc to, yes, defensive shifts. It's a natural progression of the game, because these are exactly the kind of things that keep a game fresh and new.

New wrinkles and fresh ideas will keep and retain new fans. While the shift certainly isn't a "new" strategy, it's in vogue right now, but Commissioner Manfred wants to snuff out that organic development in the game because it's not how he believes the game should develop. Allowing the commissioner to dip his fingers into the field of play and tell teams what they can or cannot do is a dangerous precedent to set.

When a game develops a new wrinkle, players find ways to work around it. Defenses in the NFL learn to disguise their coverage and their blitzes, and players who have a shift imposed upon them will find a way to beat it. It's part of how the game develops. These things cease becoming new and scary and become a part of the fabric that is the great history of baseball.

Additionally, these things need not be policed because the game will police itself. Competitive advantages even themselves out over time, from the availability of video to sabermetrics to something as inconsequential as a defensive shift.

Manfred himself points out that the old school eventually learns to accept changes in the game, but that take is oddly absent here. He talks about the game's traditions and its history, but forgets that part of those traditions and that history is the result of evolution in the game. Moreover, he seems to forget that the shift is already a part of baseball's history.

How odd, then, that the new commissioner believes so strongly in the history of baseball and yet wants to eliminate a tactic that's been used for more than 140 years. How odd that he believes that eliminating the defensive shift would mean more runs for baseball, when that's not necessarily the case. How odd that, for a commissioner who seems so set on making the most of what technology has to offer in order to bring younger fans into the fold, he wants to take away what has been the result of technology in the re-introduction and proliferation of the defensive shift.

Rob Manfred has a lot on his plate. He's stepping into the shoes of a guy who, while not always popular, left an indelible mark on the game by introducing revenue sharing, realigning the divisions, expanding the playoffs, introducing replay, and making baseball the incredible money-making machine that it is. So naturally he's going to feel pressure. But this idea of eliminating the defensive shift has come off sounding ill-researched and smacks of the middle school student who didn't do his book report and just decided to spitball the review.

"We have really smart people working in the game, and they're going to find ways to get a competitive advantage," continues Manfred in his interview. "I think it's incumbent of us in the commissioner's office and to say, 'Is this what we went to happen in the game?'"

It's not incumbent of the commissioner's office to tear down the work of those really smart people, and it's not incumbent of the commissioner's office to determine which parts of the game - in the last 140 years - aren't what they "should" be. There's a nigh-on-endless list of other things that deserve the commissioner's office's attention far more than defensive shifts.