Mark LaFlamme: James Earl Jones must hate the new baseball rules

Mar. 7—Our rules for backyard Wiffle ball back in the day were pretty well-established.

Four fouls? Stop wasting time, punk. You're out.

Foul ball caught off the roof? Out.

Don't have enough players? Well, OK, there's an invisible runner on second so a double or long single will bring him home. No talking to the invisible runner, kids, because that would just be weird.

We also had some goofy rules exclusive to our neighborhood. If you threw the bat after a hit, for example, you were out. This rule came about because one of our local hooligans had a habit of excitedly hurling his bat like a boomerang every time he got a hit, even if it was just a little flubber back to the pitcher. The result of this overzealous bat flinging would include a couple broken windows, an injured beagle and a bawling neighborhood girl who had been picking flowers in an adjacent yard when the hooligan's bat came spinning in at her at 100 mph.

Hence the rule.

And yes, the hooligan was me. My shame is great.

We also had a bunch of rules pertaining to trees, since our usual Wiffle ball games were played in a yard with a ridiculous number of them.

If a ball were to get caught in a tree, it was perfectly OK for a player from the opposing team to shake the tree, throw stuff at the lodged ball or wait for a gust of wind to come along to nudge it free. If you caught the ball after it ping-ponged off every branch on the way down, the batter was out and you were a neighborhood legend for five minutes.

If you went through all that only to drop the ball, you were a chump and other kids, up to and including the weeping flower girl, would laugh at you and call you mean names. Even the limping beagle might get in on that action.

Some rules were just there for the great fun they provided. For instance, if a kid belted a drive so deep that it landed in Old Man Pouliot's garden next door, not only was that kid rewarded a home run, he got the immense joy of watching a boy from the opposing team risking life and limb to retrieve the ball.

A kid traipsing into Old Man Pouliot's rows of carrots and beans was a joy to behold. He would proceed with all the caution and tension of a soldier venturing into a minefield, aware that at any moment, mean and possibly drunk Mr. Pouliot could come charging out of his house with a broom to assail the offending garden wrecker.

Balls swatted into Old Man Pouliot's garden caused long delays in a game, but we tolerated this because the entertainment value was so high. One kid named Rusty got caught red-handed during one such ball recovery mission and reacted by fleeing into some nearby woods to escape the wrath of Pouliot.

Rusty was never seen again, but to be fair, he couldn't hit for squat, so we didn't search for him very hard.

I bring all this up because I've been catching up on Major League Baseball's newest rules and more and more they're all starting to feel very familiar.

Professional baseball now has "ghost runners," trotted out to second base under certain circumstances just as we used to employ the use of invisible runners.

Professional baseball now has a pitch clock, meaning if the pitcher doesn't throw the ball in a certain amount of time, the umpire will yell and punish him in some way. As kids, we had a pitch clock, too. It basically meant that if some yahoo was spending too much time primping and preening on the mound, trying to make himself look cooler than he was, the rest of us would start yelling at him and if he still refused to throw the ball, it was knuckle sandwich time.

Professional baseball is now using bigger bases because ... I don't know, reasons. This is familiar also since, as kids, we used whatever was available as bases.

The giant lid we kifed off Old Man Pouliot's trash can? That's first base. We'd have a cracked and grimy frisbee serving as second base, some poor fool's coat as third and a rusty old hubcap serving as home plate.



Professional baseball now limits how many times the pitcher can try to pick off a runner on first base. We always discouraged pickoffs, too, but mainly because so many of our pitchers ended up throwing the ball deep into the woods, and if you ventured into the woods to retrieve it, you might happen upon poor Rusty's moldering bones and nobody wanted to see that.

I've been a baseball fan since I was old enough to pick up a vaguely roundish object and hurl it across the kitchen of my childhood home. I love the game in all its forms and, until recently, I would pay whatever the price to watch my beloved Kansas City Royals do their thing. (They won the World Series in 2015, you know.)

When we were kids playing Wiffle ball, every single one of us dreamed of someday playing in the big leagues, where the game was pure and steeped in a century of tradition. We would work on important aspects of the game, like spitting and bat twirls, in case the day every came that we were called up to the bigs.

Baseball, in our view, was sublime. It was one of life's constants; a game that would always be the same no matter what, even at a time when everything else in the world was changing around us.

Baseball, in the humble opinion of a kid, was something that just could never be tampered with. If one practiced real hard at his backyard games with their silly rules, he might one day graduate to the professional realms where the rules were clear and set in stone.

Which shows what we knew, really. Look at the MLB now, tampering with tradition all over the place, and in a variety of perverse ways. All of this is done in the name of speeding up the game — which somehow must mean increased profits for the league because that's the only reason they do anything anymore.

Ask any old-time baseball fan when he believes Major League Baseball was changed for the worst and you'll get a mix of answers. Was it when the player salaries got so obscenely inflated? When steroid use became rampant? When they started integrating National and American leagues?

To me, the fast descent into reductive shame we see today began in 2017 when they introduced a rule stating that a pitcher who wished to walk a batter no longer had to actually throw the ball. With the new rule, the manager just gets the attention of the ump and wriggles his four fingers like a 3-year-old learning how to count. The pitcher just stands there like a dope and doesn't do anything at all. Gone is the thrill of hoping the pitcher, unaccustomed to merely lobbing the ball, would hurl one to the backstop, creating havoc on the bases.

Pathetic. And the rules that have followed are worse, still. In an age where we are beset by changes, few of them good, baseball should be the uncontestable constant we always thought it was.

At the end of "Field of Dreams," the character of Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, made an iconic speech about the game.

he said in that low, rolling thunder of a voice.

Three decades later and baseball is barely recognizable as the game ol' James Earl loved so much. It's ironic. Disappointing. Sad.

I'm just relieved that our old friend Rusty is not around to see this.