MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You wouldn't know it at first glance, but the future of baseball may be happening at a cozy little ballpark in New Britain, Conn. That is where Major League Baseball, in partnership with an independent league, is experimenting with some unique innovations this season. Esteban Bustillos from member station WGBH in Boston reports.
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ESTEBAN BUSTILLOS, BYLINE: Just southwest of Hartford, the New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball are hosting the York Revolution on a scorcher of a midsummer evening. There's everything you'd expect at a ballpark like this - hot dogs, cold beer and tickets you can get for eight bucks a pop.
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BUSTILLOS: But behind the scenes, the league is in the middle of an experiment that could change the way the game is played at the highest level. As part of a three-year agreement with Major League Baseball, the Atlantic League is testing out a series of rule changes to speed up the game, make it safer for players and give it more action. Some changes, like decreasing the amount of time between innings, are small, while others, like letting batters steal first on any wild pitch and having a radar-tracked strike zone are revolutionary. And they come as baseball is in a demographic crisis, with 9% of Americans listing it as their favorite sport to watch according to a Gallup poll released in 2018.
RICK WHITE: Baseball has tended to skew older in terms of its following, and this group of owners and the commissioner would like to see it start to skew younger.
BUSTILLOS: That's Rick White, president of the Atlantic League. Of all the changes, the radar-tracked strike zone is probably the most eye-catching. It uses what's called the Automated Ball-Strike System to determine each hitter's strike zone and communicate whether a ball is inside or outside via an earpiece to the home plate umpire. It all stems from what White says is a constant pressure for accuracy in equity.
WHITE: Everyone in professional sports, but especially Major League Baseball, wants to create fairness and objectivity as opposed to a disparity between one player or another or their performance.
BUSTILLOS: Bees manager Mauro Gozzo is against some of the rule changes, but he likes the radar-tracked strike zones. Dealing with the grab bag of different strike zones is an everyday struggle for him as a manager.
MAURO GOZZO: As far as, you know, what you see from the umpires, it could change from the beginning of the game to the end of the game just on the intensity of the game.
BUSTILLOS: Bees pitcher Cory Riordan knows there are baseball purists who cling to tradition, but he says there's also an evolution to the game.
GOZZO: I think if we're more accepting of change and embrace the change, then I think, you know, there's a future. But if you're going to be constantly arguing against what the game has become and - it's wasted to me. It's wasted energy.
BUSTILLOS: On the other hand, Revolution shortstop Ryan Dent says the new rules have taken some getting used to.
RYAN DENT: It's really you're just accustomed to playing a certain brand of baseball for, you know, 10, 12 years of pro ball. And then all of a sudden, you know, you're not going to be comfortable with it within a month or two, you know. So you got to give it time.
BUSTILLOS: Joe Trombetta was sitting in the first few rows behind home plate. He's been coming to Bees games since the team started playing in 2016. He wasn't aware of all the rule changes, but he was in favor of having a standardized strike zone.
JOE TROMBETTA: Well, I think it helps make things more accurate, you know. There's no doubts, and there's no arguing.
BUSTILLOS: As the game wore on, there weren't any of the flashy changes immediately visible. No one stole first, and the new strike zone system wasn't in use. But starting today, it will be implemented at every Atlantic League game. Major League Baseball will evaluate all the changes at the end of the season.
For NPR News, I'm Esteban Bustillos in Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.