Baseball’s Spring Training has begun, and with the return of the players to their Arizona and Florida practice facilities, the news that is dominating the sport is the direction from the new commissioner (Rob Manfred, who replaced Bud Selig last month) to speed up the pace of play.
Mr. Manfred’s thinking is that baseball games last too long to attract the casual fans who would otherwise pay the hefty price tag to take in a game. I’ll put aside for a moment the counter-argument that the game is doing better financially than it ever has, so “if it ain’t broke, why fix it”? Mr. Manfred and his cohorts (the owners of the major leagues’ thirty teams) want more gate attendance at the games and more viewers of the games on the various TV networks and local stations that carry them.
And the collective belief is that the games are just too darn long. The commissioner wants to trim fifteen to twenty minutes off of the three hours and five minutes that nine inning games now average. He cites the average length from twenty-five years ago (more like two hours and forty-five minutes) as his goal. And his plan starts with the “game within the game” as purists refer to it: the battle between the pitcher and the hitter.
Manfred wants to impose a clock on both players, requiring the pitcher to deliver a pitch within 20 seconds of the last pitch and denying the batter the ability to step out of the batter’s box in between pitches. In the current state of the game, many pitchers deliberate long and hard over which pitch to throw, and many batters adjust their batting gloves and otherwise “regroup” after each pitch, mostly trying to calculate what specific variety of pitch the pitcher is most likely to throw next.
Mr. Manfred thinks those delays are unnecessary and that if everyone abides by the 20-second clock he wants to impose, games will be over more quickly. He also has a few other ideas, like requiring pitchers to throw the first pitch of each inning within a set amount of time from the last out of the previous inning (that time would be dictated by whether the game was being broadcast nationally, in which case advertisers get two minutes and forty-five seconds to sell their cars, beer, et al., or locally, in which case they only get two twenty-five). Pitchers who take longer than the allotted time would be warned and then would suffer either a fine or a called ball against the scheduled batter. (Batters would also be subject to fines or called strikes for their tardiness.)
Now if all of this strikes you as being just a little silly, you aren’t alone. Traditionalists, like me, think the game is just fine at three hours plus and aren’t in the least bit interested in having a clock imposed on a sport that has always distinguished itself from the other team sports for the very reason that it doesn’t have a clock. Real fans understand that the “game within the game” is the essence of the sport and that the modern skill sets that both pitchers and hitters have include being able to do what most humans could not even pretend to do at a level of performance that is almost superhuman. Ever try to throw a curve ball, let alone a slider? Ever try to hit one? That’s what these guys at the major league level are doing, and it’s what makes the game the amazing contest of athletic skill that it is.
But never mind; Mr. Manfred wants to attract more casual fans, the kind of fan who needs constant stimulation. That fan’s appreciation of the game is heightened by lots of scoring and maximized by home runs. He or she also hates low scoring games, regarding them as just about as exciting as watching paint dry. You’ve probably seen those kinds of fans at a game if you’ve attended one recently. They generally have a cell phone in active use (texting or taking selfies), except when they’re chowing down on a hot dog or slurping another beer. They know which team they’re rooting for, but they’re only vaguely aware of the players on the team. If they have their family with them, they spend a lot of time telling their kids that they need to stop asking for more food and to pay attention to the game.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for getting more people interested in baseball. It’s the best of games, especially for kids and their dads. I cherish the games I saw with my dad and have the fondest of memories of the games I saw with my kids. But just what are we trying to do by shortening the game? Are fans less likely to go to a game because it might last longer than three hours? Really? Are those same fans discouraged from going to football games that last in excess of three and a half hours?
I think Mr. Manfred is really misdiagnosing the problem. The problem, if there is one (and on that note, see my opening counter-argument) is that baseball is not as action-packed as American football (or basketball or hockey, for that matter). It’s a different kind of game, one in which an exciting play can happen at any moment, but in which there will only be a few over the course of three hours. As for the rest, it’s a lot like life: little things happen, each capable of being a mini-drama of sorts but none the kind of edge-of-your-seat stuff that demands your attention. It’s a game for people who like to smell the roses when they go for a walk, instead of hustling through a walk that is intended to get them somewhere (or to complete a workout regimen).
It’s a game for people who value every moment of life, not for what they can get out of it, but for what it offers in the still, quiet moments of contemplative joy.