Sunday, April 5, 2015

No Time for Baseball

     I just watched the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team beat the University of Maryland to advance to the Championship against Notre Dame. It is the fourth college basketball game I watched this weekend as it is that time of the year. As the basketball game ended, I switched over to watch the St. Louis Cardinals versus the Chicago Cubs season opener. It is also that time of the year. Time being the key word here.
     Basketball is timed game. In fact most of the major sports, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer are timed. As a result, these sports are fast paced and more suited to television. The start and, more importantly, the stop time are more predictable which is good for television and the advertising that funds both networks and sports teams. The faster paced sports engage the fickle viewers whose collective attention span has decreased at a rapid rate in today's world of media overload. In this regard, baseball is somewhat of an enigma in this day and age. Baseball is a timeless sport. There is no clock. There are nine innings with three outs per side per inning. If the game is tied after nine, extra innings are played until there is a winner. The lack of a clock makes baseball different and special. A team could be losing in the ninth inning with two outs and they still have a theoretical chance of winning the game no matter how far they are behind. The probability of winning might be low, but the possibility of winning still exists. Think of basketball, hockey, football, and soccer when there is a minute left on the clock. Depending on how far behind a team is winning is just impossible and the game is essentially over.
     This timelessness that once made baseball special and the slow pace that made baseball perfect for radio broadcasts are now viewed as a detriment to the game. Add to this the fact that baseball is in the part of its natural cycle where pitching and defense are dominating offense.  The owners have come to the conclusion that changes need to be made to rev up the game and generate more fans and fan loyalty. On April 2nd, the Wall Street Journal had an article titled The Plan to Speed Up Baseball.
     The article aptly states the issue in some statistics that have gotten the owners attention:
As games have stretched ever-longer, national television ratings are collapsing. An average of 13.8 million viewers watched the seven-game World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants last year, 16% less than the last seven-game World Series in 2011, and 44% less than the seven-game series in 1997 between the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins, clubs with almost no national following. Just 3.8 million viewers on average watched last season’s National League Championship Series between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, two of the game’s marquee franchises.

There is lot of idle time in baseball. Beginning this season, MLB is taking steps to remove some of that time out of the games. They are putting strict rules in for the time between half-innings: 2:25 minutes for non-televised games and 2:45 for televised games. Batters have to keep a foot in the batters box between pitches unless they call time. There is a rule that is never followed that requires pitchers to pitch every twelve seconds. Umpires will be tasked to speed up the pitches in the majors but the changes are more dramatic in the minors. A twenty second pitch clock will be used in the minors with a violation resulting in a called ball.  They are indeed setting the stage to use clocks in baseball.
     I used to live and breathe baseball. I lived and died with the Detroit Tigers. I did this in an era without free agency where the star players and team colors and logos were almost inextricably linked for the long haul. I lived and breathed baseball when a majority of the games, for me, were listened to over the radio masterfully broadcast by George Kell and Ernie Harwell. Baseball was the National Pastime. Over the years, I followed the crowd away from baseball to football. Sure, I will watch or go to an occasional baseball game, but I follow football. I live and breathe football. I used to watch the playoffs and World Series but even the Fall Classic comes and goes without me barely noticing these days.
      I really truly want to protest against any efforts to put a clock to baseball. But, it is a nostalgic and hollow protest as I am nowhere near the avid fan I once was. So what if I am philosophically against this, I am not a true patron and fan of the sport right now. Just maybe, these changes will lure me back to being an active fan and aficionado of the game.
     Time... time will tell.

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