When I was a kid, listening to Curt Gowdy describe the discouraging daily travails of the Boston Red Sox of Chuck Schilling, Frank Malzone, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green over WHDH in Boston, sponsored by Atlantic Refineries (“Atlantic keeps you car on the go,go go,GO!”) and Narragansett Beer (“Hi, neighbor! Have a ‘Gansett! Straight from the barrel taste!”), most baseball games were done in two and a half hours. Now three hours is average, and for Red Sox games, four hours is not unusual. For those of us who enjoy baseball, this is hardly a tragedy, though it can be an inconvenience, and in my case, a major reason why my two languishing ethics books are still incomplete.
The honchos of the game, however, worry that the increasing time of games limits the game’s appeal to the younger generations, whose attention span resembles that of kittens, except for the relative few who can appreciate such features as drama, compelling narratives, suspense, character and probabilities. Thus MLB has been for years trying various measures to pare some of the time out of the modern baseball game. The baseball execs also act and talk as if they have no idea why the games have lengthened. They know. Anyone who follows the game knows.
It’s advertising and TV. Baseball teams can change sides in about 30 seconds, which is how long it takes to grab a glove and run onto the field, or run off the field into a dugout. Now, however, the time between innings has been lengthened to almost three minutes, most of which is to allow TV advertising to run while the players wait. Let’s be generous and say that a one-minute ad between innings would be reasonable. That leaves an additional two minutes between innings ( 8 X 2 minutes= 16 minutes) and another two minutes in the middle of innings, an additional 9 X 2 (when the home team is behind) minutes, or 18 minutes. There’s 34 minutes of nothing right there. When I was watching baseball as a kid, most games weren’t televised; now they all are. Gee, I wonder why games are a half-hour longer now?
There are other factors at play, of course. Some batters stall outrageously, and umpires don’t tell them to get in the box and bat, as they should. Pitchers wait too long to throw the ball. The new replay and challenge system added time to games. The biggest in-game time expenditure comes from the infuriating number of pitching changes, caused by the flood of new statistics showing how managers Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver were correct (before the data had been collected and analyzed): right-handed batters really do hit left-handed pitchers better than they do right-handers. Also, now that data shows that most starting pitchers get progressively less effective the more pitches they throw, pitchers are almost never allowed to complete a game they start. Once, the average number of pitchers who would appear for a team in a game was less than three. Now, it’s about five, and it isn’t unusual for three or more pitchers to be used in a single inning without a run being scored.
Oh, never mind all that: yesterday MLB suggested that the problem was extra-inning games. Baseball is the only sport in which a game can theoretically continue forever, and this is a feature, not a bug. Only 8% of games go into extra innings, and 43% of those are over after the 10th inning. Only 16 % of them went 13 innings or more. Moreover, extra inning games are great. I don’t know a single fan who doesn’t love them. They are unpredictable, infuriating, nerve-wracking and exhausting. And if you don’t like them, nobody’s making you watch.
I was in the Fenway Park stands when this happened, in the bottom of 12 inning in Game Six of the 1975 World Series:
I have never been happier in my life. (I still have the ticket!) Nonetheless, the new extra-inning rules baseball will begin testing this season might have robbed me, and Boston, and baseball history, of that sublime moment: in two rookie leagues, and also in this spring’s World Baseball Classic, teams will begin every extra-inning with a runner on second base. The New York Times’ typically misleading headline says that “purists” are outraged, which is true if you define anyone who actually follows baseball as a “purist.”
What this means is that baseball’s owners would rather tamper with the integrity of the sport than suck it up and sell fewer ads. They are degrading the product in exchange for keeping the cash flowing. They have hurt the game—as with televised movies, the long gaps in the story-telling dictated by commercials reduce the momentum, excitement and drama of games terribly—out of greed, and now they are blaming the game itself for the wounds they inflicted, and are willing to inflict another one.
The attack on extra-inning games is especially bizarre because far less radical changes would shorten most games without even most genuine purists complaining. Why do old, fat managers have to wander out to the mound to change pitchers? Why can’t relief pitchers just walk in from the bullpen, like substitutions in basketball? Why can’t the number of pitchers used in an inning be constrained, such as requiring every relief pitcher to pitch to at least two batters, or forbidding a pitching change until a run has been scored on the current pitcher? Have umpires call strikes on batters who won’t get into the batters box, and balls when pitchers fiddle around endlessly between pitchers.
Of course, none of these measures, indeed even all of them together, would reduce game times as effectively as limiting the number of TV commercials to, say, one of these (that’s Nichols and May, by the way)…