The eternal question: Do baseball playoff games take too long? – USA TODAY
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Old joke: Guy goes to the doctor. Doc tells him he has a short time to live. “No problem,” guy says. “I’ll go to a baseball game. They last forever.”
Oh, baseball, we kid because we love. This postseason your average nine-inning game is lasting 3 hours and 31 minutes, which is a good deal short of forever but six minutes longer than last postseason and 17 minutes longer than the one before. And all this comes after a regular season in which the average nine-inning game lasted three hours and five minutes, longest in baseball history.
The World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros begins Tuesday. First pitch is set for 8:09 pm ET. And last pitch? Well, that’ll probably come sometime past 11:30 p.m. in the Eastern time zone. Which begs the question: How long is too long?
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Bob Costas thinks such queries are less pressing in the crucible of the playoffs, when the games are close and the stakes are high.
“And with so much at stake, the strategic moves are all the more interesting,” Costas tells USA TODAY Sports. “But in the regular season, pace of play is a real concern. A pitch clock, at least with no one on base, is a real possibility.”
Baseball has long prided itself as the great American team sport not governed by the tyranny of time. Roy Hobbs of the New York Knights made time stand still in Bernard Malamud’s mythic novel The Natural when he launched a first-pitch home run into a clock on the right-field wall at Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “The clock spattered minutes all over the place,” Malamud wrote.
USA TODAY Sports talked to fans who watch games at ballparks and fans who watch on TV to gauge their feelings about the pace of play that one fan — Thomas Palmen of Chicago — calls “glacially slow.” We heard complaints about pitchers taking too long to pitch, batters adjusting their batting gloves, multiple visits to the mound by catchers — minutes spattered all over the place.
“In this day and age, slow is boring, and boring is death,” offers Burt Solomon of Arlington, Va.
We also heard how a pitch clock could tamper with the timelessness of our national pastime. Why change time-honored rules to suit fans with shrinking attention spans at the expense of fans who embrace the game’s quieter moments? Traditionalists figure pregnant pauses in the playoffs only serve to heighten the drama.
“I don’t know if you truly can speed up baseball,” says Tasha Ellis of Washington, D.C. “Players have rituals. It’s at the core a slow game.”
Steve Scalise, R-La., majority whip of the House of Representatives, thinks the quality of postseason games trumps the quantity of minutes it takes to play them. Scalise’s love of baseball is legendary: He nearly died in June when a gunman fired on Republican members of Congress practicing for a charity game.
“I think fans expect playoff games to take a little longer because of the increased pressure involved in every at bat,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “They know you’re probably going to see more calls to the bullpen than a regular season game, more mound visits, challenges — that sort of thing. But the quality of playoff baseball is so high that you just don’t want to turn it off.”
Some fans stop short of turning off their TVs but don’t exactly hang on every pitch either.
“I usually have the game in the background while I send out emails or use my computer,” says John Kim, a fan in Austin, Texas. “I start paying more attention when the crowd starts making a lot of noise, or when it gets closer to the end of the game.”
Andon Byrd of Ball Ground, Ga., watches games in their entirety — “unless it’s a school night.” He’s 14, just the sort of fan baseball needs — and just the sort for whom midnight baseball is a deal breaker. But Byrd dismisses the notion that the long-term popularity of the game will be harmed if the pace of play remains the same.
“You either love the game and watch it,” he says, “or you don’t.”
Solomon is the author of Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball. He’s a fan of the Orioles and Washington Nationals and finds he watches playoff games in their entirety only when teams he likes (Nationals) or hates (New York Yankees) are playing.
“Otherwise,” he says, “I’ll watch a few innings and switch to something else.”
On the clock in 2018?
Do pace-of-play questions even matter when the Dodgers and Astros are the first 100-win teams to meet in the World Series since 1970? This looks like a Series to savor.
Kim, the fan in Austin, points out no one remembers how long a game takes when it ends with a walk-off home run. Joe Carter’s in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series won the Series for the Toronto Blue Jays over the Philadelphia Phillies — and no one in Canada cared that the game lasted 3 hours and 27 minutes.
Still, World Series games averaged under three hours in 1988, the last time the Dodgers played in the Series. This Series could well have shorter games than the rest of this postseason because time of game has a way of decreasing as the playoffs go on. That’s because the wild card and best-of-five format, with its more frequent off days, allow for more aggressive use of bullpens. Saturday’s Game 7 in the ALCS clocked in at 3:09, quickest Game 7 since 2004.
And no less an eminence than MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is concerned about pace of play. “We continue to struggle with time of the game, mound visits, pitchers that don’t deliver the ball properly,” he told reporters in June.
Paul Olivier Jr. of Atlanta adds his pet peeve: “Few things drive me crazy like a batter taking time to step out of the box, take a practice cut, adjust the Velcro on his batting glove, and then step back in.”
George Will offered a whimsical proposal in a June column: Ban batting gloves. “No one, from Ty Cobb through Ted Williams, used them, and now they occasion time-consuming fidgets,” Will wrote.
Baseball has made some small moves to hasten pace, including the “automatic” walk — eliminating the need to throw four balls for an intentional pass — and a time limit on managers’ deliberations for replay reviews. But the 20-second pitch clock, already in use in much of the minor leagues, may well make its way to the big leagues, perhaps as soon as next season. Manfred has hinted at unilateral action if the players association doesn’t agree to moves to keep games moving.
“Looking toward 2018, the amount of time taken between pitches is definitely something MLB should look at, and that makes sense,” says Scalise, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Nationals playoff game. “But I think what fans are most interested in is action and a high quality of play — and right now you have no shortage of that on the baseball diamond.”
‘Just throw the ball, hit the ball, run’
Hit ‘em where they ain’t — Wee Willie Keeler’s maxim cited in the title of Solomon’s book — is so 1890s. Nowadays, hitters try to hit over defenders rather than past them. MLB set a record for home runs in a season in 2017 — and also set a record for strikeouts in a season. That nags at comedian Randy Sklar, who costars with his twin brother Jason on the podcast “A View from the Cheap Seats.”
“It has become less about fielders turning double plays and hits to the gap,” Sklar says. “It’s all about home runs and strikeouts now. That really puts the focus on three players: the pitcher, catcher and batter. That takes the rest of the fielders out of the mix.”
Parr Wiegel and his son Griffin, 16, drove from Rochester, N.Y., for a Yankees playoff game. The father is OK with a 20-second pitch clock as long as it’s placed where the pitcher can see it but fans can’t, otherwise he thinks fans are going to start counting down — three, two, one — to distract pitchers. “Let the players play the game,” he says.
The son, who plays third base for his high school team, is dead-set against any sort of clock. The game, he says, “is not meant to be electronic.”
Byrd, the Georgia teen, calls a pitch clock the smartest way to speed up the game and says he thinks there aren’t many other options that would work. But we heard a passel of other ideas from frustrated fans.
Melvin Martinez of Los Angeles suggests reducing the time for commercials between innings, even slightly. Palmen, the Chicago fan, would like to eliminate replay reviews. And Sklar says pitchers who’ve warmed up in the bullpen don’t need more warmup pitches once they get to the mound.
Rachel Levine, a Chicago Cubs fan who lives in New York, points to “all the pauses that happen” that she figures amount to no more than gamesmanship. “Just throw the ball, hit the ball, run to the base,” she says. “That’s what I would hope for.”
Jim Christman of suburban Chicago sees a big difference between watching on TV and watching at the ballpark. Watching at home, he finds himself flipping to football when those broadcasts are competing. Then he’ll “monitor how the (baseball) game’s going on Twitter and flip back for the last couple of innings if the game is close.”
Ah, but it’s different in person. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don’t care if I never get back.
“If you’re at the ballpark,” Christman says, “you’re invested and likely have no pace concerns.”
Nash Propst certainly doesn’t. He lives in Nashville but is originally from Chicago. “The pace of games doesn’t bother me at all,” he says while basking in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field last week.
“Look around us: There’s 40,000 people at every game,” Propst says. “People come out because of the atmosphere. I think the same is true in the NFL and the NBA. There are always going to be people who complain, like, ‘It’s a three-hour event? I’ve got to set aside time for this?’ But at the end of the day, that’s what it is. You buy a ticket for this event, and it’s awesome.”
Though, if you live in the East, the end of the day is also when these games are ending.
Contributing: Nancy Armour, Ted Berg, Steve Gardner, Sandy Hooper, Jorge L. Ortiz, A.J. Perez, Paul Singer.
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