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Play Ball!…And Be Quick About It

April 4, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The new baseball season starts in just a few days and with it come new rules to speed up the game. For years now, many baseball officials and experts have had nothing better to worry about than whether a game lasts over three hours. Major League Baseball finally decided to take some action and, in the process, added some timers to the game that prided itself for years on being the only sport that didn’t have a clock.

I have to say I like some of the changes. Maybe that’s because my favorite change is not a change at all; Major League Baseball simply decided that the umpires are to enforce Rule 6.02(d), which requires batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box during the entire at-bat. I’ve long wished that someone would put an end to batters going on walkabout after every pitch. I don’t know when this custom began; I know when I first started following baseball Henry Aaron, Felipe Alou, and Rico Carty didn’t walk halfway to the on-deck circle between pitches. If they had, pitchers like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, and Don Drysdale would have enforced Rule 6.02(d) without waiting for the umpires to get involved.

While they’re at it MLB should tell batters they can’t readjust their batting gloves or landscape the batter’s box with their cleats between every pitch. MLB should have stepped in on this issue back in 1974 when Mike “the Human Rain Delay” Hargrove of the Texas Rangers started his routine of stepping out of the box, adjusting his helmet, tightening his batting gloves, pulling up his sleeves, rubbing his hands on his pants, and reviewing his IRS long form 1040 between each pitch.

Another change this season is an attempt to reclaim some of the time added to the game by a change implemented last season–the replay challenge. In the first season of the replay challenge, the manager sauntered out onto the field and entered into a deliberate discussion with the umpire who made a questionable call, while a designated replay watcher on the bench or in a booth somewhere looked at replays and decided whether their manager should risk a challenge. This season managers will not leave the dugout to initiate a challenge.

But another change to the replay challenge could eat up any time the first change recovered. Last season, managers got only one more chance to correct an umpire’s mistake after the first overturned call. They now retain the right to challenge after each overturned call. It seems to me that unlimited challenges will further slow the pace of the game. And I’m not so sure baseball is getting much bang for its buck from this whole process. Last season it appeared that, even after further review, there was no guarantee that the ultimate ruling would be correct.

Here Come the Clocks

MLB decided it could cut some more time off the length of its games by closely controlling the events that occur between innings. This is where the clocks, or timers, will show up for the first time in baseball. There will be a timer on the outfield scoreboard and another one on the façade behind home plate near the press box to measure the time between innings.

When television revenue became the pot of gold that baseball could not survive without, commercials between innings became baseball’s original time bandits. More commercials mean more revenue, but they also mean more time between innings. This season a timer will start immediately after the third out of a half-inning. For locally televised games, the first pitch of the next half-inning should come 2:25 after the final out of the previous inning; nationally televised games will get 2:45.

MLB will have an official on hand to operate these timers and closely track specific between-inning activities. With 40 seconds remaining on the timer, the public address announcer identifies the leadoff batter and begins to play that batter’s walk-up music. With 30 seconds remaining, the pitcher completes his final warm-up pitch. With 25 seconds remaining, the batter’s walk-up music mercifully comes to an end. As the clock winds down from 20 seconds to five seconds, the batter finally gets into the batter’s box and as the final electronic grains of sand run through the timer, the pitcher begins his motion to deliver a pitch.

Pitchers can toss as many warm-up pitches as they want up until 30 seconds remain on the clock, but they are not guaranteed the traditional eight warm-up pitches if they can’t manage to get them delivered in the allotted timeframe. There will be exceptions for pitchers who make the last out of the previous half-inning or were left on base. Umpires will issue warnings and fines to batters who don’t get in the box with at least five seconds left on the timer and to pitchers who don’t deliver a pitch before time runs out. I can’t wait to see how this works out.

Since baseball is adding timers and closely scripting its between-inning activities, instead of worrying about when a batter’s walk-up music starts and ends, maybe they should do us all a favor and ban walk-up music altogether. Who cares what tune a batter wants played while he’s fidgeting with all of his accoutrements instead of getting in the batter’s box? If the public address system had started blaring “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” every time Ty Cobb approached the plate, Cobb would have stormed the press box, put an end to such nonsense, and been back in the batter’s box ready to hit in less than 2:25.

Too Many Pitchers Lengthen the Game 

Baseball made these changes apparently without taking into account the main reason games are lasting longer than they used to; just take a look at the team rosters and you’ll see why they do. Every team now carries at least 12 pitchers because late in the game the managers want a left-handed specialist, a set-up man, and a closer.

Whenever a left-handed hitter comes to the plate after the sixth inning, the opposing manager likes to slowly walk out to the mound, paw around in the dirt for a minute, pass the time of day with the entire infield, wait for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signal a left-handed pitcher into the game. If the next hitter is right-handed, whether or not the left-handed pitcher retired the left-handed hitter, then the manager slowly walks out to the mound, paws around in the dirt for a minute, passes the time of day with the entire infield, waits for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signals a right-handed pitcher into the game. For goodness sake, let a big league pitcher try to retire two batters in a row late in the game every now and then. That will do more to speed up the game than timing the walk-up music will.

All of this choreography and timers make me wonder whether the cure for what ails baseball is going to be worse than the disease. Watching baseball is supposed to be a leisurely experience. I think I had rather watch a game for an extra half-hour than hear about whether the pitcher and batter are in danger violating a bunch of manufactured time restrictions that have no real effect on the way the game is played.

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