Baseball is no longer the national pastime. Football has long taken its place at the top of the sports heap. There are any number of reasons for why that has happened, but ultimately, it’s inevitable that no one sport remains the favorite for spectators—the nation’s culture can and does change from generation to generation. If there weren’t massive amounts of local and national TV revenues involved, one can even speculate that baseball would already have gone the way of boxing and horse racing: both niche sporting events that no longer capture headlines in America’s sports pages as they regularly did nearly a century ago.
There have been numerous changes to the game of baseball over the past decades: free agency for players; the addition of the designated hitter; increasing pitching rotations from every four days to every five days; radical infield shifts driven by analytics; expanded use of relievers; new extra-inning rules; outlawing brush back pitches; a preference for home runs (and the resulting explosion of strike outs) over putting the ball in play and stealing bases; video replay reviews of umpire calls on the field. None of these changes have made the game more popular in any significant way. Indeed, replay reviews have almost eliminated one of the more anticipated reasons for going to a game—having a manager or player go berserk over an umpire’s call.
Turning the clock back on any of these changes is not likely, with perhaps the exception of curtailing the shifting of infielders. And frankly, as much as I would like to see the designated hitter disappear altogether (along with today’s babying of starting pitchers), I’m quite confident that it would not do all that much for the game’s popularity. No, the only real change that could make a difference is shortening the games—turning the clock back literally.
Over the past decade, game lengths have averaged over three hours. Up until the mid-1950s, game times were less than two and a half hours, with a well-pitched game coming in below two hours. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the game times started creeping over the two and a half hour mark.
Is it possible to get the game back to that shorter length? The answer is clearly yes.
Across baseball’s minor leagues, new rules have resulted in game lengths on average just above two and a half hours. Pitchers have just fourteen seconds between pitches and eighteen seconds to pitch to a batter with a runner on base. If a pitcher doesn’t throw a pitch in time, it’s an automatic ball. As for batters, they have thirty seconds to get into the batter’s box when it is their turn to be up; if a batter is not ready at the end of the thirty seconds, it’s an automatic strike. In addition, batters only get to step out of the box one time each at-bat, eliminating endless practice swings or constant fiddling with the batting gloves between pitches. As for pitchers, they get only two step-offs from the pitcher’s plate per batter. It’s now get the ball back from the catcher and throw.
Shaving a half hour off a game’s length might not seem to be all that much, but it is when combined with the impact of a speeded-up game. There is more concentrated action, more rhythm to the game, more balls likely being put in play, more fielding as a result. Shorter and better is just better. And, who knows, maybe with a shorter game, major league teams will stop trying to fill all the empty time in today’s game with silly, noxious noises and distractions designed (they think) to entertain us—but which kill the time-honored baseball experience of being able to converse easily with your seatmates about the game itself … or who’s buying the next round.
I grew up in a town that didn’t have a major league team until the early 70s. But, with parents, siblings, and extended family all having been born in St. Louis, it was an annual ritual to drive to St. Louis to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins, and for me, see the Cardinals play. As an adult, while I no longer make the annual trek to St. Louis, I have gone to scores of games in major league ballparks all around the country.
To this day, however, the most memorable game I ever attended took place on June 1, 1966, a 1-0 Cardinals loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sitting a few rows back and just to the right of home plate, my dad and I got to see Al Jackson of the Cardinals and the great Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers go head-to-head, with both pitching masterpieces. That year, Jackson (who had a decent 10-years in the majors) was exceptional, pitching to 2.51 ERA. But Jackson’s effort that year paled in comparison with Koufax’s, whose win-loss record, in his final year of pitching, was 27-9, having pitched over 300 innings, with over 300 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.73.
Sitting where we were, I could see and feel the explosion of Koufax’s fastball as it came to plate. I could see the seemingly physics-defying drop in his curveball. The Cardinals were no slouches with Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, and Tim McCarver in the lineup, and they did manage to touch Koufax for seven hits. But Koufax also struck out nine, while pitching a complete game. Between the Cardinal runners on base and Koufax’s pitching, we were always on the edge of our seats with every pitch, and with every play seemingly crucial for what had been a scoreless game for the first six innings. And despite the Dodgers scoring the lone run in the 7th on a Willie Davis triple and a Cardinal throwing error that allowed him to race home, I left the game thinking I had seen baseball at its best.
Oh, and by the way, that game took two hours and four minutes to complete.
Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow in the Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies Program at the American Enterprise Institute.
Photo: Baseball. [Between 1909 and 1919] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016820747/>.
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