Baseball is back. Thursday is opening day for the major leagues. All 30 teams are in action. And while the cry of “play ball!” sounds throughout the majors, baseball officials hope the game embraces a companion cry of “hurry up!”
Since 2014, the average time of a nine-inning game has hovered at or above three hours, which may be driving away the younger demographic baseball is trying to appeal to.
When Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred made a recent spring training swing through Arizona, he acknowledged pace of play is one of the trends of the game that the league watches carefully.
“We’re thinking we can make small changes in what is still the greatest game in the world,” Manfred told reporters, “in order to make our entertainment product more competitive.”
Baseball unveiled one of those changes during spring training.
It didn’t last long.
Watching the clock on a beautiful day
Earlier this month, it was a classic spring training day in Scottsdale, Ariz. Fans at the San Francisco Giants home park, Scottsdale Stadium, lounged under a hot sun at a game between the Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There’s a lot of lounging during spring training. Families sat on blankets on a grassy slope out past the center field wall. Standing nearby, longtime Giants fan Ryan Koven sipped a Pacifico beer and gazed toward home plate.
“You’re supposed to forget time at a baseball game,” Koven said, taking in the scene. “You’re supposed to relax and forget time.”
Which is why Koven, 34, was agitated. That doesn’t happen often at spring training. He watched as a large clock, near home plate, ticked down from 20 seconds every time the pitcher got the ball from the catcher.
“It’s very distracting; I’m looking at it right now,” Koven said, adding, “I’m looking at the pitcher and I see it ticking down, 10 … 9 … 8 … this is a very unbaseball experience right now!”
On this day, it was early in the pitch clock experiment. The clock has been used in the minor leagues for a few years to make pitchers and batters work faster. But not in the majors. And there was grumbling in Arizona, from the stands to major league clubhouses.
“I think this is a big game changer,” said Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Ryan, standing in front of his locker. “[Baseball] is America’s sport. [It] kind of stinks seeing it change. But, it is what it is.”
Actually, it isn’t anymore.
The baseball players union shared Ryan’s distaste for the pitch clock. MLB ended the spring training experiment in mid-March, agreeing not to implement it through the 2021 season.
Baseball still wants to hurry up
But baseball officials still are committed to the idea behind the clock — speeding up the game, and specifically, eliminating dead time. They want crisp play for all fans, but especially device-toting young ones who, the reasoning goes, want action and want it now!
Back at Scottsdale Stadium, Giants fan Koven questioned that stereotype.
“I think young people can appreciate tradition,” he said, “and they can get into things that have a history. I think you can sell an old game with a history better than you can speed up an old game, or change an old game to fit new people’s tastes.”
“I don’t think that’s a hard sell for young people. I think they may be going at it the wrong way.”
Koven’s friend, 32-year-old Aman Grewal, agreed.
“I still think I’m young,” Grewal said, “and I enjoyed the game the way it was without a pitch clock, for instance.”
Grewal said if baseball wants to appeal more to younger fans, do like the NBA: Make videos and clips of action more available. And, he said, baseball is too buttoned up and needs to let the players have fun.
“When a player does a bat flip and people freak out,” Grewal said, “traditionalists freak out. You know, it’s 2019. They’re pro athletes. Let them entertain.”
In nearly Mesa, Ariz., lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Bob Weinberg watched a game at the Cubs’ Sloan Park. He has a different, and perhaps surprising take on speedy baseball. Weinberg is 61, a time of life when you really shouldn’t care how long a baseball game takes.
But Weinberg does.
“I love coming out here. I love being outdoors,” said Weinberg. “I’m retired now and living the dream, as they say. But I also understand why people who are younger, without the attention span, don’t want to sit and watch all the downtime in an MLB game.”
Weinberg said constant pitching changes are a major culprit in slowing down baseball.
“I was at a game last year in Milwaukee,” he said. “Brewers and somebody. It was an 8-2 game in the eighth inning and they brought in three pitchers to face three batters. And when you see that, it’s not about the competition or the entertainment. … I’m not sure what it’s about.
“I’ve never, ever walked into a ballpark, and I’ve been to thousands of games, never heard a little kid say to his dad, ‘Gee, Daddy, I hope we see eight pitching changes today!” Weinberg added, sarcastically: “That’s always so exciting to see, that manager walk out of the dugout and wave his arm to the bullpen — that’s my favorite part of the game!”
Weinberg is glad officials are tweaking the rules, even though the pitch clock has gone away. This season, the number of pitcher’s mound visits he jokes about will be reduced. Also, breaks between innings will be shortened.
A little too fast?
Weinberg, who wants the game sped up, and Grewal and Hoven in Scottsdale, who don’t, defy generational stereotypes. But some fit.
Sixty-four-year-old Ned Yost is a baseball lifer. Since 2010 he has been the Kansas City Royals’ manager. At a spring training media event, he answered a few questions about pace of play. Finally, he got fed up.
“I don’t know, man. You want to speed it up?” he asked. “Make it a seven-inning game. That’ll speed it up.”
That may be a little too much, too fast. But such is the debate, as baseball strolls, a little more briskly, into 2019.