For the first Sunday since March 16 there was no Major League Baseball last weekend. The 2014 season, which began on March 22 in Sydney, with games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, ended 221 days later, when the San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals in a World Series that went the full seven games.
A few weeks ago, ESPN savant David Schoenfield pegged this as the “worst World Series ever,” because for the first time in the event’s 113-year history, neither team had won 90 regular-season games. By the end, Schoenfield was wondering whether Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner had given the “best World Series performance ever.”
But his excitement didn’t spread to the national audience: Games 4 through 7 had the fewest viewers for an extended World Series in TV history. Last Sunday night, when the fifth game was programmed against an NFL contest of two mediocre teams, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, football’s ratings crushed baseball’s, 6.4 to 2.7.
What’s the matter with baseball? Let’s start with what’s still working: the business model. Team revenues are at all-time highs. But it’s a very local game now — fans tune in heavily for home-team games, as reflected in the massive local TV contracts that are handed out to owners. But does it pull in the same kind of numbers nationally? No — and it’s not even close. It doesn’t help that the game is not in limited supply on TV, like the NFL, which makes football appointment viewing. Nor is it, like the NBA, a sport in semi-regular supply, via TNT and ESPN. (Plus, the NBA has a roster of players who are superstars nationally, and not just for the home crowd).
All the same, why should baseball have fallen so far below football as a national pasttime? The average MLB game is a bit shorter (3 hr. 8 min.) than the average NFL game (3 hr. 12 min.) and offers fans more than twice as many plays (292 pitches to 144 runs, passes, kickoffs, punts and extra-point and field-goal attempts). Neither sport provides much “action,” with an average of 18 minutes in the MLB, according to a 2010 Wall Street Journal study, and just 11 minutes in the NFL.
The difference is in the nature of the action. Almost any football play, even an off-tackle slant by a running back, offers the balletic beauty of athletic skill and the punishing drama of physical collision. The typical baseball play is a pitcher throwing a ball and the batter not swinging at it, while the other players watch. Even a home run, the sport’s defining big blast, is only metaphorically exciting; a fly ball that leaves the yard changes the score but may offer no more compelling view than an outfielder staring up. Baseball is the only major team sport in which the defense (the pitcher) initiates a play, where the ESPN “Web Gems” are likely to be defensive (a circus catch or double play) and where a complete game may be played with not one member of a team coming into contact with any members of the other.
Even for some of its stars, the game lacks appeal. “I don’t watch baseball,” the Washington Nationals’ ace third baseman Anthony Rendon said this summer. “It’s too long and boring.” Rendon prefers to watch programs on the History Channel. What he doesn’t realize is that baseball is the History Channel. In no other sport does the glorious past so much inform the present. Generations of kids have grown up with certain hallowed numbers — 60 (Babe Ruth’s 1927 home-run total), 61 (Roger Maris’ HRs in 1961), 56 (Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak in 1941), .406 (Ted Williams’ 1941 batting average), 755 (Henry Aaron’s career home runs) — tattooed on their memories. Now those kids are seniors, and their children or grandchildren, like Rendon, don’t care. Haunted by the great players of long ago, the game has become the Turner Classic Movies of sports.
Baseball’s basic lure is also its challenge: it is what it was. As George Carlin noted in his famous monologue about the two sports, “Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game. Football is a 20th century technological struggle.” Football’s a war game without fatal casualties; baseball is a picnic on a huge field, without the food. And virtually everyone agrees that baseball takes too long for that not-very-much to happen. In the past decade, the average game time has increased by nearly half an hour, while run scoring has decreased by 13%. The perennial national pastime has become a national passing of time. “If baseball were any slower,” comedian Roger Rittenhouse has said, “it would be farming.”
The game needs to be goosed. Here are a few ways to make baseball move faster and win back a national audience, without changing the verities of a professional sport in existence since 1876.
1. Pitchers gotta pitch. MLB Rule 8.04 is crystal clear: “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call Ball.” Yet in 2014 there was a 23-second average between pitches. Granted, a few seconds might be consumed by the catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher; and the pace slows further when the man on the mound is preoccupied with men on base. So let’s say the average is 20 seconds when the bases are unoccupied. That still includes way too much time for the pitcher to shake off a catcher’s sign or glower at the batter or simply face center field in silent contemplation.
It’s kind of a New Age mood-ring thing. “If I don’t feel right, or I’m not on the same wavelength with my catcher,” says the poetically named Kevin Slowey, who pitched for the Miami Marlins this year, “I want to have the ability to step off and regroup or call the catcher to the mound.” Yes, it’d be wonderful if we all had time to contemplate our place in the universe without fretting about deadlines. But pitchers, even when they “don’t feel right,” should be able to get the ball and throw it in 12 seconds, as the rules oblige them to. Only the Pointer Sisters like a man with a slow hand.
Consider that a football team has only 40 seconds between plays to get 11 men in a huddle, come up with a complicated play and carry it off, or else suffer a delay-of-game penalty. This year, the average time between NFL plays is a tidy 28 seconds. For the Philadelphia Eagles, with their hurry-up offense, it’s just 23 seconds — the same speed as between baseball pitches.
Solution: Put a big countdown clock, from 12 seconds to zero, on the outfield scoreboard and behind the backstop (and on TV). When time runs out, the umpire’s delay-of-game penalty is to call a ball. And for those players having an existential dilemma, allow three 45-second timeouts a game for pitcher-catcher conferences. Imposing Rule 8.04 and reducing the wait from 20 seconds to 12, or by eight seconds per pitch, would shave 39 minutes off an average 292-pitch game. The overall time would go down to 2 hr. 29 min. — close to the 2-hr. 31-min. average for Major League games in 1954, when baseball was fun.
2. Batters gotta bat. Sometimes, batters are no more eager than pitchers to start play. They call time to adjust their Velcro glove straps, stare at their bat (as Ichiro Suzuki does) or gaze for a sign from the third-base coach or the heavens. In home games, the New York Yankees’ Brett Gardner often takes a stroll out of the batter’s box halfway to the Bronx Zoo. The recent World Series was rife with dilatory batters, particularly among the Royals. In Game 2, with a 1-1 count in the first inning, Billy Butler’s dawdling helped pushed the time between pitches to 54 seconds. And in the second inning of Game 6, Nori Aoki fussed and fidgeted to a near record 71-second pitch-time count. (Both times, the Giants pitcher was Jake Peavy, who looked as if he was on the mound against his will.)
Kansas City fans will tell you that, after those titanic longueurs, Butler and Aoki smashed RBI singles that led to Royals wins. Aoki’s hit was part of a seven-run inning in a 10-0 rout. The Fox broadcast noted that, in that inning, 40 pitches were thrown in 32 minutes, for an average of one every 48 seconds. That’s not farming; that’s a funeral procession — at least for the Giants in those games.
Solution: Insist that the batter keep at least one foot in the box between pitches. If he doesn’t, call a strike against his team.
3. Umpires need help. Football has end zones and goal posts; basketball has the hoop, and hockey the goal cage. Baseball is the only game with an imaginary box: the strike zone, which the umpire determines at his own discretion. Or indiscretion. An umpire’s strike zone can vary from game to game and player to player. The better batters often receive close calls in their favor; an umpire once apologized for calling Ted Williams out on strikes. And the craftier pitchers — like Gregg Maddux, inducted this year into the Hall of Fame — have been granted a wider strike zone. Only in baseball is a premium player rewarded with an easier job.
At times the strike zone is patently ludicrous, as in Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series, when Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez fanned 15 Atlanta Braves batters. A look at the calls by umpire Eric Gregg shows that on Hernandez’s third, fifth, 11th and 15th strikeouts, the crucial pitch was far out of the strike zone. Braves fans, and in fact anyone but Marlins fans, must have been screaming the plaint from the musical Damn Yankees: “Yer blind, ump! Yer blind, ump! Ya must be outta yer mind, ump!” Yet they had no recourse: players and managers can’t dispute balls and strikes. The Marlins won the game 2-1, and took the series in six games.
Solution: For the 19th century anachronism of ball-strike calls, import 21st century technology. Some of the networks airing games have an electronic gadget, the Zone Evaluation System, which tracks the passage of the pitch through or outside a rectangular strike zone. Before a game, allow the home-plate umpire to “draw” his strike zone on the ZES, which then would be visible to him and the players, fans and viewers, like the pitcher’s clock. The umpire still gets to make his calls, but if he repeatedly violates his own strike zone (see Solution 4), he must be replaced by one of the three other umps working the game. Don’t worry about the umpire’s dignity; just get the call right.
4. Expand the replay system. This year, baseball instituted a challenge system, similar to football’s, that granted a manager two chances per game to demand a review of a close play, which was then adjudicated by officials at the MLB home office in New York City. Some fans complain that this makes a long game even longer, but remember that, with the enforcement of the 12-second pitch rule, we’ve trimmed the average game by nearly 39 minutes. “I don’t know why we want everything to be perfect,” Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said in 2012, “because it’s just not a perfect game, it really isn’t. Life isn’t perfect. I think this is a game of life.” But the goal isn’t a perfect game; it’s to have the winner judged on the field, in a cleanly umpired game with no epochally awful calls — as in the ninth inning of the 1985 World Series’ sixth game, when Don Denkinger called the Royals’ Jorge Orta safe at first, even though the ball had beat Orta to the bag by a half-step. The Royals came back to win, and they took Game 7 from the St. Louis Cardinals, all because of a blown call.
Solution: Don’t leave it to managers to call for reviews in important games. At least in the postseason, let the home office monitor every play.
And while I’m at it …
5. Expand the wild card. Until 2012, four teams in each league made the postseason: the three that won their divisions, plus the next team with the best record. That wild-card club would play the team with the best record in the league. All very simple, until the MLB decided that the wild-card position would be expanded (or reduced) to a single do-or-die game for the divisional playoffs, like the play-in teams in the NCAA basketball tournament — the ones that have to win a qualifying game just to reach the round of 64. This year the Royals and the Giants were those play-in teams, which meant that for the first time in history, the World Series comprised two squads that failed to win 90 games in the regular season. This matchup of improbable teams with mediocre season records was like an NCAA final of Albany vs. Cal Poly.
A sour-grapes confession here: my team, the Oakland A’s, dominated baseball with the best record in either league — until August, when we performed a swoon of historic proportions, crept crippled into the wild-card game and, after leading 7-3 in the eighth inning, fell to the Royals 9-8 in 10 innings. But put my tragic grievance aside. The outcome of a 162-game season should not be determined by one postseason game, especially when that game relies so strongly on who happens to be pitching that day.
Solution: The two wild-card teams will play a three-game series, with the winner advancing. The division championship round is then five games, instead of the current seven, with the league championship and World Series both remaining at seven games. Yes, the other eight qualifiers would have a few more days off while the wild carders are playing, but this year the Royals idled for nearly a week between their clinching of the league title and the beginning of the World Series. The three-five-seven-seven scheme would have the same number of possible postseason games (20), but with more teams fully involved.
And then the A’s — or perhaps your team, dear reader — will have a proper chance to shine in the postseason. Because as each fan imagines it, that’s the way to save baseball.