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How the pitch clock will save baseball

How the pitch clock will save baseball


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From 1955 to 1969, the average time of a Major League Baseball game, including extra innings, was a little over 2½ hours. That was good enough for Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. And me.

By 2021, a baseball game took 3 hours 11 minutes. Last year, in retirement, I took a trial separation from watching MLB in its torpid entirety. I would record games and then fly through ’em on fast-forward. Was an MLB divorce on the horizon?

A longevity calculator said if I smoked, my life would be shorter. But if I watched MLB, it would just feel that way.

Then it happened. This year in spring training, using the new pitch clock, the average time of a nine-inning game was 2:35.

For decades, I screamed, “Speed up the game before you kill it!” Now I can’t believe what I’m seeing. MLB has turned back the clock — with a clock — by 60 years.

Watching spring training games this month, I felt like a kid again. You have to see it to believe it. Pitchers take the toss from the catcher and go straight to the rubber — on every pitch — and get ready to throw. Some hitters seldom take their feet out of the batter’s box, and others take only a half-step away before resuming their stance.

What is this — 1955, 1965 or 1975?

Yes. Probably. Or, certainly, 1985.

It’s amazing how hearing the umpire yell “Strike!” or “Ball!” as a penalty, just because you have dawdled an instant too long, can speed up a fellow’s metabolism.

Will the pitch clock stop the Soto shuffle? (And other big MLB rules questions)

If anything can radically restore MLB’s appeal to its fan base while also giving it a fighting chance to lure followers of the NBA and NHL, which deliver 2½-hour games, then returning to a Willie Mays-era pace of play may do it.

We’re about to witness MLB games at close to the same pace as they were played in the 1950s (when the average game length, including extra innings, was 2:28), the 1960s (2:35) and the 1970s (2:30).

At the least, we’re almost certain to watch the first season with games averaging less than 2:44 since 1985. Soon, it may be football — which features 12 minutes of action in a three-hour-plus NFL game — that must explain itself.

Last year, when the new pitch clock rules were used in the minors, games were 25 minutes shorter. Within a minute or two, that was the case at spring training.

This spring, I regularly watched a few innings of a random exhibition game or checked the times of all the day’s games just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

For example, recently, the Angels beat the Diamondbacks, 11-10, in a game with 34 hits. With huge spring rosters, 14 pitchers and 37 position players were used. My head ached thinking how long that marathon took. Four hours, plus?

The actual time was 2:50 — or 16 minutes less than the average game over the past 10 years.

I don’t want to jump the gun. Okay, I do want to jump the gun because I’m certain of what we’re seeing. The rules are the rules. Just saying “It’s the regular season now” isn’t going to change how fast a clock ticks.

With no one on base, the pitch clock starts at 15 seconds. (With a runner on base, it starts at 20 seconds.) Batters have seven seconds between pitches to get ready to hit, then the pitcher has eight seconds, if he wants them all, to start his windup.

But during games in Florida and Arizona, the real time between pitches was usually a few seconds less than the clock demanded. It’s fast. The pace between pitches is about the time it takes an NBA team to bring the ball up the court and get its offense into motion.

“I’m going to have to tell shorter stories,” Mets announcer Keith Hernandez said this month after rapid pitches (and quick outs) interrupted his anecdotes. A half-inning barely gave him time to recall his minor league days in Tulsa long ago, when he hit Leon Russell’s nightclub to see Eric Clapton or Freddie King.

This season is going to be a wonderful shock for most fans. Last year, you were as likely to see a 3:36 game as a 2:36 game. This year, using that 30-minute deviation from the average, you may be as likely to see a 2:05 game as a 3:05 game.

The cause of this revolution is exactly what you would expect from baseball: money.

Attendance in 2022 was down almost 19 percent from what it was in 2007. In fact, MLB drew bigger average crowds way back in 1991.

All sports have issues, and some are hard to solve, such as brain trauma in the NFL or the difficulty of seeing the puck speeding through goalmouth traffic in the NHL. But MLB’s biggest blight — to me, at least — should have been easy to solve. How tough is it to fix dawdling and lethargy?

Yet MLB waited at least 25 years too long to admit how badly it had alienated many fans. Only lost revenue prompted “pace of play” to become part of a labor negotiation. Finally, the players made a concession — to play.

Baseball isn’t to every taste. But millions of modern sports fans don’t really know whether MLB appeals to them because they never have seen it played crisply. Long ago, some of us circled doubleheaders on our calendar!

No one under 40 has seen baseball, as entertainment, presented properly. Few under 50 have seen it played at its best tempo as Joe Morgan and Pete Rose did. Now they can.

In maybe the best game ever, Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series secured a 10-9 Pittsburgh win over the New York Yankees. The Pirates led 4-0, trailed 7-4, led 9-7, blew that lead, then finally won a complex battle featuring nine pitchers — and 10 runs in the last two innings.

That was normal then. Can it be again? I would never have dreamed it possible — or anything close. But now, let’s dare to hope: from our lips to the baseball gods’ ears.



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