The good old days

To re­vive base­ball, we should look to the past when games were shorter and bet­ter

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Erik M. Jensen Erik M. Jensen is the Cole­man P. Burke Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Law at Case Western Re­serve Univer­sity; his email is emj@case.edu.

The sto­ries are ev­ery­where: base­ball’s a dy­ing game. Amer­i­can kids don’t play it any­more, and the hard-core fans like me are on So­cial Se­cu­rity. L.A.’s Mike Trout is the best player around, but he could walk down the street al­most any­where and not be rec­og­nized. And on and on.

Well, I re­mem­ber folks in the early 1960s say­ing that base­ball was a goner, and the game’s done pretty well since then.

Base­ball is no longer the dom­i­nant sport in the coun­try, of course, nor is it the na­tional pas­time (star­ing at elec­tronic de­vices is). But when the av­er­age big lea­guer is mak­ing $4 mil­lion a year and the value of ma­jor league fran­chises keeps go­ing up, re­ports of base­ball’s demise must be ex­ag­ger­ated. Mi­nor league base­ball is boom­ing. Base­ball’s still a great sport.

Hav­ing said that, how­ever, I ad­mit that one crit­i­cism is right on. As it’s now played, base­ball is too slow. Yes, it’s the sum­mer game, and no­body ex­pects con­stant ac­tion when the tem­per­a­ture is 95 de­grees in Bal­ti­more. But the av­er­age ball­game in 1954, when the Browns be­came the Ori­oles, was two-and-a-half hours, and many games were played in about two hours. De­spite ef­forts by Ma­jor League Base­ball, games nowoften take three hours or more. Ex­pand the time with­out in­creas­ing the ac­tion, and what should be scin­til­lat­ing can turn into a yawner.

And, if any­thing, the ac­tion has been con­tract­ing. A strike­out in a key sit­u­a­tion is ex­cit­ing, but when strike­outs are rou­tine, as they now are, the game suf­fers. Pitcher and catcher play catch, while ev­ery­one else watches.

None of this has to be the case. To make the sport more at­trac­tive, we don’t need to bring it into the 21st cen­tury. We should in­stead take it back to what it was.

Mostly that means re­duc­ing play­ing time. En­force a pitch clock (15 sec­onds, say) when no one’s on base; pitch­ers who can’t ad­just can find an­other liveli­hood.

Fur­ther shorten the time be­tween in­nings; no one with­out uro­log­i­cal prob­lems needs seven­teen lengthy bath­room breaks in a three-hour pe­riod. The ar­gu­ment that TV and ra­dio de­mand the ex­tra time for com­mer­cials is non­sense. If speed­ing up the game would boost rat­ings, and it would, the game would be more at­trac­tive to broad­cast­ers. It’s bet­ter for their bot­tom lines to air a few, high-priced com­mer­cials than to run ad af­ter ad for Veg-o-Mat­ics.

Con­trol on-field meet­ings. Sports Il­lus­trated’s Tom Ver­ducci has noted that con­fer­ences on the mound, which are about as ex­cit­ing as Latin gram­mar, are ef­fec­tively time-outs. Other sports limit the num­ber a team can take; base­ball should, too.

Re­duce pitch­ing changes. This is a big­gie. Chang­ing pitch­ers can be ex­cit­ing in a tense, cru­cial game — think of Mariano Rivera jog­ging in from the bullpen — but most games aren’t cru­cial. Base­ball would be bet­ter with­out “spe­cial­ists” — pitch­ers ex­pected to face one hit­ter, to be re­placed by an­other spe­cial­ist. And then an­other. Dur­ing end­less pitch­ing changes in a typ­i­cal game, noth­ing hap­pens. And the ath­letic abil­ity in­volved in pitch­ing to one bat­ter is about what’s re­quired in hot-dog eat­ing con­tests.

Years ago Tony Kubek sug­gested that a ma­jor league team’s ros­ter should have at most eight or nine pitch­ers, as was true in the 1950s; the norm now is 12-13 pitch­ers on a staff. With fewer pitch­ers avail­able, pitch­ing changes would be re­duced. Starters and long re­liev­ers would have to pace them­selves, as they used to. That would mean fewer strike­outs and more balls put into play. More ac­tion! That’s all to the good.

That par­tic­u­lar change prob­a­bly isn’t go­ing to hap­pen, but here’s a first step: Re­quire that any pitcher face at least three hit­ters. If a man­ager wants to bring in a lefty to pitch to a left-handed slug­ger, fine, but that guy is then go­ing to have to pitch to the right-handed hit­ters who fol­low. With that rule in place, a man­ager might not make a change at all. At a min­i­mum, the pa­rade of re­liev­ers would be short­ened, and a lot of dead time elim­i­nated.

Changes like these would get base­ball closer to what it was in the old days — and there’s noth­ing finer.

NICK WASS/AP

Bal­ti­more Ori­oles man­ager Buck Showal­ter, cen­ter, has time to chat with play­ers dur­ing a pitch­ing change last month.

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