Base­ball must act to speed up games

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - THE SECOND PAGE - TIM DAHLBERG THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

That didn’t last long.

A day af­ter bask­ing in the glow of the most watched All-Star Home Run Derby in nearly a decade, re­al­ity in­truded on base­ball. Though fans still seems to dig the long ball, they don’t seem too keen about the game it­self.

That’s a real prob­lem for the sport, though it’s hard to blame fans for not tun­ing in for the Al­lS­tar Game. Those in Mi­ami were so dis­in­ter­ested them­selves that there were empty seats vis­i­ble around the ball­park even as the game was tied 1-1 in the late in­nings.

Base­ball should be thriv­ing this sea­son, com­ing off a his­toric World Se­ries last year that cap­ti­vated the coun­try. Mar­quee teams like the New York Yan­kees and Los Angeles Dodgers are play­ing well and there’s an in­trigu­ing new crop of slug­gers led by Home Run Derby star Aaron Judge that of­fer some ap­peal.

New ball­parks are bring­ing in money with cushy $1,000 seats be­hind home plate. Tele­vi­sion rights deals are still in a bub­ble, and own­ers have to be sali­vat­ing over sky­rock­et­ing val­u­a­tions that mean even a team like the Mi­ami Mar­lins can bring more than $1 bil­lion on the open mar­ket.

Take a closer look, though, and there’s trou­ble ahead.

An All-Star Game that used to be must-see TV strug­gled again to draw eye­balls, even with no real com­pe­ti­tion from any other sports. The game drew half the au­di­ence of All-Star Games 20 years ago, and a quar­ter of the view­ers from 20 years be­fore that.

The rea­sons are var­ied, and not hard to find. In­ter­league play has taken the mys­tique off the All-Star Game, base­ball doesn’t man­u­fac­ture stars like other sports and the game it­self is be­com­ing one-di­men­sional with many of its sub­tleties fad­ing away.

Mostly, though, it’s be­cause base­ball is sim­ply too slow for to­day’s lim­ited-at­ten­tion view­ers. They’re find­ing bet­ter things to do than watch end­less pitch­ing changes, long re­play chal­lenge de­lays and games that al­ways seem to re­volve around home runs or strike­outs.

Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred ad­mit­ted as much in a meet­ing with base­ball writ­ers be­fore Tues­day’s game.

“There have been dra­matic changes in the game, the way the game’s taught, the way the game is played at the big league level,” Man­fred said. “There is a dra­mat­i­cally in­creased tol­er­ance for strike­outs by of­fen­sive play­ers. There’s much, much more em­pha­sis on the home run as the prin­ci­pal of­fen­sive tool in the game. There’s a dra­matic in­crease in the use of re­lief pitch­ers, even to the point of kind of a ro­tat­ing bot­tom of the ros­ter be­tween Triple-A and who’s in the big leagues.”

What Man­fred didn’t do was of­fer a plan to keep fans more in­volved. And that’s cru­cial at a time when 9-in­ning games are av­er­ag­ing 3 hours, 5 min­utes, up a whopping 9 min­utes from just 2 years ago.

Con­trast that with the NBA, which moved Wed­nes­day to speed up its own games. Con­cerned that the last few min­utes of games were choppy, the own­ers elim­i­nated two late time­outs to make the flow go more smoothly.

It’s not all Man­fred’s fault, when the knee-jerk re­ac­tion from the play­ers’ union is to fight any change pro­posed by own­ers. Play­ers grudg­ingly gave a small con­ces­sion in al­low­ing in­ten­tional walks with no pitches this sea­son but have re­sisted most pro­pos­als to speed up the game.

But if the NBA can elim­i­nate some time­outs, there’s no rea­son base­ball — which long ago quit wor­ry­ing about sav­ing tra­di­tions — can’t move more quickly to make the game more watch­able, es­pe­cially among the at­ten­tion-chal­lenged younger gen­er­a­tions that aren’t em­brac­ing it.

“Other sports have been more ag­gres­sive about man­ag­ing what’s go­ing on on the field in terms of what their game looks like than we have been, and I’m cer­tainly open to the idea that we should take a more ag­gres­sive pos­ture,” Man­fred said.

That likely means pitch clocks next sea­son, some­thing that can be im­ple­mented uni­lat­er­ally af­ter giv­ing the union a sea­son’s no­tice. But there should also be lim­its on pitch­ing changes, vis­its to the mound and re­play chal­lenges that seem to take for­ever.

And while they’re at it, a strike should be where it was orig­i­nally in­tended to be — be­tween the knees and the let­ters.

None of that is go­ing to make base­ball the dom­i­nant game in the land once more. That ship has sailed, with foot­ball and even basketball sur­pass­ing the na­tion’s for­mer pas­time.

But it’s a start, and it might be enough to en­tice a few more peo­ple to give the game a chance.

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