Column: Here are some suggestions to make the national pastime easier to watch
It’s opening day for major league baseball. (April 3, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
The relationship between baseball and some sports fans brings to mind that line from Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, in “The Godfather: Part III:” “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in!”
The case against baseball, which some people refer to as the national past-its-time, is easily made. The game is boring, too slow and too short on action, especially for younger-generation sports fans raised in an Internet Age. If it doesn’t adapt, it could risk losing more followers.
Yet, here we are, 141 years after the Chicago White Stockings won the first National League title in 1876, eagerly anticipating whether the Chicago Cubs can repeat in 2017, whether the Dodgers can end their 29-year World Series drought, and what super-human feats Angels star Mike Trout will dazzle us with this year.
For a sport that is supposedly dying, baseball seems to be thriving, with annual revenues approaching $10 billion, ticket sales passing 73 million, championship hopes raised in more cities across the land, and an array of young, exciting and personable superstars filling highlight tapes.
Baseball has its flaws but still manages to draw us back in every spring, captivate us through the summer, and put us on the edge of our seats in the fall, as the Cubs and Cleveland Indians did during their epic seven-game-and-then-some World Series in 2016.
Television ratings are sagging, but in-stadium attendance is robust, tickets are still relatively affordable compared to the NFL, NBA and NHL, and the game is appealing enough for those who love and appreciate its pastoral pace and many nuances.
Where else can you see a shortstop such as Corey Seager take a feed from the second baseman, swipe the bag with his back foot and leap to avoid a sliding baserunner while throwing to first — all in one balletic motion — to complete a double play?
Or the brute force of a slugger such as Albert Pujols driving a 450-foot home run to left field in one at-bat and having the discipline and bat control to shoot an opposite-field grounder through a vacated second base hole for a hit-and-run single in the next?
Or a perfectly executed outfielder-to-infielder-to-catcher relay to cut down a runner at the plate, a leaping, home run-robbing catch above the wall, or a diving stop of a hard grounder in the infield?
And with its cat-and-mouse strategy of pitcher versus batter, constant second-guessing of the manager and heavy use of data and statistics in the decision-making process, is there more of a thinking-man’s sport?
As someone who played baseball through high school and covered the sport for 30 years, there are certain things that I deeply appreciate about the game and feel hould be held sacred.
The game has survived, and mostly thrived, this long, so it must be doing something right. There is no need to make drastic changes that would shake the game at its core.
But baseball must evolve if it is to retain the fans it has and attract new ones. Steps have been taken to improve the pace of play and create more action at a time when, according to ESPN, nearly 30% of all hitters either walk or strike out, the highest no-action rate in the game’s history.
More can be done to increase the game’s appeal without offending the traditionalists. For starters, I would:
• Bring the 20-second pitch clock used in the minor leagues to the big leagues. It could do for baseball what the 24-second shot clock and the 40-second play clock did for the NBA and NFL, and the players — even super-slow-mo Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez — would adapt. “It’s the thing I hate the most,” Angels reliever Huston Street said of the pitch clock, “but I’d probably adjust and figure it out.”
• Enforce the rule requiring hitters to stay in the batter’s box. No more stepping out to adjust your batting gloves after every pitch.
• Retrain umpires to enforce the rule-book definition of the strike zone. Pitches that cross the plate between the top of the zone (the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants) and the bottom of the zone (the hollow beneath the kneecap) should be strikes. Too many belt-high pitches are called balls. Call them strikes, and hitters will start swinging at them. More swings equals more balls in play, which equals more action — and fewer pitches.
• Further tighten inning breaks from 2 minutes 25 seconds for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised games. Angels manager Mike Scioscia believes this can be done without losing advertising revenue by employing a picture-in-picture screen. The final 15-20 seconds of a commercial could be featured on the screen while the first pitch of the next inning is in a smaller box.
“Say the commercial ends at 2:05; at 1:45, the pitcher is getting the sign, the picture-in-picture comes up, you throw one pitch with no sound on in the corner,” Scioscia said. “The commercial is finishing up, the pitcher gets the ball back, you buy your Chevy and boom, now the whole screen goes to the game. That’s gonna keep the action going and shave at least six minutes off the game.”
• Move instant-replay officials from the central office in New York City to each stadium. Station an official near home plate so he or she can view each game in real-time action and initiate reviews even before managers and coaches request them. This would streamline and expedite the process.
The time these moves would shave off a game isn’t the point. The point is to increase the action and keep the flow going. And baseball should also:
• Condense its 162-game schedule by at least one week by adding five or six doubleheaders. That way, the regular season would end in time to complete the World Series in October. Teams could expand 25-man rosters by adding two or three players for doubleheaders. World Series games should not be delayed because of snow flurries. And “Mr. November” just doesn’t have the same ring.
• A World Series day game would be great, but Fox seems unwilling to budge on its all-night-game broadcast schedule. Still, there is no reason a playoff or World Series game should start later than 7 p.m. Eastern Time.
As for an electronic strike zone, limiting mound visits, eliminating defensive shifts, cutting back to a 154-game schedule and some of the more radical changes that have been suggested?
Sorry, that’s too much too soon.
The no-pitch intentional walk? OK, even if it means we’ll never see another pitcher throw a ball 10 feet over the catcher’s head during an intentional walk, as former Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen did a few years back.
With a nip and a tuck, some less-intrusive changes, baseball can increase action and reduce the number of pitches thrown while retaining a pace that allows fans to socialize between pitches, debate strategy, look up statistics on their smart phones, jump around with the Rally Monkey — the kinds of things that make the game unique.
Baseball will survive because, as Street said, “It’s in the fabric of our culture, more so than any other sport.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna
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