Remember the Four Corners? The infamous University of North Carolina offense that slowed college basketball to a crawl, ruined it as a spectator sport and led to the college shot clock? If you look at the new and proposed rules MLB is putting into place, you’d think that’s what’s happening on professional diamonds today.
On Thursday, MLB announced their latest idea to pick up the pace of the game. Rather than have the pitcher throw four outside pitches for an intentional walk, the manager would simply signal from the dugout and the batter would be given the base. You’ve probably already seen the stats about how infinitesimally this would shorten the average game.
Even more insidious is the extra-inning proposal being tried out in some minor league ballparks. If there’s no decision in the regulation nine innings, the tenth inning would start with a runner on second base. Put a speed merchant out there and you might as well start him on third. Again, the statistics prove that this would be minimally effective as extra inning games are relatively rare. But who really wants a game to end that way? Think back, for example, to the 2005 NLDS. The Astros battled the Braves to an 18 inning Game Four win that featured Roger Clemens pinch hitting and relieving in the 15th inning. He pitched three shutout innings that had me screaming in my living room as if I was at the game. Who would want to miss that?
There are bigger questions here. Foremost among them, how much do you really want to change baseball? Let’s look at instant replay. Has it improved the accuracy of the game? Absolutely. But here’s what we’ve lost. When was the last time you heard suggestions to the ump about what sort of seeing eye dog would be appropriate to his needs? When was the last time you saw a skipper like the late, great Earl Weaver come roaring out of the dugout to excoriate the ump and kick some dirt for good measure? Isn’t that part of the game? And when it comes to a time suck, sitting in the stands watching umps on headphones doesn’t exactly add to the excitement.
I’m not sure I even buy the overall argument that baseball games take too long and younger people don’t have the patience for them. You certainly can’t tell from baseball’s revenues. In every category, they’re up. In 2016, baseball’s revenues exceeded $10 billion — the 14th record year in row. And a large contributor to that came from MLB Advanced Media, baseball’s digital media arm. Merchandise licensing is up, ratings are up. And since baseball is game of clichés, I’ll state the obvious – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In fact, one could argue that returning to a more traditional game would speed things up. How? Eliminate “walk-up music.” Sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the stretch and forget additions like “Sweet Caroline.” Eschew racing anything – sausages and Presidents. Get rid of t-shirt cannons, kiss cam, smile cam, etc. Let’s face it, all of those exist for one reason — to accommodate commercial breaks. And certainly games were shorter when late inning pitching wasn’t all about “specialists” who take more time to warm up than throw a few actual pitches.
A leisurely afternoon or evening in the ballpark is to be savored, not rushed through. The rhythm of the game punctuated by beer, hot dogs, cheering and booing is a welcome respite from our sped-up world. The pauses inherent in baseball have given rise to the poets of the game like Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell and present-day greats like Jon Miller. And at current ticket prices, why not throw in a few extra innings? Fans used to buy one ticket to a double header that guaranteed them at least 18 innings of play and they were happy to do so.
These new and proposed rules aren’t going to make baseball fans out of non-baseball fans. They aren’t going to result in two hour games. And a word to Commissioner Rob Manfred — before you start to tinker, I’d suggest you re-watch Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Would you have wanted that tenth inning any other way?
Claudia Caplan manages strategic partnerships for Laird + Partners, a New York advertising agency that focuses on fashion and luxury.