by Alex Langer
At the time of publication, we are almost a month into the MLB season. Trends and statistics are beginning to stabilize, and the pennant races are shaking themselves out. Right about now is a good time to look at the state of the sport. The question must be asked: how is baseball doing? It will be fine, once the MLB focuses on its culture clashes and not on the length of the games.
Consternation about the state of baseball never ends. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it never seems to be America’s passion. Some other sport seems to be perpetually overtaking baseball, a state of affairs which has been true for most of the twentieth century. And yet, baseball remains one of the top American sports. Still, baseball appears to be at several crossroads. Young people are less invested in baseball, at least according to doomsday predictions. In fact, even though attendance dropped by 1% last season, it still stood as the 11th-most attended season in MLB history. Critics point to two factors for this alleged crisis: slow pace of play, and lack of dramatic moments, especially compared to sports like basketball.
Baseball is long, and nothing happens; that seems to be the biggest criticism of the sport lately. It is true that baseball games are getting longer. The average game last season lasted just under three hours. The in-game action is decreasing as well: hits are down, while strikeouts and home runs are up. To solve these issues, MLB has instituted a countdown clock giving pitchers only twenty seconds in between pitches, and a minute and a half between innings. This has shortened game times by about eight minutes. And yet, I’m left wondering why there is so much focus on baseball’s length. The average college basketball game lasts two and a half hours, with TV timeouts every ten minutes that last far longer than the warm-up period between innings. The average NFL game is even longer than an MLB game, with interminable TV timeouts after every important moment, and an NFL game has an average of twelve minutes of action. Is baseball boring because it lasts an extra eight minutes? I think not.
In response to this perceived problem, MLB, in their infinite wisdom, have experimented with two time-saving rule changes, both of which are abominations and a good example of why tinkering for the sake of tinkering is a stupid idea. The first is the change to the intentional walk. Beginning this season, if a pitcher would like to intentionally walk a batter, he simply signals his intent to the Home Plate Umpire, who issues the batter first base. It saves a grand total of one minute. In exchange for our one extra minute, we lose the hilarity of a pitcher attempting to throw pitches out of the strike zone, and the potential for them to fail and end up throwing a wild pitch. That one minute, every few games, sure adds up, though…
The height of absurdity, however, belongs to a proposed rule change to extra innings. This rule change, used by the World Baseball Classic, would automatically place a runner on second once a game in extras reaches the twelfth inning. The idea is to ease the burden that marathon extra-inning games place on teams’ pitching, and to more quickly get fans home. The former I have some sympathy for, but this is being marketed as a pace-of-play issue. Teams only play one or two games that reach the twelfth each year, and I have never met a fan that complains that they were in attendance for a marathon game. Baseball already has the best overtime system in all of organized sport. Turning it into a system more akin to the college football overtime rule, to shave a few hours a season, is the height of stupidity. People are not losing interest in baseball because of the extra eight minutes a game. If people are losing interest, it is because baseball, much like the NFL, is stuck in a culture war.
Bryce Harper, one of the many brash and outrageous personalities baseball offers, has taken to wearing a “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat. Harper argues that older players are too concerned with the so-called unwritten rules in baseball to let the fans know they are enjoying playing. When Jose Batista hit a critical home run in the playoffs against the Texas Rangers, he stood for a second at home plate to watch the path of the ball, then flipped his bat in celebration. The next season, the Rangers beaned him in retaliation. It happens all the time in baseball. A player does something dramatic, memorable, and otherwise joyous, and the unwritten rules decree that he needs to be hit with a 90+ mph fastball. Imagine, if you will, a world in which every time an NBA player celebrated or flexed after an awesome slam dunk, or every time Steph Curry turned away from the basket before one of his shots went in, he was hard-fouled in the ensuing possession. Imagine that the unwritten rules of basketball decreed that he should be hit like he’s in hockey pads, with the potential for a career-ending injury.
This also comes out in racially coded language as well. This season, during the WBC, teams from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico celebrated each home run and strikeout like it mattered. The games were electric, and you could tell that these men were having fun playing a children’s game. In response to watching players erupt in emotion and play the game with passion, Ian Kinsler said “I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn't the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.” Kinsler later clarified, saying that flair and passion were fine for those teams, but that American kids shouldn't emulate them. If there is a reason baseball is losing favor in this country, it is because of statements like this. Watching men play the game they love with flair, personality, and passion, and then arguing that they play the game wrong, and should be less excited, takes away from the fact that baseball is a game. It is a game of emotional moments and battles between pitcher and hitter. Maybe if more players played the way NBA stars played, we wouldn’t be having a debate about why baseball isn’t registering. Baseball needs to decide whether it is going to be fun again.