At the conclusion of this year’s World Series, one of two things will have occurred: a team will have won its first championship since 1954, or a team will have won its first championship in its 50 years of existence. Either way, a team in a relatively small baseball market is already ensured to win the championship for the first time since 2003. (The champions of 2004-09: Boston, the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis, Boston again, Philadelphia, and the New York Yankees.) The idea that smaller-market teams can still beat big money is promising.
But with a World Series matchup such as this (San Francisco against Texas), I have to believe television ratings will suffer accordingly. The “draw” of one of these two teams ending a decades-long championship drought is not much of a draw at all to anyone except perhaps the most devoted of baseball fans. People may tune in to Game 1 to watch Cliff Lee, the most coveted free agent of the upcoming offseason, but after that, there will probably be little national interest in the result of this World Series.
Isn’t baseball America’s pastime? Whatever happened to that? The National Football League has overtaken Major League Baseball in popular interest by a wide margin over the past 20 years, and the gap in interest between the two appears poised to do nothing except continue widening. One could argue that it would be unreasonable to expect a multitude of fans to tune into a World Series between teams of which they have no rooting interest – but that never stops legions of NFL fans from tuning into the Super Bowl.
I believe the root of the problem lies within the mechanics of the game itself. We live in a world that is much faster-paced than the world in which baseball was created. The “slowness” of baseball is one of the most commonly-criticized factors of the game. What baseball fan hasn’t heard (or him or herself occasionally believed) that baseball is boring?
With this in mind, I propose five different methods by which the game of baseball can be sped up and also to increase interest in the game itself.
#1: Expand instant replay
Given the numerous arguments against instant replay, this doesn’t seem to fit the bill of speeding the game up. However, enacted properly, expanded instantly replay would do just that. Imagine all the times in which a player or a manager holds up the game to argue a call. This, too, takes time. The current replay system, in which all four umpires (or six, in the playoffs) leave the field to view the replay on a monitor in the clubhouse, is painfully flawed. There is no reason that the umpires should need to leave the field and take up so much time for these calls, which often can be determined to be correct or incorrect from just one view of the replay.
Instead, baseball should institute a booth review official, similar to the way in which college football operates. He or she is able to instantly review a contested play and communicate the correct ruling to the on-field umpires. This process shouldn’t take more than a minute, and it shouldn’t even take that long on most calls. A point subject to debate, of course, is how these challenges should be initiated. My belief, which I am by no means attached to if a better solution presents itself, would be to allow the booth official to review it himself, and in addition, allow a manager to challenge any non-balls-and-strikes call unless he has already failed two challenge attempts during that game.
Remember, the need for challenges is still not all that common, so I doubt this would be an occurrence in every game. But I also don’t believe it would slow the game down, and it would certainly increase respect for baseball. The “human element” is not a valid argument against instant replay. The umpires are a humanrepresentation of baseball’s rulebook – not subject to interpretation or error. And we should not accept blown calls as par for the course when the technology exists to let us easily correct them.
#2: Start games earlier
This applies mainly to the playoffs. It seems that the MLB’s preference is to put us all to sleep by the time the sixth inning rolls around. Except in the Division Series, when all the games in recent years have been broadcast by the same network (TBS), necessitating afternoon games, the MLB likes to start games at 8 PM or later. After numerous complaints, games were even moved forward to 8 PM from 8:30 in the last few years. However, this is apparently still not early enough. On the east coast, games still routinely run to 11:30 or midnight, and presumably all but the most devoted of baseball fans do not intend to watch baseball until midnight or later when they need to work the next day. Or, in the case of attracting young baseball fans, going to school the next day.
This fix is fairly simple. Start the games at least a half-hour earlier (7:30 PM at the latest) and actually start the game at that point. Don’t begin the broadcast at 7:30. The current 7:57 PM start times for playoff games are misleading, because the game itself doesn’t usually start until ten or fifteen minutes later. And, to condense the game a little more, remove one commercial slot from each break. I’m certainly not an expert, but I have to believe that attracting a larger audience will be a good start in compensating for lost revenue from one commercial per break.
#3: Limit visits to the mound
As an avid baseball fan, one of the most frustrating things to see is the slow walk by the fat old man (generally the pitching coach or the manager) to the pitcher’s mound. There is, of course, a limit already imposed on such visits, but there is no limit for the amount of times the catcher can visit the pitcher during an inning, and I believe this needs to change. Umpire Joe West may have been admonished by Major League Baseball for his criticism of the length of Yankees-Red Sox games earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean he was incorrect.
I want the MLB to become much more strict in its treatment of the time-wasting that goes on by pitchers, catchers, managers, and pitching coaches. After all, is the batter allowed, in middle of his at-bat, to go discuss with his hitting coach an adjustment to his approach to the pitcher? Of course not, and I don’t believe that he should. They go one-on-one with the pitcher, and I believe the reverse should also be true. The baseball game is a test of all the practice and preparation that a pitcher and catcher have done. To continually have discussions about it during the game is tantamount to cheating when the batter has no such recourse himself. “Not being on the same page” is an inexcusable lack of preparation. If the batter isn’t prepared, he will most often fail. The pitcher should be forced to face the same penalty. The batter can only communicate by looking to his bench for a sign; why does the pitcher get the benefit of a conference on the mound?
So here is my proposal: limit “consequence-free” visits to the mound by anyone other than the pitcher to zero. Each visit by anyone will necessitate a pitching change. This time-waster is probably the single greatest one present in baseball, and it needs to stop. This rule probably sounds harsh, and it is. But I think it is not only necessary but fair.
#4: Speed up the pitcher-batter interface
In recent years, the MLB has instructed umpires to speed up the pace of the game. In general, this refers to the pitcher-batter interface. Obviously, it hasn’t worked.
The reason should be obvious: there isn’t any actual penalty to working slowly. The pitcher can step off the rubber and throw pickoff attempts as many times as he likes. The batter can repeatedly call timeout, step out of the box, remove his batting gloves, put his batting gloves back on, take a couple practice swings, then finally step back into the box… just as the pitcher steps off the rubber.
A tangible penalty for working slowly is now necessary. Not known to many baseball fans, one actually does exist. I have personally only seen it called once, and it was in the most extreme of circumstances. According to MLB.com’s rules:
“When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.” The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.”
In this case, I once saw this rule applied to Rafael Betancourt, one of the slowest pitchers I have ever seen. My recommendation would be, in addition to stricter application of this rule, expand upon its principles. Umpires should not allow batters to call timeout nearly as often as they do. If the batter takes too long, the umpire should be able to declare time-in and allow the pitcher to pitch away, even if the batter isn’t ready. One would suspect that this would generally result in a strike against the batter.
And one more thing: limit pickoff attempts to two free attempts per baserunner per base attained. After that, each failed pickoff attempt will accrue one ball in the current count for the batter. Again, repeated pickoffs attempts seem to do little to dissuade the baserunner and instead just slow the game down.
#5: Call the strike zone appropriately
Anyone who watches baseball knows to expect some questionable calls on balls and strikes. Unfortunately, incorrect umpire strike zones seem commonplace these days, and they share two distinct things in common: balls six to eight inches outside are often called strikes (particularly on left-handed batters), and higher pitches that fit the rulebook definition of a strike (from MLB.com, “the upper limit … is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants”) are almost never called that way.
I do not know if these corrections would necessarily speed the pace of the game – it is possible that batters being required to swing at more higher pitches would be almost exactly offset by the lack of need to swing at outside pitches – but it would make for a less confusing and more interesting game. The umpires need to be held more accountable for the accuracy of their strike zones.