Can coronovirus improve MLB?

Photo by Martin Péchy on Unsplash

Bill Veeck saw the problem with baseball more than a half century ago.

“The game has become too slow,” the Hall of Fame owner wrote in his 1962 autobiography. “There would be nothing wrong with the now standard three-hour game if we were presenting two and a half hours of action. We aren’t.”

Veeck put a stopwatch to several games in the 1957 and ’58 seasons while doing a stint as a TV analyst.

“For twenty minutes out of every hour, I discovered, the action on the field consisted solely of the pitcher holding the ball and looking at the catcher,” he wrote, “a tableau which I find singularly lacking in drama.”

Six decades later little has changed. We’ve lowered the mound and added the designated hitter, but baseball is still…too…slow.

The average MLB game lasted a record three hours and six minutes in 2019. And if pitchers aren’t eating up a third of that time staring at batters, they are doing so via the interminable pitching changes endemic to the modern style.

Baseball is a superlative game. But if it gets much slower it’s going to devolve into cricket, where matches can last five days.

Which is why it’s heartening to hear that Major League Baseball is considering several radical rule changes for this coronavirus-shortened season.

Bravo! It’s the perfect lab for experimentation. The season already carries a gigantic asterisk, so what better time to throw new ideas at the wall and see what sticks?

Veeck advocated similar action when he owned the White Sox in the early ‘60s.

At one point he had an exhibition “Game of Tomorrow” lined up against the Dodgers that would have unveiled the following changes:

  • A home plate widened by 25 percent
  • Three balls for a walk, two strikes for a strikeout
  • An automatic pass for intentional walks, rather than throwing four pitches
  • One warm-up pitch at the start of each inning instead of seven
  • A “slowed up” baseball (this was during the live-ball era)

Alas, illness forced Veeck to sell the Sox before the game became reality. Wonder what might have happened had it been played.

Some sixty years later we have a kind of second chance to find out.

For the first time since the designated hitter in the early 1970s, MLB is contemplating foundational changes to rules and traditions.

There are rumors of seven-inning double headers (even seven-inning games), ghost runners, mercy rules, starting extra innings with base runners aboard, and even — gasp — of declaring a TIE if neither team prevails after the end of 12 innings.

I say, “Let’s do it!”

No, I am not a millennial. And I don’t have ADD.

I played into high school, coached Little League in four different decades, and shepherded my son into college baseball.

I love the game. But it’s past due for a tune up.

Many of the proposed changes to MLB games are already in place at lower levels. Reports thus far indicate they have yet to ruin the sport.

Actually, MLB doesn’t need much tweaking to increase its pace of play. It doesn’t need pitch clocks or three-batter minimums, but it does need to better respect fans’ time.

These three changes, alone, would shave a half hour off the length of the average game:

1. Reduce warm-up pitches. Maybe not to one, as Veeck suggested, but certainly less than seven. Pitchers have plenty of time to warm up before and during the game. They should hit the mound ready to roll.

2. Play seven-inning double headers. This gives fans 14 innings of ball in lieu of 18, but it’s a player- and family-friendly policy that saves wear and tear and can endure a few extra-inning overages. Concessionaires will protest they are losing four innings’ worth of sales, which is true, though in most ballparks alcohol is cut off after the seventh inning anyway. There are only a handful of double headers each year; it shouldn’t be too hard to find a compromise.

3. Institute a mercy rule. In youth and high school ball, if one team trails by eight or 10 runs after the fourth inning (of a seven-inning game) that’s it. Game over. For the MLB, the magic number might be 10 runs after six innings, or seven innings. This would help pitchers’ arms as well as give players extra rest, maybe a head start on a getaway day. Fans get to leave early during a blowout. Let’s grant players and coaches the same courtesy.

Of course, these proposals would apply only to regular-season games. For playoffs and World Series it’s back to traditional rules (except maybe for the warm-up pitch count).

Now if MLB really wants to shave time, while injecting a shot of excitement that will infuriate traditionalists, it should immediately adopt these next two suggestions:

  • Use extra-inning base runners. One proposal I’ve heard is that each batting team starts the 10th inning with a runner on second, the 11th with two men on, and the 12th with the bases loaded. The batter who made the final out the previous inning is the lead base runner.
  • Allow ties. If neither team prevails after 12 innings, shake hands and move on. Hey, this ain’t soccer; ties will be rare. If two teams are knotted for a playoff spot, factoring in ties, there can still be a one game, winner-take-all playoff, just like there is now.

And since we’ve gone this far, let’s add one more proposal:

  • A maximum of 10 pitches per batter. Rather than changing the number of balls and strikes as Veeck advocated, cap the pitch count at 10 per hitter. This allows for a full count plus five foul balls. If the hitter can’t produce a fair ball after all that, and the pitcher can’t strike him out, let’s move on. The result could be neutral or recorded as an out; either way, that hitter returns to the dugout.

So there you have it. One guy’s suggestions for speeding up the game. Major League Baseball can adapt all of them or some of them, or it can give a few of Veeck’s ideas a whirl.

What it can’t do is stand pat.

For as Bob Dylan noted shortly after Veeck penned his thoughts, “the times they are a-changin.’”

Baseball’s competitors figured it out long ago. The NBA, NFL, NHL and MLS all have defined overtime periods. Three of the four allow draws.

This hasn’t hurt their popularity, or their revenues, and neither will change harm baseball’s.

Major League Baseball doesn’t need a clock, but it does need to use the game’s natural pacing — pitches and innings — to its advantage.

For the times they are a-changin’.

We’re not agrarian anymore. We’re busy people with limited time and a multitude of entertainment choices.

When fans come to an MLB park, they expect to spend a leisurely evening or afternoon. They know baseball is unique, timeless. It’s why they’re there.

They’ve invested the game with a substantial amount of their time, and MLB needs to respect that. It’s more valuable than money.

Be grateful they’re at the park, MLB, but also recognize they have homework and jobs and dogs and families and wives. Appreciate the time they’re giving you; be careful about demanding more of it.

Give them a great experience, more action and a definitive outcome, and it will pay off in spades.

Bill Veeck knew this, MLB. He loved you, but he saw the future. It is now.

The times they are a-changin’ for our national pastime. It’s way past time for MLB to embrace them.

Adam Worcester is a freelance writer and baseball fan who lives near Seattle.

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