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Opinion: Speeding Up Baseball To Save It

Aug 7, 2019
Originally published on August 7, 2019 9:12 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Major League Baseball is on track to set a record for home runs in a season, but the games are taking as long as ever. Sports commentator Mike Pesca says if baseball doesn't get a little more sprightly, it could start losing some audience.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The following parts of a baseball game are boring - pitching changes, stepping out of the batter's box, stepping off the pitching rubber, looking the runner back, adjusting the equipment, most foul balls called strikes not resulting in a strikeout and balls not resulting in a walk. You can find a baseball purist to argue that called balls and strikes aren't boring, but you know how I'd describe that conversation? Boring.

Now, I just described most of a baseball game as being boring, which leads me to believe that baseball is mostly boring. I love it, but it is. To work your way around this fact demands you use words like contemplative, pastoral or timeless, but it's not timeless. A poet or documentarian may wish to convince you that the clock of a baseball game is something like three outs per inning, but look up there on the scoreboard or on your wrist or on the phone in your pocket. There is an actual clock. And guess what. Major League Baseball games are taking more time than they ever have. Three hours eight minutes - that's 13 minutes longer than "The Godfather." Of the 28 shows on Broadway right now, none runs longer than three hours. Of all the videos on Snapchat - yeah, never mind on that one.

Well, you might say, what if baseball is dazzling customers with exciting plays and scintillating feats of heroism between the pitcher stepping off the rubber and batter stepping out of the box? What if this time is well spent on the most exciting play in the game? Here's the really scary thing for baseball. It is. The home run, decidedly not on the boring list, is ascendant. More than ascendant, it's out of here. Baseball is on a pace to set a record for home runs by a lot. But this is not delighting and captivating fans. Attendance is on a pace to be the lowest in the last 15 years.

Baseball knows it's lagging. The league has tried to nibble off a few seconds of downtime here and there by, say, lopping off five seconds between innings. They've changed the rule so that an intentional walk needn't require four actual pitches outside the strike zone. That laudable tinkering has been largely counteracted by the emerging trend of baseball teams no longer issuing intentional walks. Oh, well.

The league has done nothing to dissuade players from languidly wandering in and out of the batter's box like 5-year-olds examining shells at the beach. But mostly blame goes to the trend of every at-bat requiring so many pitches to get a result - ball, adjust gloves, strike, step off the rubber, ball, adjust gloves, look runner over, look runner over. At this point, Snapchat is looking good. The other huge problem for the game, one that is out of step with our celebrity culture, is that it's very hard to follow individual players. If a football fan loves a quarterback, he handles the ball in every offensive snap. Watching a great NBA player even without the ball, Steph Curry as he curls around the screen, is a thing to behold. But if you're there to watch a particular player, realize 17 out of every 18 batters aren't him.

Baseball still has a wonderful sense of history. There is so much intricacy and skill to mastering a knuckle curve or turning a double play. Ballparks have more personality than ever, and generations can bond over the shared love of team. But if the game itself doesn't realize that it is in - I'll say it - a crisis of boredom, then we may lose an entire generation of fans. And that lost generation will be the last.

GREENE: He's never boring. Commentator Mike Pesca hosts the Slate podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.