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Keith Strudler: Slow Pitch

I was always a huge fan of get-a-way games. Those are typically Thursday afternoon major league baseball games that stand in-between both squads getting on a plane for weekend series somewhere else. For the away squad, it’s often the only thing keeping them from a return flight home. For the home team, it’s often keeping them from a cross country flight and a reasonable dinner hour. So needless to say, the game plays at something of an up-tempo. I once saw the Mets break two hours on a hot July day. Fans barely had time to get through the Shake Shack line before the final out. Guys were swinging at pretty much anything in the atmosphere, and the pitcher looked like a tennis ball machine – just one right after the other.

That is my kind of baseball, where you never feel compelled to read a newspaper or forget the game is actually going on. I like my baseball to look a bit more like a basketball game. Lots of motion, not a lot of standing around. By that account, I might enjoy watching Arizona Fall League baseball, a minor league system out west. For the first time in the history of the game, this league is experimenting with rules created specifically to speed up the historically sluggish affair. Most notably, the game employs a pitch clock, not unlike a shot clock in basketball. Pitchers now have only 20 seconds in-between throws, keeping them from the endless staring matches and holding patterns, where hurling the ball can take longer than launching the Space Shuttle. There’s other rules changes as well, like you don’t have to throw four pitches for an intentional walk. And you can only take two and a half minutes for a pitching change. All this has helped to shave around 30 minutes of game time, bringing early Arizona fall games to under two and a half hours. That’s much more palatable than four hour slug fests you often see in the majors, games that can run far beyond midnight in the post season.

These rule changes are more than simply cosmetic. In many cases, they alter the chemistry of the entire affair. Instead of milking a full count, now pitchers have to rear back and throw. Instead of endless trips to the mound to change the game’s momentum, teams now have to do it with good old fashion athleticism. In other words, the thinking man’s game might become less so.

That’s not likely well received by baseball purists, who see the dance as important as the dance steps themselves. For those who still score games, baseball is a sport of nuance, an idea that can be lost when you’re simply rushing to avoid penalty. And to be sure, these kinds of rule changes, if adopted widely, could rob the public of some historically dramatic moments, like when the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth in the final game of the World Series. These times seemingly demand time to breathe, somewhere between a fine wine and the encore at a Billy Joel concert. No one wants to see him rush through Piano Man simply because the meter is running.

That said, these changes would finally bring baseball into what some might call the 20th century – not the 21st, mind you. It would allow baseball to join the likes of football, basketball, and pretty much every event with an audience in creating some form of, shall we say, cost certainty. Where fans can know that three hours later, they’ll likely be in their cars headed home, not buying another cold one before the seventh inning stretch. It would also allow networks to appropriately budget for the game, and perhaps even keep viewers past the third inning, if they started watching at all. As much as purists might not enjoy this shift in perspective, it’s not they who have left the game in droves. And if you don’t believe that to be true, just look at the ratings for this year’s postseason, which was watched by slightly more people than you can fit in your local swimming pool. At some point, baseball has to get muscular – bigger, faster, stronger. And if nothing else, the faster part is easy enough.

Will Major League Baseball go the way of the Arizona Fall League. Will they run a pitch clock and bring jogging back to the game. Right now, it’s too early to tell. But if it doesn’t, it might instead go the way of the dinosaur.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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