I’m from St. Louis, so I have thoughts on baseball. It’s the duty of every St. Louisian. Some of those opinions have been on the rollercoaster of a St. Louis Cardinals team we have this year, which has been historically depressing until suddenly it became exciting a couple of weeks ago. Today, though, my thoughts are on the game itself.
Forget football, there’s still something about baseball that feels like “America’s Game.” The tradition and lore, the festivities… when the boys of summer are on the field, it just feels like summer and barbecue and red, white and blue.
Which brings me to the oddity of the recent “pace of play” changes made to the game. I get not wanting a game to be boring. If we watch sports for entertainment (and despite the sometimes life-and-death mood of sport fans, in theory, it is a matter of entertainment), of course we want it to be entertaining.
In Major League Baseball’s infinite wisdom, it decided the way to make the game more entertaining was to break the game’s longstanding lack of any kind of timeclock and start limiting how long pitchers took to pitch.
“We’ll increase the speed of the game and then people will enjoy that there is less baseball to enjoy!”
One would hope if they were going to throw away a part of baseball’s uniqueness, it would be because of a grave problem, right? Yet, whether the consummate baseball analyst or the casual fan, the complaints I hear about baseball have not been around, “I sure wish this game I love to watch or listen to ended faster.”
People go to the ballpark hours in advance to soak up the mood. We tune in on TV or radio an hour or more before the game — and then stay for post-game analysis after — not because we want the game to be over, but because we want more of it. A well-played game that keeps going for hours is not an outrage but the sort of thing those of us who enjoy baseball crave.
For myself, I love turning the game on the radio — the Cardinals have a fantastic tradition of excellent radio broadcasters via their flagship station, KMOX — and just the sounds of the game filling a summer evening is a joy. I do not find myself happier if the game that started with a first pitch at 7:15 is off the air before 9:30.
Yes, we’re impatient today, but I think the dissatisfaction, to the extent it exists, isn’t with games that are too long, but games that go on with little drama and strategic interest. Arguably the pitch clock pushes in the wrong direction with this. Rushing pitchers reduces the sometimes incredibly dramatic standoff between pitcher and batter. Each pitch of a scoreless game should feel like a high noon showdown in the Old West, not a rush through the grocery store express lane.
There are real places the game needs to be improved. If you’re looking for why the game can, at times, be less than exciting, the home run is perhaps the biggest culprit. The idolization of the home run hitter is to the detriment of the overall composition of an enjoyable game.
When a home run happens, it is very exciting. Nevertheless, watch a game with no home runs and a lot of singles, doubles and the occasional triple, and it is almost always more exciting. Running the bases, bases being stolen, double plays — these things add to the game’s appeal in ways the race to have the most home run hitters doesn’t.
Home runs have been called rally killers, because the accomplishment is either a solo pursuit of a single player running around or it takes all the exciting base runners off base and starts with a blank canvas. A game with three brief bursts of excitement from solo home runs will likely be way less engaging than one with three hard earned runs that took six or eight hits and the accompanying base runners to earn.
This year’s elimination of the shift makes a great deal of sense in encouraging the sort of game that keeps drama developing. The shift, moving infield positions to specific sides of the field in an unusual configuration to shut down batters created far too many games where nearly every ball was easily caught unless it was a home run.
The league got that one right but — alas — did so in the shadow of the abomination of the universal designated hitter. The “DH,” first introduced in the American League and now infecting all of Major League Baseball, gives each team a player who only plays offence without need to also play defense. Like the pitch clock messing with baseball’s time-free existence, so too this asymmetric play where one player doesn’t have to be good at both hitting and stopping others from getting hits messes with the exciting magic of baseball strategy.
Insofar as hitting isn’t happening, one of the most interesting parts of the game is watching a pitcher prevent hitting. Prior to the DH, the pitcher had to do that while also serving as one of the batters himself. Thus, the manager had to constantly weigh whether to keep a pitcher in who was doing well (even though few pitchers are also good hitters) or to swap him out for a pinch hitter when an opportunity to score against the opposing team arose.
This chess piece moving added intrigue even to a “pitchers’ duel” game where no one was scoring. Is the skipper going to go for that guy on the bench who might break the game open with a key hit or is he going to keep that excellent pitcher in and hope the other team blinks first?
When the tension is high on what to do with the pitcher and the bases keep getting runners on them, no one is counting down to see if the game is going too long. If — and this is a big if — people are actually abandoning the game for being “boring,” shortening isn’t the solution. Shorter doses of boring are still boring.
That’s all assuming baseball is boring to an extent. Even though I dislike some of the changes from the past few years, if you really give it a chance, it is hard to argue it is at all dull. Given players who play hard and a team with a fan base that loves it like we have here in Cardinal Nation, baseball is electrifying.
Perhaps the bigger risk — and one that applies mostly to baseball (and hockey) — is the drop in cable TV subscriptions. Unlike NFL football, that enjoys being primarily on network television, baseball depends on people subscribing to a cable package that has their respective “regional sports network” in order to watch the game. Given that fewer and fewer of us see any reason to bother with cable and would rather nab a few streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ and pocket the savings, suddenly baseball lovers are confronted with a $75 minimum monthly bill “just” to watch baseball. Cable is never a good deal, but it is a horrible deal if you only subscribe for one channel.
The sad thing about this problem is that Major League Baseball was a trailblazer in the streaming world. MLB.TV has been streaming games for over 20 years and got so good at streaming that Disney bought the MLB streaming division and used it as the undergirding for Disney+. This long lead has largely been squandered to the scourge of “blackouts” dictated by those cable contracts. Blackouts prevent one from watching one’s own team in one’s own city through the service.
If the MLB wants to make the game more attractive, make it more accessible. The most important thing it could do is not crazy new tech gimmicks or shorter games, but to simply work with its regional sports partners and teams to make MLB.TV a true streaming option for every game no matter where one lives, just as Major League Soccer has done in partnership with Apple.
And if the MLB just wants to keep baseball interesting, there’s but one thing to do: double down on its heart. Forget clocks in a fruitless quest for speed; quit changing rules in ways that discard the rich tradition of the game. Focus on rule changes that encourage the quintessential essence of the game: movement around the bases and the chess-like strategy of aligning players to eke out an advantage.
Those two things would be the perfect double play. Just give us more baseball. Rich, untainted, classic, tradition infused baseball.