Karl Lindholm: Whither baseball: Just too slow?

I know, it’s football season and here we are basking in the glow of the Middlebury Tigers championship, and excellent seasons from the Middlebury College team and the Otters down the road at Otter Valley Union High.
Next week, we will cook a bird and overeat and collapse, many of us, in front of the TV to watch football. But as the temperature drops and winter beckons, I have baseball, the summer game, on my mind.
It’s officially baseball’s off-season. What we used to call the Hot Stove League is upon us, when we all sit around the warm kitchen stove and talk baseball ’til the pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona in mid-February.
I understand that Major League Baseball is awash in money — the Florida Marlins just signed their young slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, to a $325 million contract. In 2013, baseball revenues exceeded $8 billion.
But baseball has its problems.
The average baseball fan is in his mid-50s. Young men, particularly African-Americans, have fled to other sports. Baseball, under Bud Selig, has shown little imagination in maintaining the interest of young people in the game.
Over the past decade alone, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball has fallen 24 percent, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
People confess to me, “I’m not that into baseball — it’s just too slow.”
I understand that sentiment. Baseball does seem out of phase with our fast-paced, immediate gratification lives. I admonish them, “Baseball’s not slow at all, it’s deliberate.” There’s a difference. I explain: Baseball has condensed action. It has an ebb and flow, but it ain’t “slow.”
How slow is a double-play, say, or a triple, or a stolen base, a play at home, or even a sacrifice bunt that has players running all over the place?
Today, baseball is, or has become, not so much slow as long — and therein lies the problem. We celebrate that baseball has no clock. Theoretically, games can go on forever. Nowadays, it seems like they do.
The only recent change in baseball is an innovation that actually extends the length of games: the video review of close plays.
This past season the average length of a major league game was three hours and eight minutes, the longest ever and 13 minutes longer than games just five years ago and 30 minutes longer than games in the 1970s. Our Red Sox play the longest games in baseball (averaging three hours, 11 minutes, 38 seconds).
Baseball does have a pitch clock, but violations are unenforced. Rule 8.04 of the Major League Rule Book states that pitchers should deliver the ball in 12 seconds (when the bases are unoccupied). Last season, they averaged 23 seconds between pitches.
For their part, batters slow the game down by stepping out and obsessively adjusting their gloves and other gear, in an effort to disrupt the pitcher’s rhythm. Hitters are also guided, in theory at least, by a section of the Rule Book (6.02), which limits their temporizing.
Throw the ball!
Get in there and hit!
Enforce the clock!
Put the clock right on the scoreboard, like the shot clock in basketball or the play clock in football. It’s a “ball” if the pitcher doesn’t deliver it in time. Make the batter remain in the batter’s box the length of his at-bat.
The last three innings of a game often take longer than the first six. Those innings are interminable, as a parade of pitchers run in from the bullpen to pitch to one or two hitters. They all get their eight warm-up pitches.
Specialization is the culprit. Managers have now a vast array of technical information to make use of as they determine who plays when. They are absorbed by “match-ups” — how specific hitters and pitchers fare against one another.
Tony La Russa in one post-season game used three different pitchers in a 1-2-3 inning. One box score I looked at last summer (an Indians game — thanks, Tito) revealed that the teams had used 13 pitchers — in a 3-2, nine-inning game!
The relief pitcher once was a player at the end of the line, not good enough to start. Starting pitchers were expected to finish what they started. No longer. The complete game, once commonplace, now is rare and celebrated when it occurs.
These days, the relief specialist is a crucial piece of a winning team, and not just one, the ninth inning “closer,” but a crew — seventh and eighth inning men too, flamethrowers, and of course, a lefty specialist whose job it is to get just one batter out before departing for another reliever.
It would be difficult to legislate against this specialization. Managers should be able to deploy their players as they see fit. But we can eliminate the relievers’ warm-up pitches: loosen up in the bullpen, boys, and then go right to work in the game.
Eliminate the pitching coach’s slow walk to the mound. The coach or manager may come out on the field to make a pitching change only, and not just to chat.
For many of us, the beauty of baseball lies in its immutability. On the field, it’s essentially the same game our great-grandparents so enjoyed.
To increase enjoyment of the game today by accelerating its pace would hardly require radical changes.
Let’s move forward by going back to a time, not that long ago, when a game was played in a couple of hours.

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