When I read that one Major League Baseball spring training game ended on a time clock violation, the Twilight Zone theme resonated — not to be confused with any twilight doubleheader. After all, doubleheaders have been deposited into the dustbin of baseball’s history.
Enter MLB’s latest desperation — the pitch clock — whose ironic purpose is to accelerate baseball’s timeless pace. According to the new rule, pitchers have 20 seconds to pitch when there are runners on base and 15 seconds when the bases are empty. With nine seconds remaining, the catcher needs to be ready. If either position is not ready, the umpire calls a ball. Meanwhile, batters must be positioned with eight seconds left or it’s a called strike.
In the spring game, the batter was not ready, resulting in a called third strike and final out, making MLB history as the first game ever to end on a walk-off time violation.
Welcome to MLB’s pitch clock era.
The pitch clock made its debut last year in the minor leagues. For the first time in any MLB season, a clock — rather than any rookie — will have the greater impact. The nuances were to be worked out during spring training.
Nevertheless, late-game clock violation controversies certainly loom.
No clock is needed since umpires have always had the authority to end the constant stoppage of time requested by players, but they never enforced it. Note to the umpire’s union: with the MLB conceding to technology, umpires are on deck. Not having a clock is part of what defines baseball and the pitch clock violates this essential ethos.
The NBA gets it done at the free throw line in under 10 seconds. NFL players have 40 seconds to huddle, get in position, and snap the ball. Professionals adjust. Too bad the umpires failed to recognize this, resulting in the pitch clock.
Baseball is not a track meet and does not mix well with contemporary America’s high-paced, instant-gratification mindset. Some argue that the game’s slide began when Wrigley Field got lights and the final nail was when Yankee Stadium was replaced. What no one will admit is that baseball is becoming a niche sport like hockey, boxing, and horse racing.
The MLB, in its pursuit of greater profitability, has drifted into overkill. Pitch clocks, the three-batter minimum for relievers, restrictions on player positioning, adding a runner in extra innings, pitchers who never bat, increasing the size of bases that resemble pizza boxes, and instant replays only subtract from the dwindling fan base, whose average age is 55.
The broadcast blackout rules infuriate the most loyal of fans, along with ticket and concession prices that are through the roof. Then again, the MLB’s brass are the same wizards who pulled the All-Star Game out of Atlanta for nonexistent Jim Crow laws.
To grow the game, eliminate regional blackouts while adding an accessible streaming service. Moreover, MLB needs to better market its marquee players and must stop trying to proselytize NBA fans. Return to a 154-game schedule with just four teams per league in the playoffs: the division winners and the next best record, while raising the pitcher’s mound to its pre-1969 level.
Played at a crisp pace, baseball is an edgy, appealing game that is fun to watch. Up until the mid-1940s, games averaged around two hours. In the mid-1980s, the average was just under two and a half hours. Today, the game averages three hours, resulting in a lost generation of fans.
The two minutes and 30 seconds between each half-inning don’t help. Having acquired a radio tape of a Brooklyn Dodgers game from the late 1950s, the time between half-innings averaged about 45 seconds before play resumed.
Thanks to its desultory pace, fans have been hijacked by the urge to scroll one’s phone for a dopamine fix of texts, emails, and social media. The 2022 World Series television audience was 12 million per game. Contrast that to the NFL Super Bowl, which had 113 million viewers.
The changes over the last three decades, including three divisions, wildcards, and interleague play, have failed to stop the slide. Today’s fan wants a modish two-hour game.
What makes baseball unique is the pace — like summer itself.
By destroying the game in an attempt to save it, the definitive outcome remains the same.