Winter is officially over. Baseballs are being tossed around in the Sonoran desert. I know because I sat in the sun this week and took in a spring training games in the Cactus League. The adoring fans were in their seats – we San Francisco Giants fans tend to be a well behaved group – the brats were pretty good, the beer reasonably cold, the pitchers predictably rusty and the guys wearing uniforms with numbers like 79 and 93 looked a little stunned. Perhaps it was all the sun after a long, cold winter.
Or it might have been the one big surprise of spring training: the clock in the outfield.
One of the many things I love about baseball, at least until this year, is that there has been no clock. Theoretically a baseball game could last forever. What bliss. There is a shot clock in basketball. Periods are timed in hockey, football and (sort of) soccer, but baseball just unfolds slowly and at its own considered pace. However, it apparently unfolds more slowly than some in the Commissioner’s office think it should. So now we have a clock in the outfield specifying how long pitchers have to get ready between innings and how long the warm-up period lasts when a manager brings out the hook and a new thrower jogs in from the bullpen.
And the new rules designed to speed up the venerable game do not just involve pitchers. Hitters, some of whom treat each at bat as an orgy of unnecessary movement, are now expected to keep at least one foot in the batters box between pitches. No more, the theory goes, the endless and mindless stepping away from the plate, knocking the bat on the cleats, adjusting the batting gloves fourteen times, pulling up the sloppy pants, taking eleven practice swings and praying that you’ve guessed correctly that the next pitch is a fastball.
I predict pitchers will adapt better than hitters, but the throwers best get ready since a clock timing pitches is looming. The Arizona Fall League experimented with that concept last year and the average length of games dropped to 2:51. Double and Triple A will continue the experiment this summer. The big leagues can’t be far behind. Pitchers will protest the effort to make them work faster, but they should take it up with men and women on an auto assembly line. Greater production is the American way, even if it is not the way of a $20 million a year baseball pitcher.
The crack down is sure to come, as well, for hitters. Mike Hargrove, who during his
twelve year career played for the Indians, Rangers and Padres, was so slow making his way to the batter’s box with endless adjustments of his equipment and tugs to his uniform that he was dubbed “ the human rain delay.” Hargrove reportedly contended his routine – he did it between every single pitch – only took 19 seconds, but under the new rules ol’ Mike would likely be fined. Indians’ manager Tony Francona joked recently that were Hargrove playing today he would “be playing for free,” with all his salary consumed by fines generated by all his fluttering and flapping around home plate.
Major league baseball has finally decided that the game of the endless summer needs to unfold a little faster. Last year the average game took 3:08 and more than once – many more than once – I’ve sat until the last out of a game that took three and a half or four hours. Particularly if the beer is cold and the restroom a long walk those games do seem like endless summer.
I’m a baseball purist. I still don’t like the designated hitter, enclosed stadiums and too many night games. I like the players to wear their pants correctly, put a slight curve in the bill of the cap and wear the headgear straight on their heads. And like show girls, I like a ballplayer to show a little sock. Aluminum bats at the college level are about as welcome as a Clinton-Bush presidential match-up next year. I like guys who don’t wear batting gloves and do wear sleeves. Fake grass is just that – fake. I like pitchers who work quickly and batters who get in the box, stay there and take their cuts. I like fans that keep score and stay in their seats. I’m old school about baseball and proud to be.
But even a purist has to admit the typical game takes too darn long to play. Look at some old game summaries from the 1930’s and 1940’s and you will see games that took an hour and three-quarters to play. The average length of game in 1950 was 2:21; hardly time enough to get a second beer. A doubleheader (a thing of the past, sadly) in the old days could often be played as quickly as a single game today. I’m reluctant to embrace any change in the great game, but I hope the clock in the outfield cuts a few minutes off a game and that the hitters adjust their batting gloves before they get to the plate.
We may well continue the tradition that there is “no crying in baseball,” but we can’t say any longer there is no clock. We’ll see how it works. As a purist that hopes to see the game return to the old, quicker model – and if I could be Commissioner of Baseball for a while – I would forget the clock and demand players again wear those big, heavy wool flannel uniforms and dress in stuffy locker rooms without air conditioning. Ban Gatorade from the dugout. Play mostly day games, particularly in July and August. With the arrival of August’s really hot weather in places like Washington, Detroit and Atlanta the speed of play would surely increase. Players would decide, as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb surely did in their day, that the only relief was a cold shower and a colder beer.
A more realistic purist might say it would be better if the players, managers and umpires just had a little talk and decided among themselves to speed up the game rather than introduce a clock to a game that has never had one, but every fan knows that is about as likely as the next 30 game winner or the Cubs winning the World Series.
There is so much to see at a baseball game, even when there isn’t much going on, but now we add the clock and one more old and dear tradition fades away. What next? Dodger fans arriving early and staying late? Yankee fans suddenly turning humble? A pennant in our nation’s capital? The Cubs in contention in September? Even on the clock a purist can dream, can’t he?