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The geniuses who run baseball have decided that fans hunger for this attractive arrangement: Pay us $15 for a ticket to watch our game, and we’ll try to get it over as quickly as we can. Proposals to speed up baseball have gone largely unheeded since April, but the owners’ efforts to make it move faster show how completely they misunderstand their product and their market. By telling fans they were trying to speed up games, owners strongly implied that baseball stinks and isn’t worth much of anyone’s time. That’s not better marketing, that’s suicide.
People don’t go to baseball games hoping to leave as quickly as possible. As with other forms of entertainment, they go to ballgames for escape. Audiences will gladly sit through a three-hour ballgame, just as they will endure Citizen Kane or a Bruce Springsteen show as long as they like what they’re seeing.
Fans also recognize the length of a baseball game is indeterminate, and they are generally prepared to deal with it. A few say they come to fewer weeknight games because of work the next morning, but that’s as much a function of franchises expanding their reach across wider areas as it is the length of games. Fans with small children say they adjust the length of a ballgame to fit their schedules, regularly leave at a certain hour, and listen to the rest of the innings on their car radios. Fans also say they appreciate easy access out of the park because they don’t want to factor in an extra half-hour of post-game travel time due to a poorly designed parking lot. They give Camden Yards high marks on that score and also endorse having areas outside the stands where they can keep tabs on the game via television or radio while doing something else. (How about a museum/child-care center in Camden Station?) Overall, most fans say they come out to the ballpark to get away from home and will stay as long as they’re being entertained. How’s that song go?—“I don’t care if I ever get back….”
The alleged survey that owners cite as proof customers want shorter games really suggests that fans want better games. Of course, the only sure way to raise the level of play—to eliminate errors, boneheaded plays, and pitchers who can’t throw strikes—is to institute contraction instead of expansion, something owners and especially members of the players’ union don’t want to hear. So instead of getting the message about better games, the owners heard that fans wanted shorter games.
One of the great things about baseball is its lack of a clock, and efforts to speed up the game amount to little more than pleas for players to hustle between plays. Once, when there were no lights, no TV cameras, and more action, they did: Weekday games generally started at three or even four in the afternoon, and they were finished before dark. Yes, batters spent less time styling at the plate, there were fewer conferences on the mound to plot strategy (players actually practiced situational tactics on mornings before games), and there were fewer time-wasting pitching changes.
Today, umpires can try to hold pitchers to the 20-seconds-between-pitches rule, but that only applies with no runners on base. In this era of diminishing arms, those situations become less frequent. The umpires can stop batters from wandering far out of the box between pitches, but giving umpires more duties, more latitude, and more influence over the outcome of games is a bad idea, given prevalent attitudes among the men in blue. (Similarly, any rule changes to end brawls on the field will also require more involvement by umpires.)
Witness an April contest between the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves which could loom large in the National League West pennant race. In the ninth inning, with Atlanta trailing 1-0, two out, and the tying run on second, plate umpire Mark Hirschbeck called a questionable swinging strike on a 1-0 pitch to Atlanta batter Ron Gant. Gant left the batters’ box, and Hirschbeck ordered him back to the plate. As Gant continued his promenade, the ump ordered the pitcher to throw and called strike two on the delivery to the vacated plate. Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox went ballistic and was ejected. Gant resumed his turn at bat and hit a weak fly for the final out. Afterward, Gant called Hirschbeck’s performance “the worst I’ve ever seen. Worse than anything I’ve seen in Little League. What a joke.”
Cox said, “There is no room for that kind of umpiring.” Braves Captain Terry Pendleton added, “These people didn’t come out to see an umpire, they came out to see two teams play a great game.” Hirschbeck had no comment after the game, but he could have pointed to the time of the game, a crisp 2:16.
Aside from umpires, who are paid by the game and not the hour, who cares about shortening games? Writers, because the later the game goes, the later they work. Nobody would alter the game for the sake of writers. But when the owners decided they had a long-game problem, they tried to resolve it because of a different medium—surprise!—television.
Never mind that television, by insisting on two-minute breaks between innings, adds at least 16 minutes to the length of every game it shows. These days, virtually every game is televised somewhere. At the network level, executives prefer sporting events with relatively predictable lengths, such as college basketball or football, to the vagaries of baseball, which has an equal probability of going 2:20 or 3:20. That’s hell on programmers. They would like to be assured that a ballgame will fit inside a three-hour window, but the game is inherently uncooperative.
Long games are also tough on broadcasting teams. “You lose concentration, the camera crew gets slow,” says Home Team Sports Manager of Production Bill Brown. “The quicker the game goes and the better the team plays, the better job we do.”
Telecasts aren’t boring because of length. They drag because of underprepared announcers and crews, a lack of compelling graphics (Japanese telecasts show the score, count, on-base situation, and speed of the pitch on every delivery), and mostly because of the failure to develop a story line for a game before it begins and as it develops. In this age of channel surfing, producers have to give fans a reason not to hit the remote between pitches. The days are long gone when baseball entrepreneurs could hang a “Baseball Today” sign and wait for the crowds to file in. Telecasters must spruce up their product if they expect to hold audiences.