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Major League Baseball owners appear determined to give fans as little of their game as possible. First, the owners pushed the players into an eight-month strike, canceling the final eight weeks and postseason last year, as well as eliminating this year’s original exhibition schedule. The owners’ apparent belief in the maxim that absence makes the heart grow fonder has yielded yet another innovation—now they want to make games shorter.
Earlier this month in Minneapolis, owners approved a series of measures developed by former umpire Steve Palermo to shorten games by as much as half an hour. The average baseball game this season lasts more than three hours, 33 minutes longer than in 1978. The amazing, expanding ballgame has a number of origins. Games go on into seeming perpetuity because of the preponderance of deep counts, pitchers who can’t throw strikes, and umpires who won’t call them. Excessive pitching changes are another notorious game-lengthener. The time-intensive approach is inspired by alleged genius manager Tony La Russa of the Oakland Athletics, father of the seven-man bullpen. The gospel according to La Russa dictates that managers must take advantage of lefty/righty percentages in every late-inning relief situation, and employ the closer in every save situation to protect themselves against the odds and the second guess. There is little evidence these time-consuming strategies improve a team’s chances of winning, unless they’ve got an effective stable of setup men and superhuman closer Dennis Eckersley, a situation La Russa enjoyed in the A’s’ late ’80s/early ’90s salad days.
Still, the single greatest reason for longer games has nothing to do with player skills, arbiter intransigence, or managerial strategy. About half the increase in the length of games is the result of front office fiat. Breaks between field changes have grown from barely a minute to well over two minutes, as a device to pack more advertising dollars into broadcasts. The owners’ new guidelines, to take effect after the All-Star break, will cut back those breaks back to two minutes tops, shortening games by at least 10 minutes. Palermo’s rule changes also order umpires to prevent batters from stepping out of the box between pitches and public-address announcers to introduce the first batter of an inning more promptly following the final out of the previous inning.
For next season, Palermo has asked for repeal of the spitball-prevention efforts, the so-called Gaylord Perry rule, which encourages wandering by forcing pitchers to leave the mound if they want to touch hand to mouth. Palermo and the owners also hope to convince umpires to call strikes above the waist, as the rule book dictates, a bit of windmill-tilting attempted with a notable lack of success during Bart Giamatti’s brief reign as commissioner. Any changes assume tradition-bound pitchers and umpires can break old habits, and if they are successful, the changes might slice another few minutes off the length of games. Overall, the owners are slicing and dicing, hoping they will eventually be able to squeeze 20 minutes out of the great American pastime.
So who cares?
Years ago, I asked Earl Weaver for his thoughts on a rule change to speed up the game by limiting the number of pickoff throws a pitcher could make between deliveries to the plate. Weaver took a long drag on a Chesterfield King and intoned, “Whenever you hear people talking about speeding up the game, you’re listening to people who don’t like baseball,” a description that seems to fit the current crop of owners quite nicely. But longer game duration doesn’t correspond to reduced fan interest. Major-league attendance figures show that while game times increased some 20 percent from 1978 to 1993 (the majors’ last full season), attendance rose from 42.2 million to 72.9 million. That’s a nearly 73 percent increase of fannies in the seats in 15 years. The owners may have ignored those numbers, but they certainly noticed that this season’s attendance is off 25 percent compared to last year. Lengthening games didn’t keep fans from coming out then, and it’s not long games that are keeping fans away in droves now.
An unscientific survey of folks who do like the game—fans at Camden Yards this season and last—suggests that paying customers don’t care too much about the length of the contests. Fans with young children, or early wake-up times, simply resolve to leave at a set time. Others say they stay at a game as long as it’s compelling. In dozens of interviews, fans complained about seating angles at Camden Yards, ticket and hot dog prices, players’ salaries, and ballpark music selections, but not one said they took themselves out to the ballgame less often because the games go on too long.
It’s clear that baseball’s still-unsettled labor unrest has soured fans on the game. They’re staying away despite a wave of unprecedented promotions, including free and heavily discounted tickets in many cities, aimed at luring them back. Until owners and players show they are ready to play ball with each other and settle their differences, fans will remain reluctant to give their hearts, minds, and hard-earned cash to teams. Boston Red Sox Chief Executive Officer John Harrington, chairman of the owners’ negotiating committee, admits, “Fans aren’t going to come back until a [labor] deal is done.”
At the same Minneapolis meetings where owners approved rule changes to speed up the game, they also mapped out strategy for their stalled negotiations with the players for a long-term labor agreement. Strategies aside, no talks have been held between the two sides since the players ended their strike three months ago.
In Minneapolis, owners again failed to agree among themselves on an expanded revenue-sharing formula to address the income discrepancy between teams, which they claim threatens the game’s competitive balance. They also debated reintroducing the salary cap, two words nearly guaranteed to provoke the game’s ninth work stoppage since 1972.
In light of these deliberations, the new rules to speed up the game are a sad example of emperors and empresses fiddling while the game goes up in smoke. Until players and owners realize they owe a settlement to their customers, the people whose money has made both sides rich, fans can be excused and even applauded if they stay home and shout, “Burn, baby, burn.”