Last Friday, we discussed the need for the MLB to embrace innovation. The use of replay challenges is an important part of that process, even if it makes purists want to storm Bud Selig’s offices with pitchforks and scorecards in hand. With the replay issue settled (for now), there’s been talk of even more radical changes, as some people aren’t happy with the three-hour-plus runtime of the average MLB game. An anonymous baseball executive, perhaps just trying to help out his friend Buster Olney by providing the writer some column fodder, made the absurd suggestion that the league should shorten its contests to seven innings. More reasonable suggestions, such as putting a cap on time between pitches or keeping batters from leaving the box, have been raised as well. I despise wasted time as much as the next guy, but baseball fans should be careful what they wish for. All of the glove-adjusting and loogie-spitting timeouts aren’t as much of a waste as one might think.
I’m a baseball fan, yet I have no trouble admitting that the sport can sometimes be boring. The Yankees were blown out 14-5 by the Orioles yesterday, and this was not an especially thrilling affair, despite all of the hits that cracked off both teams’ bats. Similarly, pitchers’ duels, like the one between the Padres and Dodgers that started the North American portion of the regular season, can have some pretty fallow stretches. This all supports my theory that baseball is something that is meant to be passively absorbed and intermittently focused on rather than watched with complete intensity. It is perfectly acceptable, and often rather lovely, to take in the radio broadcast of a baseball game while filling out spreadsheets in a cubicle. Night games are the perfect way to mitigate the ennui of loading the dishwasher or laundry folding. Having these games end more quickly might result in some truly awful circumstances, like legions of unsuspecting baseball fans having to finish their ironing against the backdrop of the “Two and a Half Men” reruns that come on after the post-game show.
Most baseball games have at least a few exhilarating moments, but they have their share of dead air, just like any other sport. Baseball players just have to live through a few more dull moments than their counterparts on football fields or basketball courts. It’s not necessary to watch Mike Napoli foul off eight pitches to appreciate the home run he hits on the eleventh. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take in his durability at the plate, but if you’d rather use those couple of minutes to feed the dog, no one’s going to judge you. You can fill in the gaps later by looking at the box score. More and more people will tell you that’s where the important stuff is, anyway.
Nowhere is this more true than at the ballpark. If you’ve not been to a baseball game recently, you may not have noticed that young fans, the very people the MLB hopes to rope in by shortening games, spend about 0.6 percent (verified by SABR) of their time at the stadium actually watching the game. They spend the rest of the time racing back and forth between their seats and the concession stands, sticking their tongues out on the Jumbotron, and vying to get selected for participation in between-innings shenanigans like Musical Toilets and Who Can Lick More Dirt Out Of The Infield. Which is to say, they spend their time doing things that remain entertaining for hours on end. Just because they may not care much about Clayton Kershaw’s ERA now doesn’t mean that growing up in the ballpark will keep them from doing so when their stamina and metabolisms become too low for the other stuff.
Fans go to the ballpark to experience its atmosphere just as much as to experience the game. Having that experience cut short by half an hour or more may not thrill ticketholders. Even those who don’t spend the game careening around the stadium’s amenities like to spend games talking with friends and spending a few hundred dollars on beer. Two weeks ago, I went to an NBA game with three friends. Shorter than the average baseball game, it was over in a little less than two-and-a-half hours. We spent most our time with our eyes fixed on the action in front of us. Music blared over our conversations during commercial breaks, and while we all had good times, a couple of us remarked that we didn’t really talk much. If John Wall had taken a few extra seconds to change his shoes, it wouldn’t have bothered us.
When it comes to baseball games, most of my fondest memories involve talking. I loved seeing my favorite Brewer, Jeff Cirillo, get a pinch-hit single in 2006, but I also enjoyed laughing with my cousins about how the guy in front of us was wearing girl glasses. Not once have I watched a game at the stadium and wished it were over sooner. If I get bored with a televised game, all I have to do is dig under the dusty, coin-infested couch cushions and find the remote.
It’s nearly 1:30 AM right now, and not long ago, I was about to give up on writing and go to sleep. I could finish it tomorrow afternoon, I told myself. Then Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez got hits off Kenley Jansen to rob him of a save, and the Tigers tied the Dodgers at 2 runs apiece. Now the game is in the bottom of the tenth, and I’m about to write the last word of this article. Thanks, baseball. You can keep going for as long as you want.