Sports Nut

The Waiting Game

I’ve loved baseball my whole life. Now, I can’t watch a game without DVR.

Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals waits during Game 5 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers

Rob Carr/Getty Images.

The fast-forward button makes everything on television more tolerable. By time-shifting sporting events, the savvy fan eliminates the scourge of commercial breaks, cutting out all the frustrating, buzz-killing dead space. Once you’ve gone DVR, watching a game in real-time is cruel torture, a slow death by 1,000 Miller Lite ads.

When it comes to football, I’m content to zap past the latest in beer shillery and watch everything in between. That’s because there’s value in watching the interstitial replays. As you await the next snap in an NFL game, you can watch a slow-motion rendering that sheds light on what happened the play before.

In a baseball game, though, the time between pitches serves no function for fan or player. The batter steps out of the box, the pitcher steps off the mound, the batter adjusts his batting gloves, the pitcher tugs the bill of his cap, and the batter calls timeout. All the while, there’s nothing to fill the dead air. Ball one, outside—America is ready to move on. During the World Series, Fox shovels a heap of extreme close-ups of players, managers, and fans into these gaping chasms of tediousness. This is supposed to enhance the Drama of October. Instead, it’s a visual cue that there’s absolutely nothing going on.

Baseball was my first love. I started obsessing over games before I could form permanent memories, and I’m told I taught myself to read by scanning the box scores in the morning sports page. Once I attained full-on literacy, I devoured The Baseball Encyclopedia and collections of wacky baseball anecdotes, and I sat on the carpet for hours sorting my Topps and Donruss cards. Now, as an adult, I still read about baseball every day, and I continue to feast on the latest statistics. But I find it impossible to make it through a baseball game without technological assistance.

Major-league games are not appreciably longer today than when I became a fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For the last decade, the average regular-season game has taken about 2 hours and 50 minutes. Red Sox-Yankees games and postseason contests, however, last in the neighborhood of 30 minutes longer than a typical contest and occasionally breach the four-hour barrier. (In 2006, Boston and New York played a nine-inning game that took 4 hours, 45 minutes.)

For fans as much as players, Major League Baseball’s showcase games have become tests of endurance. This is due in part to the attrition model of baseball favored by savvy, Moneyball-schooled ballclubs. Hitters take more pitches, which leads to more guys reaching base, which leads in turn to more pitching changes and throws over to first. At the same time, pitchers have taken to stalling their hearts out. Batters, too, call timeout after timeout, and the indulgent home-plate ump grants it every time. Add it all up, and you’ve hit the three-hour mark in the bottom of the sixth.

At the same time, the miracle of modern technology has empowered couch-bound fans to control the pace of play. So long as you don’t watch in real-time, you need not be thwarted by visits to the mound, or by hitters adjusting themselves, and then adjusting themselves again. (In the meantime, the pitcher is also adjusting himself.)

While my constant fast-forwarding makes me feel like an efficient baseball consumer, it costs me the opportunity to watch the World Series alongside my fellow fans. I’d prefer—and I’d imagine the lords of MLB would prefer—if I were able to watch passively, without my finger hovering over the remote. But playoff games are just too slow.

I can’t argue with some of the stuff that leads to baseball bloat: Taking pitches and deploying bushels of short relievers is good strategy. But there’s no reason for the game’s culture of between-pitch time-wasting. What’s most frustrating about this chronic stopping and starting is that it’s against MLB rules.

Rule 8.04 decrees:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.” … The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.

In Game 5 of the World Series, Chris Carpenter, C.J. Wilson, Octavio Dotel, and Alexi Ogando (among others) took more than 12 seconds between pitches on innumerable occasions. They were not instantly penalized. The only time Major League Baseball has been inclined to enforce its pitch-clock rule is when Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon—probably the slowest pitcher in baseball history—steps on the mound. Since there are no consequences when non-Papelbons take a minute between tosses, major-league pitchers do what they please, watchability be damned.

I don’t see any downside to MLB following through on its ban on unnecessary delays, nor can I see a reason not to extend the rule—to make them pitch in, say, 25 seconds or less with men on base. If you think such enforcement would cause irreparable harm to our poetically clock-less pastime, consider the Southeastern Conference’s 2010 experiment with a 20-second pitch clock. The clock, which was activated only when the bases were empty, drew no complaints, and the SEC’s players and managers said they barely noticed the countdown. The result: Games were shortened by as much as 15 minutes. Because of this success, the pitch clock was adopted across college baseball in 2011.

The gentlemen’s agreement between hitter, pitcher, and umpire that enables baseball’s culture of stalling is to nobody’s advantage—not the fans, not the broadcasters, and not the fielders who get stiff waiting for the pitcher to go into his motion. If Fox and MLB had any sense, they would cut out all the mid-at-bat foolishness and redistribute that extra time to slot in more commercials between innings. Sure, I’d fast-forward through those ads, but that would be a whole lot better than zooming through the game itself.