DENVER - Major League Baseball has a problem. As American life becomes less leisurely, the pace of MLB games grows more leisurely.
Is using a clock to speed up the games the solution to what ails baseball?
In 1970, when baseball still ruled America, the average length of a game remained under two hours and 30 minutes. Pitchers declined to walk around the mound or stare down batters or adjust their hats. Pitchers threw pitches, often within 10 seconds of touching the ball.
In 2017, when football rules America, the average length of a baseball game has risen to an all-time high of three hours and five minutes, which includes walk-up music and stepping out of the box and long breaks between half innings for TV commercials. Pitchers, on average, take nearly 23 seconds between pitches.
On Thursday, I drove to Colorado’s sports palace, otherwise known as Coors Field, to watch the Rockies lose to the Reds. I went to the game with a college roommate who now lives in Germany. We scalped tickets and baked in the sun for three hours and four minutes, almost exactly the average length for a 2017 game.
It was great, sitting there with a friend in the sunshine in a largely vacant Section 115. We caught up on good times from yesterday, today and tomorrow while savoring America’s Pastime. We talked and watched for 184 minutes.
When you’re at the ballpark, baseball has a way of hypnotizing you. The game lulls you into its rhythms, and you don’t care about all the dirt kicking and mound grooming. The minutes zoom by.
Attendance is strong at MLB stadiums, with 16 teams averaging at least 28,000 fans per game. You will hear little complaining about the length at games among the true believers who travel to the park.
But when you’re sitting in front of the TV, baseball is not so hypnotizing, especially to America’s younger generations. Over 50 percent of baseball’s TV audience, according to Nielsen ratings, is 55 years old or older. A dozen years ago, the 55-and-older crowd was 41 percent of the audience.
Baseball is at risk of losing its young audience. I realize the 2016 World Series featured superlative ratings, the highest in 15 years, but I suspect those ratings were due to the heart-grabbing, once-in-a-century supremacy of the Chicago Cubs.
In the early 1950s, the NBA was on the edge of extinction. Teams would grab a big lead and go into extended stalling. This stalling resulted in victories, and empty arenas.
The game of tomorrow was stuck in yesterday.
In the summer of 1954, NBA owners gathered in Upstate New York to watch an experiment that altered a game and rescued a league. A 24-second clock was used in a pickup game at a high school. The 24 seconds had been selected randomly, but the number was exactly right.
Players had time, but not too much time. The game came fully alive with the aid of the ticking clock.
Here’s the problem:
Basketball is meant to move fast. Baseball is meant to move at, yes, a leisurely pace.
Many, and this includes those who love baseball most, are calling for a clock to oversee games. A clock that will click down the seconds between pitches. A clock that everyone – fans, umpires, batters, pitchers – can see. A clock that will rev up an old game and help it better blend with the frantic pace of 2017.
In 2015, a clock was used as an experiment in Single-A and Triple-A to oversee pitchers, who were penalized with a ball if they took more than 20 seconds to throw. The experimental clock was not too slow or too fast.
It was just right.
Joe Torre, the brilliant Yankees manager, oversaw the clock experiment.
“I was pretty impressed,” Torre told MLB.com. “…Nobody seemed uncomfortable doing it. It just sort of picked up the pace of the game.”
As a TV viewer, I’d welcome the clock, which is starting to look inevitable.
But as a visitor to a baseball palace, I’d want no part of the ticking.