Baseball, the once national pastime, stood apart from all other major sports as the clock did not tick nor matter. After 150 years, this is changing as Major League Baseball is implementing a pitch clock for the season starting today.
Early feedback from spring training is mostly positive as proponents of the change highlight that the clock forces the hitters to hit and the pitchers to pitch, instead of wasting time fixing batting gloves and stepping on and off the mound, while games averaged 2:35, 26 minutes faster than last year.
But for this Mets die-hard and baseball purist, this is a change the game and its fans will soon regret.
It is worth noting that the World Baseball Classic did not incorporate the pitch clock, despite the significant number of Major League players participating and the league’s desire to engage a global audience. For the title game, 4.5 million watched Japan defeat the United States, and the ratings for the tournament exceeded expectations — all without the ticking clock.
One of the treasures of attending or watching a baseball game is getting lost in the sights and the sounds. After a day of being slaves to the clock, from running to meetings, appointments, and classes for students and teachers, baseball provides a welcome escape from the constant of time. Not anymore.
I never minded the delayed flow of a baseball game. On beautiful summer nights, it was a gift to sit and rest under the bright lights of Shea Stadium, and now Citi Field, in my Queens hometown. The freedom allowed for conversations to develop and bonds to grow in the stands, among parent and child, new and familiar friends, and strangers rooting for the same results.
The so-called wasted time was a refreshing break in the hamster wheel of life. Finding space to simply be, to observe, listen, and rest, all while getting lost in a game without an immediate pressure to perform, is rare in our society.
Prepare also for greater fan frustration at ballparks across the game. With shorter games and less down time, crowd management into parking lots, stadiums, food lines, and restrooms, will all add an unnecessary rush to this entertainment experience.
Missing two innings instead of a few at bats to grab the family hot dogs and sodas will not sit well for parents already investing a small fortune to attend a Major League game. Unlike hockey and football that offer breaks into the action with intermissions and halftime, respectively, baseball fans must strategically choose when to hit the concession stands or restroom. By the time they finally get settled, they will be ushered out of the stadium wondering what they missed.
The call for shorter games and more action is meant to draw younger fans into the game.
Baseball hopes they will capture new fans by increasing offense, although if there are significant differences, it may be more of a result of the greater restrictions on defensive shifts that dipped league-wide batting averages to .242 in 2022, the 6th lowest average in this game’s history.
The worst year, 1968, notoriously known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” led MLB to lower the pitching mound and shrink the strike zone to neutralize the bleak league-wide batting average of .237. Even though those changes were dramatic at the time, they did not take away the mystique of the game as a clock will. Only miserable weather stood in the way of a game coming to its natural conclusion.
If Major League Baseball was all-in on engaging a new audience, they wouldn’t start their biggest games of the year at 8:03 p.m., the start time of all six World Series games last fall.
I can accept that gone are the days of afternoon games for a pennant or championship, but how about starting the game an hour earlier to invite a younger generation to see their favorite player take a few at bats before their parents reluctantly send them to bed because it is a school night.
Starting today, umpires will yell “Play Ball” at ballparks and then, those same umpires will begin watching the clock.
Our eyes, unfortunately, will be drawn to the decreasing seconds, adding an unnecessary urgency to the once natural and restful sandlots that we call home and the game we once found familiar.
The only hope for this baseball fan is that the quicker the games end, the less beer and hot dogs will be sold at the ballpark, forcing the owners to rethink this grand plan after all. As Yogi Berra notably said, “it gets late early out here.”
Walters is the author of “Batter Up: Answering the Call of Faith & Fatherhood” (2022).
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