With the attention spans of fans growing shorter and the games getting longer, Major League Baseball attempts to speed things up
Author Jack Cavanaugh Illustration Peter and Maria Hoey
In what turned out to be baseball’s equivalent of a New York minute, on September 28, 1919, the New York Giants beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-1 in a contest that lasted only 51 minutes, still a Major League record for a nine-inning game. Almost 87 years later, on August 18, 2006, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played the longest ever nine-inning game, taking 4 hours and 45 minutes—more than five times as long as the Giants and Phils—to complete a 14-11 struggle.
While these examples are extreme, they’re indicative of a larger trend of baseball games getting longer. According to Kevin Hines of the Elias Sports Bureau, from the early 1950s through the 1970s, games averaged 2 hours and 27 minutes; that grew to 2 hours and 39 minutes during the 1980s and peaked last season at slightly more than three hours per game (this in spite of the fact that scoring has dropped precipitously in the last few years, meaning games, in theory, should be taking less time). The rules have largely stayed the same, but a number of small developments have led to the lengthening of games. Many players use batting gloves that they constantly fidget with; catchers, infielders and pitching coaches make more trips to the mound to talk to pitchers; teams use more pitchers, even in low-scoring games; and there is more time between innings for television commercials.
At the same time that the games have gotten longer—often stretching them well past the bedtimes of young fans—our culture’s attention span has gotten shorter. Many kids are now being drawn to faster-paced games, like basketball and soccer—and let’s not even talk about video games and iPads. Major League Baseball, fearing that it’s losing allure among young fans, is attempting to speed things up with a series of new rules this season. These changes include timers that ensure that games restart promptly after commercial breaks and a requirement that batters keep at least one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, at the peril of having a strike called against them. (This rule is aimed at keeping players from strolling aimlessly out of the box and adjusting their batting gloves after every pitch, as Derek Jeter did for years.) While some minor leagues are experimenting with a time limit between pitches, MLB has yet to take that step.
The question is, will these changes actually speed up the games? John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, is skeptical. “Earlier games were speedier simply because time between half-innings was not given to on-air commercials,” Thorn says. “Subtract roughly two and a half minutes [the amount of time usually allotted to commercial breaks], times 18, from current game times and you reduce the time of games by 45 minutes. But in the real world this is not going to happen, so the best that MLB can do about this particular drag on the game is to assure that teams do not dawdle after the commercial break.”
As Thorn notes, the commercials aren’t going away, but a number of former players and managers are drawing on their own experiences for ideas on how MLB can chop a few more minutes off of game times. Jim Bouton, who pitched for the Yankees, Astros, Braves and Seattle Pilots during a 10-year big league career (and who also wrote the seminal baseball book Ball Four) has a number of recommendations, including getting rid of batting gloves and banning players from arguing with umpires, holding up a hand to signify they’re not ready and taking curtain calls after hitting home runs. “All of that should knock off about 45 minutes from a game,” Bouton says.
Another former pitcher, Ron Darling, who won 136 games in 13 years with the Mets, Expos and A’s, says he’s a “big fan” of the initiatives that were put in effect this season. “But to speed the game even more, I want to see the umpires call the strike zone as the rule book defines it—from the letters to the knees,” he says. “It would force the pitchers to throw more strikes and the hitters to be more aggressive.” Former All-Star first baseman Keith Hernandez, who was a teammate of Darling’s with the Mets (both now work as analysts on the team’s television broadcasts), says he favors limiting pitchers to 20 seconds between pitches and reducing the time between innings. “It keeps the action moving, especially later in the game, when both managers can go to the bullpen multiple times an inning,” Hernandez says.
Bobby Valentine, who played in the big leagues for 10 years before managing the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox, suggests limiting relief pitchers to five warm-up pitches instead of the current allotment of eight. He also recommends restricting visits to the pitcher’s mound by managers and pitching coaches to one per inning and disallowing infielders from going to the mound with catchers to talk to pitchers. “Those conversations are usually ridiculous and just take up time,” he says. Valentine also thinks that MLB could learn something from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, whose Chiba Lotte Marines he managed for seven years. “Games would speed up if batters went after the first pitch more, something they do often in Japan,” he says.
It remains to be seen how much the current changes will affect the games, or if MLB will heed any of our panel’s suggestions. Either way, baseball may not want to get too obsessed with game times, for fear of replicating the events that took place on August 30, 1916. On that day, the Winston-Salem Twins and Asheville Tourists of the Class D North Carolina State League played a game in just 31 minutes. It was one of the last games of the season, and a meaningless one as far as the standings were concerned, so the teams agreed to play fast so that the Twins could catch a 3 p.m. train. Pitchers lobbed the ball over the plate, and batters swung at the first pitch. When batters reached first base, they ran unmolested until they scored or were tagged out. In one instance, to help expedite the flow of the game, the Asheville pitcher threw his first pitch of an inning before his catcher even reached his position behind home plate. Naturally, the batter swung and got a hit. The Winston-Salem players made their train.
Jack Cavanaugh covered sports for The New York Times for 25 years. He is the author of Season of ’42, a history of the first baseball season after the U.S. entered World War II.