Keeping baseball from becoming irrelevant

Baseball needs a pitch-clock

 By Bill Grimes – Chicago, IL • February 27, 2015

 Major League Baseball rule changes announced recently to speed up the pace-of-the-game are well intentioned, but won’t solve the game’s biggest problem – excruciating delays by pitchers and hitters between pitches.

 Baseball is a great game. Its action is unparrelled. Unfortunately, you don’t know when it’s going to occur. It will definitely not occur until the pitcher throws the ball. If something isn’t done to make that happen more quickly baseball risks becoming irrelevant to all but obsessed fans (of which I count myself).

 Promptly resuming play after shorter commercial breaks and keeping managers in the dugout during replay challenges have nothing to do with incessant delays between pitches. It’s questionable requiring hitters to keep one foot in the batter’s box throughout an at-bat will work. It sounds arbitrary, pitchers are not being asked to do anything different, and marquee players like David Ortiz may just ignore it, “I’m gonna do what I normally do.”

 It’s time for a pitch-clock short enough to change pitchers and hitters’ behavior. It’s doubtful the 20-second pitch-clock tried in the Arizona Fall League last year did. Cincinnati Reds prospect Jesse Winker told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "I figured it's 20 seconds, I'm not going to get out of my routine, I'm back in the box before the 20 seconds is up anyway... it ended up not being that big of a deal at all."  

 It needs to be a big deal.

I suggest Major League Baseball start testing a 12-second pitch-clock, the sooner the better. Twelve seconds may be too long. It may be too short. Something has to be done because the deliberate pace of the game is hurting attendance at the ball park. It’s excruciating to the shrinking television audience.

In the spring, baseball often plays 2nd, 3rd, 4th fiddle to NCAA March Madness and NBA and NHL playoffs. As pennant races heat up baseball faces stiff competition from college and pro football. Baseball teams in tight divisional races play before thousands of empty seats.

Some television audiences are downright embarrassing. Jonathan Mahler made reference in The New York Times in September 2013 of a Houston Astros game that got a .04 Nielsen rating. That’s about 1,000 viewers.

No one can compete with the Super Bowl, but baseball has trouble competing with NFL preseason games. According to SportingNews.com the NFL’s Hall of Fame game in 2014 had better ratings than the 2013 MLB postseason, except for the World Series. Let that sink in for a moment. An NFL exhibition game had higher ratings than the major league baseball playoffs?

The problem is baseball has become dominated by inaction. Twenty, 30, 40, 50 seconds, even a minute between pitches prolongs that inaction. The cat & mouse game pitchers and batters play where one steps out as the other steps in is not action, unless you count the clicking of the TV remotes.

Last August 24th I timed a routine at-bat in a game between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Oakland A’s. Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun was facing the A’s Fernando Abad with no outs, no one on base and Angels up 9 to 3 in the top of the 8th. It was a ten-pitch at-bat. Calhoun eventually struck out swinging. Here was the time between each pitch:

1 & 2    21 sec

2 & 3    25 sec

3 & 4    27 sec

4 & 5    25 sec

5 & 6    35 sec

6 & 7    50 sec

7 & 8    34 sec

8 & 9    32 sec

9 & 10  60 sec

That at-bat lasted 5½ minutes. Subtracting the time between pitches left 20 seconds of action (I use the term loosely since the ball was not put in play). That means for a shocking 94% of that at-bat nothing happened! It’s difficult to keep a 39-year old fan engaged, let alone a 9-year old. A pitch-clock would have shaved a couple minutes, or more, off that at-bat.

The charm of the game will not disappear. There will still be no limit on the number of pitches in an at-bat, the length of an inning or the length of a game. The inaction is masking a great sport! Baseball is anything but boring. It’s sometimes subtle, sometimes violent. There's running, hitting, throwing, home runs, singles, doubles, triples, diving into the stands to catch a foul ball, shortstops flying through the air to finish a double play, stealing, bunting, hit and run, and on and on and on. These are what should be prominent in our great game, not a hitter tightening each of his batting gloves for the 6th time in the at bat.

The flow of baseball is unlike that of any other sport. A point (run) is scored by a player crossing home plate, though the ball may be hundreds of feet away. To capture the action the spectator must dart his/her eyes back and forth between where the ball is, and as many as four runners trying to reach home.

The action is there. It’s the inaction that’s driving fans away. All sports have inaction, but in other sports like football a clock forces action to occur by a specific time. The fan knows it’s coming. Baseball’s inaction is unregulated. That needs to change.

Baseball’s image is tradition and resistance to change, but change, it has. Most fans are aware of raising and lowering of the pitcher’s mound and the strike zone over the years, the designated hitter (DH) enacted in the American League in the early 1970’s. Most are not aware that until the 1930’s a fair ball that reached the stands on one bounce was a home run. A batted ball that curved from fair to foul territory after it left the playing field was a foul ball. You have to go back to the 1800’s but there was a time when a base-on-balls required 9 pitches out of the strike zone.

The point is changes have been made from time to time to improve the game. Another change is required. It’s time.

 Bill Grimes is a former journalist who publishes www.todayinbaseball.com. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He makes a living as a trial consultant based in Chicago.

Bill is available for interviews. Contact him at bgrimes23@gmail.com, 708-217-2567



Today in baseball history - Feb 25 - Work stoppage ends

Wrong kind of "strike"

NEW YORK, NEW YORK | FEBRUARY 25, 1973 -  Major League Baseball goes through phases where "strikes" seem to out-number "balls," and we're not talking about what the homeplate umpire barks out after a pitch is thrown. According to Sports Illustrated, since 1972 there have been eight work stoppages, including the year we're focusing on - 1973.

The news was good on this date. The players' union and team owners announced a new three year agreement ending a lockout by the owners at the start of spring training.

The 1973 agreement instituted what has become as common as the hit & run - arbitration. After so many years in the league a player who couldn't agree on a salary with his team could take the issue to arbitration.

Considering what happened a year earlier, a strike right at the start of the regular season, everyone was relieved. Players and owners alike knew fans were becoming disenchanted, or worse, indifferent, to the annual spring labor rituals.

Baseball didn't learn however, there were work stoppages in 1980, 1981, 1985, 1990 and a devastating strike in 1994-95 that wiped out the entire post-season including the World Series.

Contributing sources:
Herschel Nissenson, Associated Press (AP), The Gettysburg Times, February 26, 1973
Sports Illustrated, May 25, 2002

This baseball history story about work stoppages is brought to you by TODAY in BASEBALL.


Today in baseball history - Feb 24 - The Tony Conigliaro tragedy

Tony "C" gone too soon

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS | FEBRUARY 24, 1990 - A life of such promise ended sadly at 4:30 in the afternoon on this date in 1990. Tony Conigliaro, the youngest player to hit 100 home runs died of pneumonia [also see FEB 7th story]. He was 45.

"Tony C" as he was known, had been in poor health since suffering a heart attack in 1982. The turning point in his life, though was 15 years earlier when he was on top of the world.

On August 18, 1967, while playing for the Boston Red Sox, Conigliaro wasn't able to get out of the way of an inside fastball from Jack Hamilton of the California Angels. The ball hit him on the left side of his face nearly blinding him. He was out of baseball for over a year.

Conigliaro made a promising recovery in 1969. His blurred and double vision appeared to have cleared up. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 82. In 1970 he had the best year of his career - 36 home runs and 116 RBI, but by '71 his vision had deteriorated again. He wasn't able to play in '72, '73 or '74. After an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback in 1975 he retired for good. He was 30.

A legacy of Tony Conigliaro's beaning was players starting wearing helmets with flaps on the left side for right-handed hitters and the right side for left-handed hitters. Today such helmets are mandatory.

Contributing sources:
Associated Press (AP), Boston, Massachusetts, February 25, 1990
Tony Conigliaro


Today in baseball history- Feb 23 - Howser hangs it up

Sad news from Fort Myers

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA | FEBRUARY 23, 1987 - Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser gave it all he could, but on this date in 1987 was forced to tell his players they would have to go on without him. Howser had been diagnosed with brain cancer the previous summer. He underwent two operations to try to remove a malignant tumor.

Howser hadn't filled out a lineup card since the 1986 all-star game. Observers noticed during that game that he didn't seem as sharp as he normally was. It would be the last game Dick Howser ever managed.

Howser gave it another try in the spring of '87. He put the uniform on for the first time since that 1986 all-star game on the first day of spring training. The uniform didn't fit. He looked tired and weak. Two days later, according to the Associated Press (AP) he said, "It's just that I need more time to rest. I can't do it like this." He didn't get better. Howser died three months later on June 17, 1987.

Dick Howser guided the Royals to their only World Series championship in 1985. In five full seasons as a manager, and parts of three others, his teams never finished lower than second place. Besides the Royals, he managed the New York Yankees for one full season and part of another. The Florida State University graduate had an eight year playing career, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1961. He played for the Royals, Cleveland Indians and Yankees. Dick Howser was just 51 when he died.

Contributing sources:
The Associated Press (AP), Fort Myers, Florida, February 24, 1987
Dick Howser as manager: Baseball-Reference
Dick Howser as player: Baseball-Reference

This baseball history story about Dick Howser is brought to you by TODAY in BASEBALL.


Today in baseball history - Feb 22 - Cardinals sign QB

Cardinals hire gunslinger

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI | FEBRUARY 22, 1938 - The St. Louis Cardinals announced the signing of two-time All-American quarterback Sammy Baugh on this date in 1938. And, no, not the football Cardinals, they were still in Chicago at the time, the baseball Cardinals. Baugh had just graduated from Texas Christian University where he was an innovative quarterback who relied heavily on a seldom used offensive weapon - the forward pass. He earned the nickname Slingin Sammy.

Baugh also played third base for the Texas Christian baseball team. In fact, he was initially recruited for baseball and that was the sport he wanted to pursue. After signing with the Cardinals to play baseball Baugh was sent to the minor leagues. He didn't excel as well as he hoped and never played a major league baseball game.

Baugh played sixteen years in the National Football League, eventually being elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Here are some other noteworthy athletes who played more than one professional sport:

John Elway - New York Yankees minor leagues/Denver Broncos
Danny Ainge - Toronto Blue Jays/Boston Celtics
Dave DeBusschere - Chicago White Sox/New York Knicks
Chuck Connors - Chicago Cubs/Boston Celtics/TV's "The Rifleman"
Brian Jordan - Various MLB/Atlanta Falcons
Deion Sanders - Various NFL/Various MLB
Michael Jordan - Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards/Chicago White Sox minor leagues
...among others.

Contributing Sources:
United Press (UP), February 23, 1938, St. Louis Missouri
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sammy_Baugh#Baseball

This baseball history story about multi-sport players is brought to you by TODAY in BASEBALL.


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