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BEHOLD BASEBALL’S 15-SECOND PITCH CLOCK, ONLY THREE DECADES TOO LATE
MLB is trying to streamline its slog in an NFL world, but no one is buying franchises, cord-cutting is killing regional sports networks and young generations still won’t care even if games are shorter
Not to spill executive secrets, but there’s a reason no one is buying Major League Baseball teams. Billionaires with brains would rather own NFL teams, NBA teams, European soccer clubs and, at this rate, pickleball squads. Time was when the availability of the Los Angeles Angels, Washington Nationals and possibly two or three other franchises would pique a frenzy among America’s most-moneyed moguls.
Not anymore. As an investment, baseball is as dead as crypto. Jeff Bezos wants to join Stan Kroenke and other Walmart gold-diggers in football. Jay-Z is tempted to combine empires with LeBron James for a basketball expansion foray in Las Vegas. Unless you’re a dragon in Dodger Stadium or a slayer in San Diego, or on the I-95 corridor between New York and Philadelphia, MLB is closer than ever to niche status in a country that once considered it the leading sports pastime. Everything we experienced on Super Bowl Sunday — the third-most-watched television show in American history, $600 million in gross ad revenue for Fox Corp., 113 million folks hanging on Patrick Mahomes’ every throw and limp — was everything baseball is not and never can be again.
It’s a little late for a cobwebbed, scandalous, out-of-touch, grandpa-in-his-recliner sport to implement seismic rule changes intended to streamline and invigorate the slog. Greed, complacency and a fear of the players’ union led baseball down a path of 3 1/2-hour games during regular seasons and four-hour marathons in October and (ugh) November. A radical disruption was needed in the ‘90s, when football and Michael Jordan left MLB in their exhaust fumes while the owners were locking out players and historic-turned-shamed sluggers were injecting steroids. Instead, the old men remained stuck in their stodgy ways and refused to adapt to younger generations. The new rules, enforced this week for the start of spring training, should have been enacted long ago.
Now, they just seem weird. And ripe for anarchy.
How many pitchers will keep dawdling and throw a tantrum when an automatic ball is called after 15 seconds with no runners on base, or 20 seconds with runners? How many hitters will keep adjusting their batting gloves, scratching their groin regions and erupt when an automatic strike is called? Some will welcome the quicker pace, such as Mets closer Edwin Diaz, who theatrically enters games at Citi Field to a trumpet cacophony. “I don’t worry about the pitch clock because I like to pitch quick. I don’t like to let the hitter think what pitch is coming,” he said, wisely. “I will keep throwing my two pitches, my fastball and my slider, and keep striking out everybody.”
Said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash: “Pitch clock, I’m thrilled about. Speed the game up. They get too long. If we’re playing the Red Sox or playing the Yankees, they turn into four-hour ballgames.”
But already on record as opposing the clock is none other than the pitching ace of an era, Clayton Kershaw, who will do his best to ignore the countdown. “I’m not going to pay any attention to it. And if I go over it, I go over it,” he said as the experiment was tried out in the minor leagues, where the average game time was trimmed from 3:03 to 2:38 last year. “I’m not going to change anything I do, and and if it becomes a problem, I guess I’ll have to deal with it then. But I think there’s ways to fake it. If it looks like it’s winding down or something, you can step off. I’m sure there are ways around it. I’m not too worried about it.”
We’ll see how a renowned competitor, nearing the end of his career, reacts when he waits 30 seconds and the ump calls ball four. Be prepared for rants and ejections, which will be fun but counterproductive, stalling the very games we’re trying to shorten. “My guess is in April, you’re going to probably see some incidents. It’s inevitable,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “Hitters are going to step out or somebody’s going to get a ball.”
A ban of extreme infield shifts should bring conformity without drama, even if the Ivy League nerds in franchise front offices are weeping, stripped of their algorithmic powers. And those outsized bases, increased three inches to 18-inch squares to slightly narrow the basepaths by four inches? “Wait ’til you see them — they look like a pizza box, to be honest with you,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
Which means, of course, that MLB will slap the logos of the three highest bidders on those swelled bases. Why not Pizza Hut on first base, Papa John’s on second and Domino’s on third? Why am I giving Rob Manfred bad ideas?
“This has been an eight-year effort for us,” the commissioner said. “I hope we get what our fans want — faster, more action, more athleticism.”
What took him so long? All the wait did was marginalize the sport and make the NFL even more immense in popular culture. In an industry where only the Yankees (fourth at $6 billion) and Dodgers (26th at $4.08 billion) rank in the top 29 of the world’s most valuable sports teams, baseball owners are delusional in thinking they can command monstrous prices in a market dominated by other leagues. What makes the NFL thrive? One hundred and twenty billion dollars in media money through 2033. What will keep revving the NBA engine? A bidding war involving networks and streamers. Baseball? The average viewership age grows by one every year, now into the 60s. Cord-cutting has left the traditional cash cow for many flyover franchises — regional sports networks — in near-bankrupt shambles. What keeps baseball energized is the emergence of Steve Cohen, John Middleton and Peter Seidler as stewards who will spend liberally on payrolls, much to the chagrin of profit-pocketing owners who bastardize revenue streams. By no coincidence, the Mets, the Phillies and even the Padres, belying mid-market status in San Diego, are three of the six or seven teams that realistically can win a World Series this season.
Desperately, baseball needs more thirsty owners like Cohen — the hedge-fund king who’s worth $18 billion and will spend almost $500 million on the Mets in 2023 — and fewer owners like the thieves wrecking franchises in Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Miami and other problem markets. But only a dope would want to buy a baseball team these days. That’s why Arte Moreno had to backpedal from his attempt to sell the Angels, who have Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout but also a declining fan base, a decaying ballpark and an L.A.-driven inferiority complex in Orange County. That’s why the Nationals, in the nation’s capital, still haven’t found a taker despite a hard push accelerated by this week’s death of 97-year-old owner Ted Lerner. Their asking prices are high — Moreno wanted $3 billion, and while there was well-heeled interest from a Japanese group and Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, the more realistic ask is $2 billion, with 18 of the 30 franchises valued below that standard and the rock-bottom Miami Marlins slightly below $1 billion.
“We realized our hearts remain with the Angels and we’re not ready to part ways with the fans, players and employees,” Moreno said in a statement.
Who knew he was playing Pinocchio in the movie about baseball’s demise? At least we won’t have to waste entire afternoons and evenings waiting for ballgames to end. At least Manfred and the owners are trying something to fix their broken-down jalopy, even if their enterprise is a sideshow that keeps people vaguely occupied until Aaron Rodgers emerges from his darkness and reports to a new team, Lamar Jackson and Derek Carr finalize their dilemmas, three new quarterbacks are taken high in the draft and training camps begin. From there, baseball is lost in a National Football League ecosystem.
In a Rihanna world, baseball is very old and just hanging around.
Say, Ringo Starr.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.