DID BASEBALL FINALLY GET OUT OF ITS OWN WAY? AS USUAL, WE WAIT
America should be celebrating MLB’s best news in years — a pitch clock, a shift ban, faster games, quicker pace, more action — but Rob Manfred (oops!) let King Football upstage the announcement
Was this not sooooooooo baseball? Finally awakening from decades of dawdling and dozing — “oh, did sports and life pass us by?” — MLB couldn’t help but hit the snooze button one last time. What should have been framed as a national holiday, with the joyous announcement of a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, instead lagged all weekend as a secondary story.
Even when Rob Manfred gets something right, he forgets that football has a smothering effect on the American consciousness. Rather than wait for the right time to detail the rules changes that ultimately could save his industry, the commissioner had his competition committee conduct a vote in early September, then went public as the NFL was opening its regular season.
So any giddy impulse to project games clocking in at a palatable two and a half hours — close to 40 minutes shorter than the current 3:07 average and some 90 minutes shorter than a typical postseason game — was stalled as usual. Imagine a pitcher having to deliver an offering within 15 seconds, while a batter no longer can adjust his glove and scratch his nether regions with only eight seconds to be “alert” and place both feet in the batter’s box. Imagine the clock set at only 20 seconds with runners on base? Imagine the comeuppance of every front-office nerd with a spreadsheet, now that two fielders must be on each side of the second-base bag, with all four required to have feet in the dirt and no longer allowed to graze in the outfield grass.
Envision a game for the 21st century, with more action and pace, more offense and speed. Celebrate the landmark efforts of Theo Epstein, who pushed for this revolution as a consultant to Manfred and now can say he broke three curses: the Bambino in Boston, the Billy Goat in Chicago and Bud Selig in the biggest picture. Plan the parade for a fortysomething who loves the game and didn’t want to see it die. “At every turn, fans wanted a faster pace of play, more athleticism on display in the field and on the bases, more balls in play and more action overall,” Epstein said. “Fans want less dead time less of anything that slows down the pace of play or pace of action. So to get closer to that best version of baseball and give the fans more of what they like and less of what they dislike, we knew we needed to create a faster pace.”
Fans? Gee, how nice to acknowledge their influence. But truth be known, MLB should have listened to the slow pace/minimal action complaints at the turn of the millennium, when high technology was taking over the world. By prioritizing TV profits and old-school traditions, baseball fell behind football and basketball in the popularity pecking order and spiraled into nichedom. The owners didn’t grow and streamline the game, losing a generation and allowing a basic World Series viewer to age beyond 60. The radical changes are great, at last, and I’ll be curious to see them.
Alas, they arrive much too late. Manfred could have unilaterally enacted a pitch clock many years ago, for instance, but chose not to “out of a desire to work with the players.” Why? To keep the labor peace? All he did was lose millions of fans in the process. This dragging of institutional feet was true to myopic form in the commissioner’s office, as both Manfred and Selig — and the stodgy, unimaginative owners they’ve long represented — always have overestimated baseball’s new place in culture. All you need to know, even with the sport’s happiest news in ages, is how and when the developments were disseminated.
Did MLB not think about a ballyhooed special on its own TV network in midweek prime time? Nah, it put out a release on a Friday. Does Manfred not follow sports news? Why didn’t he anticipate how football could drown out his headline? Say, Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills opening with a Super Bowl statement against the defending champions? Tom Brady’s mid-life crisis unfolding on a Sunday night? Lamar Jackson rejecting a $250 million deal, including $133 million in guarantees? In the college game, Appalachian State took down Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher, who was accused by Nick Saban of using NIL money to buy an entire top-ranked recruiting class — not that Saban had any reason to chortle, as Alabama barely avoided joining Jimbo, Touchdown Jesus, Bucky Badger and Dead Coach Walking (Scott Frost) on a chaotic day of upsets.
Consider it a metaphor. Just as football blew past MLB in the ‘90s, this was one last symbolic reminder of how far the former national pastime has faded. We’ll have to wait — what else is new? — to see if the changes bring back fans, reverse vast attendance declines and spike TV ratings stuck in the toilet. Is it possible analytics already have killed the game, after owners allowed a takeover of saberfreaks to erode the human element? As it is, baseball struggles with the slightest bit of alteration. The implementation of sweeping, drastic changes won’t be easy because, as we know, nothing ever is easy in baseball.
What happens in April when a pitcher waits too long and is penalized with a ball call? Or when a batter keeps scratching and is called for a strike? “There will be some confrontations,” said Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona, a baseball lifer. What if these things happen in October? It should be noted in bold, capital letters that the vote of the 11-member panel was not unanimous, with the four players — on a committee tilted with six ownership representatives — saying no to the pitch clock and shift ban. What, you thought longstanding labor animus would fade with new rules? If anything, the relationship between the players and MLB will become more contentious, exploding when an expired clock is enforced and becomes the predominant element of a game.
“I’m actually very against how it’s happening,’’ said Colorado Rockies veteran Charlie Blackmon. “Anytime you have the boss implement something against the will of the players, that’s not good for the game of baseball. … It would be really great if we could have arrived at a conclusion together, with compromise. That would have been nice. It sounds like something we should have addressed in the (collective bargaining agreement), which, I guess is our fault as players. But it seems contrary to the whole spring training goodwill tour (Manfred) took. I’ll tell you what, if we’re trying to bring more new fans to the game, adding a whole bunch of shot clocks and special rules like that is probably not really conducive to learning about the game.”
Said Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ: “The players point of view is that we would rather move slowly and make sure the game looks the way the game looks now and keep making changes if we needed to, in a stricter direction, as opposed to going all the way strict and working backwards from there.”
If the revisions devolve into a management-imposed fire drill, it won’t matter if the games are shorter. More of the same ill will won’t be good for the sport, further frustrating fans. To hear Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive president of baseball operations, players will be expected to adapt quickly based on pitch clock experiments in the minor leagues. Live by the Sword, die by the Sword, apparently. “The adjustment period is very fast for most players. It takes about a week feeling comfortable,” he said. “If you're going to do something like the clock, you want it to work. It was the committee's belief that jumping to the best form of this was the prudent move.”
I keep coming back to a new reality that will haunt the owners. Shorter games means less time for spending at concessions stands and less time to occupy TV eyeballs. Neither turn is good for business. When have owners ever approved givebacks within revenue streams? It’s an indication of their desperation, after wallowing in self-delusion for so long.
“The game on the field has been evolving for decades in a way that has taken us away from action, away from contact, away from a faster pace,” said Epstein, who would be a fine commissioner if he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the gig, preferring a piece of team ownership somewhere. “And this is no fault of the players whatsoever. In fact, most of these trends have been driven by modernization, by data, and by front office optimizations. But the game has evolved in a way that nobody would have chosen if we were sitting down 25 years ago to chart a path toward the best version of baseball.
“I think today was a big win for the future of baseball.”
It was a bigger win for football.
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.