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THANK YOU — YES, ROB MANFRED — FOR MAKING BASEBALL WATCHABLE AGAIN
The powers-that-be mean business in spring training, with the Pitch Clock Era already revolutionizing a slow, boring sport with shorter games, a quicker pace and real penalties for those who dawdle
The average life expectancy in America is slip-sliding, down to 76.1 years. Not since 1996, Derek Jeter’s rookie season in Major League Baseball, has the national lifespan been that low. Blame Covid-19 and drug overdoses, heart and liver disease. I am not blaming Derek Jeter, just so you know.
But I am mentioning Jeter because he took weeks and months off our lives as he stepped out of batter’s boxes, knocked dirt from his cleats with his bat, looked into the stands as organ music played, swung his bat two or three times, removed and put on his helmet, wiped sweat from his brow, detached the velcro from his batting glove, reattached the velcro to his batting glove, stepped back into the box and touched home plate with his bat before performing the most annoying gesture in the sport’s history — holding aloft his outstretched right arm, needing more time — in a routine known as the Human Rain Delay.
Today, he wouldn’t make it to first base, much less the Hall of Fame. That’s because MLB finally realized its product was dying after too many batters and pitchers dilly-dallied for decades, long enough to let football and basketball blur past and take over as our predominant sporting passions. So much for batters scratching their crotch regions and pitchers shaking off catchers five times. The Pitch Clock Era finally and mercifully is upon us, and after the first two days of experiments in Arizona and Florida, I might be ready to live a hell of a lot longer and stop treating baseball like the bane of my existence.
Of the 19 games — and remember, this was the opening weekend of spring training, when runs, hits, errors and pitching changes are plentiful and many players are wearing crooked uniform numbers and headed to the minors — 14 finished in the heavenly, quick-paced, made-for-human-enjoyment territory between two hours and 15 minutes and two hours and 39 minutes. Every game was shorter than last season’s abysmal, all-time-low average of 3:11, and the three games over three hours were bloated run-fests that rarely happen in the regular season.
I never thought I’d see a day when the rallying Atlanta Braves were about to win with the bases loaded in the ninth inning — Cal Conley at the plate with two out and a 3-2 count in a 6-6 game — because the home-plate umpire ruled Conley wasn’t set in the box before the pitch clock reached eight seconds. Violation! As John Libka pointed to his wrist watch, a stunned Conley laughed sheepishly, and because spring games don’t extend to extra innings, everyone abruptly went home in North Port, Fla. Even better, Boston catcher Elih Marrero appeared to fake Conley because he still was standing behind the plate when the ump made his call, a legal gamesmanship ploy as Robert Kwiatkowski was positioned on the pitcher’s mound.
Welcome to Disruption, MLB-style, a quarter-century too late but better late than never. Anyone who values their daily time agrees with one of the game’s prominent faces, Mike Trout, who said, “Nobody wants to play a four-hour game.” It’s simple, boys: A prominently displayed clock allows 15 seconds between each pitch when the bases are empty, 20 seconds with at least one runner on base, and, again, eight seconds for a batter to stand in the box and be prepared for a pitch, just as a pitcher must begin his motion before his time expires. The clock resets at 30 seconds between batters and yields an inning break of 2:15. Any violation results in an automatic ball or strike call, no matter if your name is Cal Conley or Manny Machado. San Diego’s $300 million star was called for a strike Friday before he was ready, prompting him to joke that he “made history” while getting serious and saying, “I thought I had enough time, I was doing my thing, and (umpire Ryan Blakney) says, ‘You got two seconds left.’ I looked up. Damn, it goes by fast.”
Assuredly, this isn’t some quirky, one-off experiment in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. The sport is faced with an existential crisis — too boring, not enough action, a preponderance of games, too many strikeouts and not enough speed in a 21st century known for innovation and streamlining. A .243 batting average last year officially reduced MLB to a superslog, with chicks and people of all sorts no longer digging ubiquitous long balls after steroids and cheating scandals. With King Football securing massive media deals and the NBA soon to follow suit, it was high time for commissioner Rob Manfred to wake up or get out. The pitch clock is augmented by a long-awaited ban on defensive shifts that already is turning double plays into singles and doubles. Bases are larger, the size of Christmas presents, to facilitate more steals. And a pitcher who steps off the mound and/or attempts a pickoff more than twice during an at-bat? A balk is called.
If the men on the field think this is some practical joke, easily stopped by the usual threats from their previously almighty union, they don’t understand how mortified Manfred and the owners have become. A February weekend proves it. “I don’t think this (rule) was intended for a game to end like that,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Conley was called out. “It’s a good thing that we’re starting (the new rules in spring training) because you never know what might happen. That instance right there, it kind of shows you what could happen. … This will be all over SportsCenter and all that kind of stuff, what happened. And I’m sure Major League Baseball will address it.”
Oh no, MLB will not. Any and all dawdling routines must be cleaned up in the next few weeks, or the real games will end just as funkily. Even a hitter’s walk-up music is impacted, with a song permitted to play only 10 seconds. “We think the changes are going to produce a crisp, more exciting game wth more balls in play,” Manfred said. “You’re going to see a game that moves along with more pace. I think you’re going to look at the field and see players in positions the way that most of us grew up seeing them positioned. I really do think they’re going to see a movement toward the very best form of our game.”
For once, he doesn’t seem to be lying. And for once, now that we see MLB means business, we find ourselves rooting for the owners and not the whining players. “What happens,” Machado wondered, “if the umpire has to take a leak? Does he get penalized?” I’m guessing the umpire will strategize his bathroom duties before the game, an adjustment players must consider lest they want to be embarrassed and penalize their teams.
“There are going to be side effects and unintended consequences,’’ said Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, “that I don’t know if they thought about before implementing. I’m sure there are things we haven’t even thought about yet. There are some things with this that isn’t really baseball.’’
Such as, having to be in supreme physical and mental shape. Through time, baseball players could afford to drink and party the night before a game and let their minds wander during long at-bats. Not anymore. “The one thing, guys are going to get a little bit tired working at this pace,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s going to be an endurance factor with this as well.”
The hitters, in particular, will have to treat plate appearances like batting practice. Pitches don’t stop coming when they’re in the cage. They have eight seconds, not the 48 that Jeter took. But the pitchers also will deal with fatigue if they face a full count barely a minute into an at-bat.
Soon enough, when the real games start and pressure intensifies, there will be tantrums. As Machado told USA Today, “You’re going to have some players who are going to be freakin’ angry and pissed off. You’re going to have players pissed off at the umpires who are just following the rules. We’re going to be seeing some crazy sh— for sure.”
The smart batters and pitchers will use spring training as an acclimation period. So far, there have been no riots. Melvin walked over to MLB executives after the first game played with the new rules, finished in 2:29, and said: “If this is going to be the pace of these games, I’m OK with it. So far, so good.”
“It felt like baseball,” Texas second baseman Marcus Semien said, simply enough. “So we'll just keep playing and keep getting used to the new rules.”
Before issuing too much praise to the ever-embattled Manfred, be sure to credit Theo Epstein. Since January 2021, he has been working alongside the commissioner as a consultant for “on-field matters” — though calling him a consultant is like referring to Jacques Cousteau as a fisherman — and it’s no coincidence that the rules revolution is happening on Epstein’s watch after years of bureaucratic inertia. As it was, we’d been debating whether he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer after ending the historic curses of the Red Sox and Cubs. As a contributor to a disruption that might save the sport, maybe Theo should be given his own Cooperstown wing.
For now, let’s enjoy unprecedented progress amid an otherwise disastrous period. “I think it's going to be a really good rule for Major League Baseball,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “It's going to make things faster, more enjoyable for the fans and just a better brand, in my opinion.” Once known as the grand old game, baseball became a bland, old game. Now, believe it or not, it’s watchable again. It’s much too late to say the sport is back as an American happening.
But at least it won’t die. And we won’t die watching.
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.