Bring on the Pitch Clock
By Mark Bohm / June 1, 2015
I grew up on baseball. Watched it, played it, loved it. Went to instructional camp in the summer. Collected cards in the days when the packs still came with a hard slice of bubble gum. Although we had no Major League franchise in Miami back then, the Hurricanes had exciting college teams, and I was lucky enough during the late 70's and early 80's to spend long stretches of summers visiting family on Long Island, where there were enough Yankees and Mets' telecasts to satisfy the most ardent fan. Later, while in high school, a move to the Bay Area allowed me to take in more live Giants and A's contests than I can count.
Today, some thirty years later, Major League Baseball has apparently come to realize the issue my dad had with the pace of the game on certain nights. A pace that could now become - in our new world of no waiting, where we can reach anyone immediately, find the answers to our questions in an instant - a grave danger.
Of all sports, none loves statistics more than baseball. Some stats, however, are not the kind MLB wants to see.
According to information compiled at Statisticbrain.com by 2013 the average human attention span had dropped to eight seconds. Which, according to the same source, is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish. That bodes badly for a sport whose intensity builds slowly, during long moments of inaction, and requires its viewers to appreciate the silent, cerebral battle between a pitcher and a batter.
Recent Internet articles have chronicled other statistics. The median age of those viewing baseball on TV is trending in the low to mid-fifties - the oldest following of major professional sports in the U.S. Meanwhile, viewership of the World Series is falling. As shown by Baseball-almanac.com: the League's annual Fall Classic was commonly watched, in the 1970's and 80's, on average, by viewers reaching thirty or forty million. Since 2000, however, the World Series has not had even one year averaging thirty million viewers, and in the past ten seasons, the average number of championship viewers failed to reach even twenty million. Anecdotally, I know my thirteen-year-old son will sit in front of the TV for at least a little while if an NFL, NBA or NHL game is on. But the game I grew up loving doesn't register.
As they say, numbers don't lie. So, even though attendance at the parks seems to remain strong, to its credit, MLB is being proactive. This season they instituted new rules to hasten the pace of the game. Batters are supposed to keep one foot in the batter's box, subject to certain events. The time permitted for the game to resume after mid-inning breaks is now limited. From what I can tell, casually watching some ballgames early in the season, these modifications are small improvements.
The bigger change, however, is looming. When I first heard of a "pitch clock" I was offended. Forcing the pitcher and batter to get re-set within 20 seconds? How dare they violate the purity of our one major team sport where the action has never been dictated by a timekeeper! Be stubborn, Baseball! If our new society can't stand a few moments of quiet deliberation, if we're unable to last more than an instant without a fresh burst of stimulation to save us from falling into boredom, so be it then. That we cannot any longer enjoy a game that's as much a contest of craft and calculation as it is of physical force is our collective loss; or so I thought.
Then I watched some footage of baseball games where they tested the pitch clock. MLB tried it in the Arizona Fall League last year. Currently, it's being used in minor league games at the Triple-A and Double-A levels. And although I've seen only a little - to my great surprise - it looks like a change for the better. It doesn't drastically alter the game, but the action does seem to push along at a more brisk and steady pace. Also, something about seeing the time ticking down out of the corner of my eye seemed to heighten my anticipation for the next pitch. Much like a 24 second shot clock counting down in basketball, as it gets low, you don't want to look away because you know something is about to happen.
Maybe my own attention span has been pared down into goldfish territory. Maybe I'd just like my kid to watch a ballgame with his old man sometime. Whatever the reason, I think a new clock is coming to America's pastime, and I think I like it.
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