CHARLOTTE, NC, February 13, 2017 – Of all the major league sports Americans love to watch, baseball has probably had fewer rules changes in the past century than any. Despite that, just before Spring Training rolls around each year, somebody decides that a hundred years of tradition just isn’t good enough and something must be changed.
In recent years, most of the alterations have centered around attempts to speed up baseball. Modern sports fans say the game is too slow and cannot compete with the NFL, NBA and NHL for speed and action. Why baseball needs to do that is an argument for another day. Chess and golf are slow too, but those games seem perfectly comfortable within their own guidelines.
Football, basketball and NASCAR are perhaps most guilty of modifying the rules of competition. Racing is obvious because automobile technology changes every year and the rules must be adapted to suit “late model” racing.
In the case of football and basketball, over the decades athletes have become machines covered with skin. Three hundred pound football players are quicker today than ever before.
Basketball players are often larger than the Redwood Forest, so it becomes necessary for rules to change in order to keep them safe.
But to say that baseball is “slower” than professional football is simply inaccurate. One analyst recently noted that major league baseball games take longer today because there are too many commercial breaks.
Think about that for a moment. Baseball, over all other sports, has built in natural breaks at the end of each half-inning. In that sense it is unique. If any sport has been slowed by commercials it is football.
In the NFL following a score, sponsors take four minutes to sell their products. When action resumes we see a kick-off followed by four more minutes of commercials. That is an eight minute break (2/3rds of a professional halftime) in every 8 1/2 minutes following a score.
An average NFL game now lasts 3 1/2 hours or more. Even baseball does not usually take that long.
The biggest rules change in all sports in recent years has been the advent of replay challenges. With technology as advanced as it is these days, it means that professional football has gotten to the point where it quite literally has too many rules.
“Did his knee touch before the ball hit the ground?”
“Was there helmet to helmet contact?”
“Did he break the plane of the end zone before he was down?”
“Did he grab the facemask?”
Question: Why bother to even have officials? Why not just let the cameras ref the games?
The answer is always, “Well there is so much money in sports these days, we’ve got to get it right.”
The NFL has a 16 game season. Major League Baseball plays 10 times as many games. The actual winning percentage to make the playoffs is about the same in either sport. Win 9 games in the NFL and you are usually in the hunt. In baseball you need to win about 90. Same ratio.
But there have been numerous challenges in either sport where replays have not been definitive and, in those instances, we wasted several more minutes just to get it wrong anyway.
When a championship is on the line, fine, use the replays and make sure they are accurate. In baseball however, for every missed call by an umpire over the course of a season, there is an equal number of missed calls that go the other way for any given team. Part of the challenge of sports is to adapt when things go against you.
Furthermore, good old fashioned arguments with the ump, though they add time to a game, were part of the drama, and I daresay, everybody enjoyed a good rhubarb now and then.
Modern day baseball has been slowed over time for one basic reason, the game has become so sophisticated with crunching numbers that pitching changes are the biggest culprit.
When Babe Ruth cranked his 60 home runs there were no pitch counts. There was nothing magic about throwing 100 pitches and there still isn’t. A burly pitcher today can throw 135 pitches in an outing that are the equivalent of 90 pitches thrown by a skinny 175-pound fast baller.
In Ruth’s era, the bullpen had no closers or middle relief guys. The starter went as hard as he could for as long as he could and the pen mopped up the game.
The second major factor in lengthening a baseball game is the number of pitches a batter takes and how deep in a count pitchers go. Stepping in and out of the batter’s box chews up time. Going to a 3-2 count or fouling off six or seven pitches also slows the game.
But that is what the game is all about. Take that away and you destroy the purity of the sport.
As the boys of summer get set to mark the official beginning of spring, baseball once again prepares to tamper with the game. None of the suggestions will change anything in terms of the length of games, but sadly enough they could change a hundred years of history and legacy for the worst.
We’ll explain tomorrow.
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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