ST. PETERSBURG — Three items of interest, completely unrelated.
1. A week ago, the Bucs and Eagles played a Thursday night game that drew more than 14 million viewers.
2. On that very same night, the Giants and Dodgers had their first winner-take-all playoff game in nearly 60 years. It drew about 6.5 million viewers.
3. Through the first three weeks of MLB’s postseason, the average length of a game was about three hours and 40 minutes.
Okay, so maybe these items aren’t so unrelated.
Major League Baseball may have a problem. That is, if you consider games lasting longer than a telethon to be a problem.
At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, this is not the way baseball is meant to be played. Not with pitchers taking stock of their lives on the mound, not with hitters stepping out of the box to adjust their batting gloves after every pitch, not with viewers going to bed in the fifth inning.
There have been some absurdly entertaining ballgames this postseason, but fewer and fewer people are watching because MLB has forgotten one of the basic tenets of a sport:
It’s for the fans.
You can worry about your advertisers, your players, your umpires and your fellow owners, but if you don’t start worrying more about the average person switching the channel, that gap between the number of people watching a regular season football game and a historic playoff will continue to grow.
And you know what’s worse? This isn’t a surprise.
Baseball identified pace-of-play to be a problem years ago. It’s changed rules and taken other steps to alleviate the problem. And, somehow, it’s gotten worse.
In 1960, the average nine-inning game took 2:33. Twenty years later, the average was still 2:33. Pretty cool, right? Yet, 20 years after that it had ballooned to 2:57, and this year it was at an all-time high of 3:10.
And then the playoffs arrived, and it got even worse.
Through the first 29 games of the postseason, 3.4 percent of the games were less than three hours. On the other hand, 55 percent of the games were more than 3:30.
That’s unacceptable. It’s untenable. Mostly, it’s unbelievable.
While watching the Braves and Dodgers play Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on TBS Thursday night, I went to YouTube on my laptop and watched Game 3 of the 1970 World Series.
Both games were blowouts. One featured 12 runs, the other 13 runs. One had 26 baserunners, the other had 24 baserunners. In other words, they were similar games.
The 1970 game took 2:09 to play. The 2021 game took 3:33.
Look, I get it. Television revenues have become a big deal, and commercials are going to have an effect on the length of games. Strategies have changed, too. More pitching changes means longer games.
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I don’t like tinkering with rules (limiting mound visits, reducing the number of pitchers allowed on a roster), but if it’s necessary then let’s have those conversations.
But the simplest change is reverting back to a sped-up version of action. The interminable moments between pitches have got to end. If it takes adding a fifth umpire whose only job is to assess penalties — balls or strikes — on pitchers or hitters who are dawdling, then so be it.
Players will adjust pretty quickly once they realize navel-gazing will not be tolerated.
Baseball is not likely to return to its heyday, either in terms of pace or popularity. It’s simply not built for today’s give-it-to-me-now audience.
But that doesn’t mean MLB needs to lean into the narrative of a game that moves at a slower pace than hockey, basketball, football and, for that matter, bowling.
There are ways to speed up the action without changing the fundamental nature of the game. And if this postseason hasn’t convinced MLB officials that change is necessary, then baseball could one day find itself in the same sort of sad niche as boxing.
Baseball purists like to think of the game as timeless. Baseball officials need to realize that’s supposed to be an adjective and not an objective.
Longer than ever
It’s not your imagination. Baseball playoff games are taking longer than ever to play. Here’s a breakdown on the average length of games for this postseason versus 2012, when MLB expanded the playoff field to 10 teams. The 2021 figures are through Thursday night’s games.
Length of game 2012 2021
2:30-2:59 6 1
3:00-3:29 19 12
3:30-up 12 16
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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