Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Take me out to the stall game

Today's baseball games take seemingly forever to play

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It is both the quintessential charm -- and the damnable curse -- that baseball is the only one of the four major North American team sports played without a clock.

In the frenzied pace of a modern world where news travels in 140-character bursts, there is something quaint and old-worldly to a sport played on its own merits, at its own leisurely gait and beyond the omnipresent shadow of a ticking clock.

On the other hand -- and partly for the same modern reasons -- baseball can also be stultifyingly, even oppressively boring. And that's despite the fact that baseball is also a sport where the ball is in play for almost the entire length of a game (studies have found the ball is in play in the average NFL game for just 12 minutes).

You'd think a ball constantly in play would make for gripping action. You'd think wrong. Consider what goes on in the batter's box -- or, more to the point -- outside the batter's box these days.

Witness David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox stepping out after every pitch, spitting on his gloves and then slapping them together. Ditto the Yankees Nick Swisher, who steps out, adjusts his batting gloves after every pitch and then stares at the end of his bat as though he is surprised, every time, to find it still there.

Pitchers are no better. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been widely singled out as a human rain delay, both for his epic journeys from the bullpen that can take longer than the March on Berlin and his turtle's pace when he reaches the mound. Papelbon was fined $9,000 by MLB through the end of last season for his slow play, Business Week reports, but he remains unrepentant.

"Have you ever gone to watch a movie and thought, 'Man, this movie is so good I wish it would have never ended'," Papelbon told a Boston radio station. "That's like a Red Sox-Yankees game. Why would you want it to end?"

The Yankees and Red Sox were the slowest teams in all of MLB last season, although not all of that was because of slow players. The two teams also finished 1-2 in the number of pitches they saw in the 2009 season -- 25,066 and 25,005 respectively -- and in the number of runners they got on base. That's not slow. That's good baseball.

Still, MLB took the unusual step prior to this season of publicly instructing both clubs to pick up their pace as part of MLB's campaign -- a decade long and counting -- to somehow increase the pace of play.

That process picked up speed this year with commissioner Bud Selig striking a committee that is formally studying what concrete steps (penalizing those routine step-outs, for instance) can be taken to address the problem.

And the problem is not only at the major league level. The average Winnipeg Goldeyes game this season has actually been four minutes longer than the MLB 2009 average, with almost one-half of the club's games this summer clocking in at three-plus hours.

That's partly not surprising, given that the level of pitching in the Northern League is far inferior to the majors and there is nothing like shaky pitching -- long pitch counts, constant base-runners, frequent pitching changes, mound conferences and walks -- to prolong the length of a game.

And there is also anecdotal evidence to suggest slow play in the NL is not unique to the Fish. While the league does not track average game-times, a look at games involving Winnipeg rival Gary-Southshore RailCats this season found they had played just one fewer 3-hours-plus game through the first 75 games of this season than the Goldeyes.

Goldeyes GM Andrew Collier says while the slow play keeps fans at the ballpark longer -- allowing, presumably, for more time to consume ballpark concessions -- the snail's pace is actually bad for business.

"We market ourselves as a family-friendly experience," says Collier, "and so if games are taking 3-1/2 to 4 hours to play, we know a lot of those kids have to get home to bed.

"From our standpoint, three hours or less is preferable."

But while his GM might not like it, Goldeyes manager Rick Forney makes no apologies for all the slow play. In fact, he doesn't even acknowledge it is slow.

"I don't think there is a problem with the pace of the game," says Forney. "Some games go faster than others, based on how someone is pitching, but I don't think there's anything wrong with today's game."

Three-plus hours isn't too long? "It's not too long for me," Forney continues. "It's all part of the game. People step out of the batter's box for many reasons. It's all part of the gamesmanship -- stepping out or pitchers taking their time around the mound."

Goldeyes right-hander Ace Walker -- widely considered to be one of the quickest and most efficient pitchers in the Northern League -- says all the talk about players holding up the game misses the central role home plate umpires can play in determining the length of a game.

"A lot if it comes down to the umpires. If the umpire isn't calling strikes off the edge of the plate and has this really tight strike zone, then you're going to have 2-2, 3-2 counts constantly and all these extra walks," Walker says.

"And that's what we've seen lots of this year. It's been very frustrating and very difficult to pitch this year. They're so tight, you have to throw in a tin cup all night.

"If the umpire has a zone that makes the hitters hit, then the game quickens. It all comes back to that."

paul.wiecek@ freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2010 B6

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