Field of dreams, indeed: slow, boring baseball puts shrinking fan base to sleep

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Take me out to the ball game. And you might want to settle in and get comfortable, because we're likely going to be here a while.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/05/2019 (1243 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Take me out to the ball game. And you might want to settle in and get comfortable, because we’re likely going to be here a while.

As much as it stings to admit it, a sport I love dearly is in trouble. In a smartphone generation where we expect everything to happen in a flash, baseball is failing to deliver.

The biggest culprit from my perspective is the fact most games are simply taking too long to play out. Strikeouts are up, very little else happens on the field, and it’s trying the patience of even the most diehard supporter.

This is a sight more baseball teams can expect to see if work isn't done to lessen the time it takes to play a ball game, Mike McIntyre writes. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

No amount of peanuts and Cracker Jacks can make amends.

Just look at MLB, where the average length of a nine-inning game jumped to a gruelling three hours, five minutes and 11 seconds last season, up 4 1/2 minutes from the previous season. That’s asking a lot of spectators to endure, especially when you factor in time to travel to and from the stadium. And fewer are doing that; attendance was down four per cent year-over-year, hitting its lowest average since 2003

Consider a recent study by the folks over at the Wall Street Journal. They took a stopwatch to multiple MLB games with the idea of establishing how much actually happens in a typical contest. If you include the delivery, receipt and return of every pitch, every ball put in play (whether fair or foul) and the conclusion of that play, stolen bases and pickoff throws, the grand total came to just 17 minutes and 58 seconds of actual action, on average. Which means something is happening about 10 per cent of the time.

When they narrowed their study to just the amount of time runners are actually in motion on the bases, the average time is five minutes and 47 seconds. The WSJ study found a whopping one hour, 14 minutes and 49 seconds per game was spent between pitches.

Be still my beating heart.

Bringing this all a little closer to home, I headed down to Shaw Park Wednesday night as the Winnipeg Goldeyes kicked off their 2019 spring training schedule by hosting the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks.

The first pitch was tossed at 6:05 p.m. in front of a couple of thousand fans who braved the near-freezing temperatures to see an exhibition game. The final out in the top of the ninth inning was recorded at 9:46 p.m., as the Goldeyes beat the RedHawks 5-4 in a fairly entertaining contest that was dragged down by the three hours and 41 minutes it took from start to finish.

Granted, this was a pre-season game involving several pitchers who are likely in tough to crack their respective rosters. Twelve different hurlers — six a side — saw action, although the majority off those pitching changes occurred between innings. Fargo-Moorhead pitchers issued 10 walks and Goldeyes pitchers served up five. There were also 20 combined strikeouts in the game.

Of the Goldeyes’ 100 regular-season contests last year, 89 wrapped up in nine innings, with the average length two hours and 56 minutes, based on my calculations. There were 34 games that took more than three hours to complete, including eight that went into extra innings. The longest was an 18-inning, 5:33 marathon on July 10 at Shaw Park.

American Association clubs averaged 3,251 fans per game last year, a slight decrease from 2017 and continuing a recent trend (the Goldeyes were 4,477, second-best in the 12-team loop). Just like MLB, they’re finding it increasingly difficult to get eyes on their product. I have no doubt game length is a big factor.

New York Yankees' Clint Frazier reacts after striking out May 8. More action, less waiting is needed to reverse a slide in baseball attendance, Mike McIntyre writes. KATHY WILLENS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Fortunately, MLB appears to recognize there’s a problem and is — slowly — trying to address it. Which will likely eventually trickle down to other leagues.

In spring training, they experimented with a 20-second pitch clock, in which ball-strike penalties were issued for violators. A good idea in theory, but one that the players union has rejected for regular-season games, at least so far. The union also balked at a proposal to limit catchers to one trip to the mound per inning, and also raising the bottom of the strike zone to the top of the kneecap, putting more walked batters on the base paths.

However, starting next season, a pitcher will be required to face at least three batters before he can be replaced, barring injury or getting to the end of a half-inning That will bring an end to some of the specialized matchups you often see within a game, where a hurler is brought in to face just one hitter.

Here’s another suggestion: how about requiring a hitter to remain in the batter’s box at all times? None of this stepping out, taking a gaze around the stadium, re-adjusting your batting gloves silliness that seems to drag out so many at-bats.

Baseball will have to make significant changes, or risk eroding the fan base further. The clock is ticking.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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