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Major League Baseball Rule 8.04 states the following:

“When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call Ball. The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.”

In his Baseball’s State of the Union column last week, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci joined an ever-growing list of pundits and other baseball voices calling for various ways to speed up the game. Specfically, Verducci called for “baseball” to install a pitch clock for the purposes of actually enforcing Rule 8.04, which he calls “the most abused rule in the book.”

Note here Verducci refers to Major League Baseball as “baseball,” as many of his prominent national colleagues tend to do. The NCAA’s Southeastern Conference actually did just what Verducci suggested back in 2010. The SEC’s rule installed two clocks for various situations. A 20-second clock runs between pitches with the bases empty, with the pitcher penalized with a ball for not releasing the pitch before expiration and the batter penalized with a strike should he not enter the batter’s box before expiration. A 90-second clock times the reset between innings as well.

Verducci claims the movement to slow down baseball games dates back just 20 years, to days when baseball was trying to recover from the 1994 strike and the NFL was moving atop the sporting landscape, and that his suggestion would be in opposition to the ideas of baseball traditionalists. Similarly, Mike Tierney of the New York Times wrote, “To purists, the SEC’s timer, reminiscent of a countdown signal for pedestrians at busy intersections, may represent the countdown to a baseball doomsday.”

Such claims are not backed up by history. The movement to speed up the game dates back at the very least to 1967. The 1960s were one of the first decades to resemble the current sporting landscape, with football, basketball and hockey all sharing the stage with baseball, and with all four sports broadcast on television.

In the September 16, 1967 issue of The Sporting News, Russell Schneider tells the story of a farcical pair of games between Cleveland and Oakland. The two games lasted a combined eight hours and 19 minutes (over 21 innings) and resulted in a shouting match between Cleveland manager Joe Adcock, some of his players, and the umpiring crew headed by Larry Napp. Adcock was ejected, and the barbs carried over into the press.

“The Indians are a joke… a disgrace to the game the way they’re always stalling,” Napp said. Another umpire, Bill Kinnamon, piled on more accusations. “Not only is Adcock the slowest in the league (in making pitching changes),” Kinnamon said, “but he also has the two slowest-working pitchers in McDowell and Siebert.”

Napp essentially admitted he threw Adcock out of the second game because he was fed up with his slowness. Cleveland President Gabe Paul was unhappy with Napp, but said himself “I’m in favor of games being speeded up, too, but not at the expense of winning.” Later, referring to the whole incident, Paul said he would discuss the issue of slowness in games with American League President Joe Cronin. “It’s something that must be done. It will be discussed at the general managers’ meeting next October,” Paul said.

And indeed it was. Although the major rule change from the 1967 Winter Meetings was a more thorough elimination of the spitball — it was made officially illegal to not just spit on the ball but on the pitching hand as well, which was overlooked when the original rule was made — a committee was formed to propose rules to eliminate delays, a committee that included Paul.

Apart from the committee, the 1967 meeting bore out four proposals. First and foremost was the elimination of “long and repeated conversations between pitchers and catchers on the mound,” part of what spurred on the Cleveland debacle. Second was forcing batters to run back to the plate following bunt attempts. Third was for parks with bullpens far from the mound to provide golf carts to relief pitchers entering the game, and fourth was for all pinch-hitters to be on the bench (and not in the bullpen) by the time the previous hitter completes his at-bat.

Perhaps none of these were as radical as the idea of a pitch clock, if only because of how much the lack of a clock distinguishes baseball from other team sports. But it should be noted that complaints about the game’s speed are nothing new. It’s not unique to the rise of football, or the rise of television, or the shortened attention span of the internet age, or any specific competition with MLB.

Recall Paul’s quote: “I’m in favor of games being speeded up too, but not at the expense of winning.” Now, Joe Adcock’s stalling or Nomar Garciaparra‘s extended pre-swing routine or Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s painfully slow mound routine might not tangibly improve their results. But so much of baseball is about comfort, and if a player (or manager) can improve his comfort level or disturb his opponent’s comfort level, he will take that opportunity, even if it means stalling. And with so much of baseball being about comfort, these things aren’t going to stop without a hard rule.

Sometimes, as appeared to be the case with Adcock’s delays, the actions became blatant gamesmanship and they demand a fix, such as the limitations to mound visits by managers. And since Major League Baseball is primarily enjoyed on television, it is in the fan interest to decrease unnecessary breaks in the action.

Personally, I am against a clock. Spink Award winner Roger Angell was being a bit dramatic when he wrote of baseball, “time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game,” but there is a particularly menacing nature to placing a giant clock on the field and penalizing players for failing to follow it to the letter. Baseball is a slow game by design and will never match the frenetic pace of basketball, hockey or soccer, no matter how many clocks are introduced, and viewers who require such a pace will not be won over by fabricated speed through a pitch clock. For me, I would expect any reductions in game time to be overshadowed by the aesthetic blights a pitch clock could introduce.

But whatever your opinion, let’s make one thing clear: this is not a new issue, and not one that pits traditionalists on one side against revolutionaries on the other. Ever since there was the problem of getting the fan through the turnstile, or getting the fan to tune in on television, reducing baseball’s length has been a dilemma, and I expect it will be as long as the game is played professionally.

Comments (3)

  1. I would love to see baseball get rid of catcher and couching visits to the mound. You can only go to the mound to take a pitcher out. Everything else can get discussed in the dugout.

    It is is such a waste of time watching J. Molina go out to the mound 10 times a game.

  2. Dice-k intentionary irritates a batter for slow routine .

  3. Jonathan Papelbon deserves mention in this piece. He’s the worst.

    I’m not sure where I sit on this question of the speed of the game. On the one hand, I enjoy baseball for its slower pace, its more deliberate action. On the other games simply shouldn’t take 4 hours to play. And it really does come down to the time between pitches; pick offs, pitching changes, and even the time between innings pales in comparison to the time it takes to deliver a pitch getting longer and longer.

    I think that I’d prefer if there were no clock, but that umpires simply sped up the game. Like if a statistic kept on umpires was the average time per pitch, or average time per plate appearance or something, and celebrated those umps who kept the game moving. Their job would be to get the batter in the box in a reasonable amount of time, and to get the pitcher to deliver the ball in a reasonable amount of time. I believe that baseball, more than the other major sports mentioned, is a “gentleman’s sport”, by which I mean that behaving in a respectful and conscientious way with respect to your opponents, the umpires, and the game itself is to be preserved above all else. The more rules we put in place, the more we are getting away from that spirit of the game. A clock does just that.

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