Hourglass

Baseball’s constant tinkering with the rules gets tedious

Major League Baseball is a 1968 Ford Mustang owned by your grandfather. Grandfather is always tinkering. It runs well enough, but Grandpa knows the engine needs work. Still a nice car, especially since it’s candy apple red, but fewer people stop and gawk at it than before. Probably because it looks slow compared to a Tesla.

Or, in baseball’s case, slow compared to the NFL and NBA. In fact, the only sport slower than baseball is cricket, which can take days. For those who love baseball, its measured pace is a relief from what feels like an emotional rush at work, on the highway, or when that two-year-old asks for his NOW bottle.

Obsessed with speeding up the game, MLB came up with an idea that sounds innovative – so different from how baseball usually thinks. Like putting a runner on second base in the 10th inning of a tie game. That kind of mind-numbing brain cramp.

MLB has approved the use of an electronic device manufactured by PitchCom. A pad is attached under the wrist of the recipient’s gloved hand. On the pad is a series of buttons defining the type and location of the pitch the catcher wants their pitcher to throw. The receiver hits the buttons. His launcher receives his instructions immediately through an earpiece.

No hand signal is displayed. No signs can be stolen. Three teammates on the field are also given the signals, usually the shortstop and second baseman, with the center fielder most logically the third option.

Initially, this development was intended to address and prevent the embarrassment caused by the sign-stealing Houston Astros during the 2017 season and playoffs. Sign stealing has been accepted and tolerated in baseball as long as it remains subtle. “If you don’t cheat,” Dusty Baker once said, “you don’t try.”

But when the Astros started banging the trash cans, the team couldn’t have been more obvious and blatant short of using the stadium speakerphone. The shame caused by the Astros more than four years ago continues to this day.

The undisclosed contents of a letter of inquiry are expected to be made public within days. Written by MLB in 2017, the letter is causing anxiety for what it may reveal, both at the commissioner’s office and at the club level. The fact that a federal judge authorized his release years ago only adds to speculation that he contains further damning evidence.

MLB hopes that electronics can eliminate sign theft, speed up the pace of play and take the league further away from 2017. MLB has seen how the same technology has been used successfully by the NFL to communicate with its quarterbacks. The system is foolproof, according to MLB, which means there’s a 16-year-old somewhere working on the hack. No good deed in technology goes unpunished.

MLB is on an endless quest to shorten the length of its games. It is their obsession, their great dilemma, their cause that continues to frustrate and annoy.

It’s not a game judged by a clock and yet here we are. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was blunt and direct: He considers the successful implementation of a pitch clock his mission in life. Although this may be a slight exaggeration, it is closer to the truth than not. Manfred has the numbers to drive him.

In 2021, according to baseball-reference.com, the average game length was three hours and 10 minutes. Just a year earlier, the average game was three minutes faster. In 2011, the game was 19 minutes faster than it was in 2021. The most telling statistic is the length of an MLB game in 1984. The game 38 years ago was 35 minutes faster than last year.

When it comes to minutes these days, well, we watch helplessly as if it were sand in an hourglass, maddeningly flowing out of our control. As we try to catch up with what haunts us.

While everything in modern American life has sped up, especially using a phone or computer, the pace hasn’t influenced baseball. The reason could be as simple as the technology that drives us all forward. Maybe our attention span is now the length of a hummingbird hovering over honey. Perhaps the information highway is too congested and we allow ourselves a one-paragraph snapshot before continuing.

However time is cut, baseball acts almost as if the game itself is at stake. It searches for an answer, and the game hopes no one is watching its frantic search. After all, salaries betray their panic.

The 10 richest players in the game have contracts worth at least $260 million. Mike Trout of the Angels peaks at $426 million. Judge Aaron of the Yankees was offered a $230 million contract but declined, wanting the same respect $330 million affords Bryce Harper.

Can an industry struggle with this kind of green being tossed about? This gives the impression, when the speed of the game is constantly mentioned, that it is a fatal flaw. As if there’s no more room in America for a sport that doesn’t have a clock pushing the tempo and interest. PitchCom will pick up the pace. Batters will not be able to polish their spikes between pitches. Pitchers won’t have time to stare inside their gloves like it’s a genie in the bottle.

The game will speed up. Dead space will be reduced. Batters will be annoyed that they can’t take their time between pitches, a century-old custom. Pitchers will be more effective because of this. And bingo, MLB will find itself in another conundrum.

The game needs more attack. More tours. More rating. More movement. What to do? Again, it’s time to make adjustments. Lower the mound. Let’s see what happens next. Baseball is that 1968 Mustang with candy apples. I can’t stop messing around with it.

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