Play Ball! Faster Please

Cartoon by Tim Menees Play Ball! Faster Please
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Major League Baseball’s department of Faster Play, fearing that people will think the game has become sluggish and dull and will quit watching, has devised yet another new rule to perk things up, as Pirates fans might note this season. This one’s about mound visits. Like when the catcher goes out to the pitcher and they whisper to each other behind their gloves.

Baseball’s concern over slow play is genuine enough. Not so much with respect to the folks at the ballpark. They’re usually so immersed in the engaging game that they forget time. But the TV viewers at home — how long will they be content to watch guys spitting before they hit the remote and bail out on all those commercials?

Back in 1920, the average game time was 1 hour and 47 minutes. In the 1970s, well into the TV age, it was 2:30. In the early 2000s, it was approaching 3 hours, and in 2017 it hit a record 3 hours, 5 minutes, and 11 seconds.

It should be noted that baseball is inherently a slow game, a game in which the pitcher doesn’t want to pitch the ball for fear the batter will hit it, and the batter doesn’t want to swing for fear that he won’t. Hence the deliberate pace of play.

Sports Illustrated magazine reported that MLB had advanced three proposals to speed the pace of play, the mound visit limit among them, and that the players union rejected all three. SI added that MLB can institute them next year without union approval. Therefore, expect a flap for 2019.

MLB is trying one this season — reducing mound visits to six per nine-​inning game.

A mound visit occurs when anyone — catcher, infielder, manager, pitching coach, the hot dog guy — goes out to chat with the pitcher. And if the pitcher leaves the mound to go talk to someone, that counts too.

Don’t pity the pitcher, however. He’s not working in a vacuum. Other players, for example, can still shout words of encouragement to him, but they can’t go over and comfort him. And for strategy, the catcher could yell out sign changes from behind the plate, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Another thing isn’t clear in the new rule. Let’s say the catcher, all four infielders and the pitching coach all go for a conference on the mound. Does this count as one visit, or has a team blown all six visits in one trip?

Baseball had earlier tried to speed up the game with a rule directing the batter to stay in the batter’s box. As the MLB announcement in February said: “The batter’s box rule that was in effect during the 2017 season will remain in effect during the 2018 season.” There was a rule? From what I could gather last year, the batter can leave the box anytime to adjust his batting gloves, but only after every pitch.

The real answer to slow play, it seems, will be a pitch clock, giving the pitcher, say, 20 seconds to throw the next pitch. It’s getting a shakedown cruise in the minors this year. It figures to arrive in 2019. Listen for the thunder.

There is, by the way, another thing to watch for under the mound visit rule. Although it limits a team to six visits per game, the umpire may grant others. Quickly, I should think.

And so even with a new wrinkle in the grand old game, fans will be comforted to know there’s still time to grab a beer between pitches.

Marino Parascenzo

Marino, a freelance golf writer, has covered the game around the world. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, among other publications, and he is the author of “Oakmont, 100 Years,” the history of the storied club. He was a journalism adjunct instructor at Pitt, and was a sports writer and the golf writer at the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette.

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