During a trip on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland a few years ago, the boat pilot started the ride by welcoming his passengers to the “wonderful world of fun and magic that we call … work.”
It’s a good line, and it came to mind Wednesday when, as soon as the last out was snatched from the air, official major league scorer Gregg Wong informed those in the Target Field press box that the Twins’ 7-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals took 3 hours and 50 minutes.
One gets lulled into the languid, deliberate pace of a baseball game when the sun is out and temperatures are high, as they were Wednesday, and there’s something to be said for that. There’s also something to be said for not spending half a game watching pitchers circle the mound and batters compulsively adjust the Velcro on their gloves.
People have been complaining about the length of major league games for a long time now, mostly beat writers, who a) like to complain, b) have a platform from which to complain and c) for whom a baseball game really is what they call work. Surely, one believed, baseball fans engrossed in the fate of their teams — or enjoying the complex nuance of the world’s greatest game — were much happier with the product.
But even Major League Baseball knows it is testing that fealty. Focused on the pace of play since games averaged an all-time high 3 hours, 7 minutes in 2014, the league has been adding, if not implementing, a series of rules designed to make games not just faster but more engaging for fans.
It’s not working. Last season, games took a record 3 hours, 8 minutes on average.
Prior to the 2015 season, batters were required to keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times under threat of something called “progressive punishment.” On Wednesday, Cards left-fielder Marcell Ozuna actually walked around both batter’s boxes. Prior to this season, the time between innings and allotted for relievers was reduced to 2:05 and 2:25 for locally televised games, respectively. But when there are a combined 11 pitching changes in a game, as there were on Wednesday, so what?
That’s today’s game, where starters last fewer than five innings, managers can challenge umpires’ calls, defenses shift for every batter and pitchers spend more time deciding what and when to throw than Copernicus spent trying to prove the Sun was the center of the known universe. No doubt Cardinals fans in attendance were satisfied by Wednesday’s victory, but thrilled? Not unless they enjoy — like, really enjoy — pitching changes.
No one will remember this game unless they were on the Kiss Cam — except for maybe Twins starter Lance Lynn, who squandered his chance to make his former team regret the decision to let him go as a free agent with three innings that can be most graciously be described as “not terrible.”
He threw 81 pitches, and the first two innings took an hour and 10 minutes. Fans could have left whenever they felt like it; poor Lance had to wait for another couple of hours to answer uncomfortable questions from reporters who had to refer to their scorecards to even remember that Lynn started Wednesday’s game.
Rules are fine, but it’s hard to encourage crisp play with tweaks. Rules can’t make batters stop trying to hit home runs and focus on putting more balls into play, or guessing with two strikes, and they can’t stop pitchers from nibbling and hoping to get a call unless they take umpires out of that equation. These are what the eggheads call systemic problems.
Three hours and 50 minutes is fine when watching, say, the director’s cut of “Once Upon a Time in America.” Any editor worth her salt would have trimmed Wednesday’s game to 90 minutes, and it still would have been “Joe Dirt.”