Want to speed up baseball? Take away the home run

But then managers and players will find other ways to slow it down. So relax and settle in to your armchair.

By Allen Barra
Published April 11, 2002 10:23PM (EDT)

"The time has come to straighten out baseball. It is an exceedingly slow game full of dead spots and ridiculous delays -- what in show business are called stage waits. It is especially dull when you watch it on TV."

This quote is from a story written by Rex Lardner for the New York Times Magazine, July 25, 1967. (I found it while sifting through my father's papers.) The funny thing about stories like this -- by "like this" I mean stories with titles such as "How TV Money Will Affect Sports," "Why Gambling Will Be the Death of College Sports," "The Decline and Death of Boxing" and my own personal favorite, "Big Spending and the Ruin of Baseball" -- is that they go on being written over and over and over, the same dire predictions expressed and then forgotten and then revived again.

Lardner's piece was very good and could, with only slight alterations, be overhauled and reprinted today. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have read it since then, just as I'm fairly certain I read it in a slightly different form and by another writer just a few years before Lardner's, probably in Sport magazine. The point is not that the specific arguments these writers make are wrong, it's that the apocalyptic results of the ills being written about never quite come to pass. It's kind of like reading Yeats' "The Second Coming" for the first time and applying it to Sept. 11 without realizing that the Vietnam War, Hiroshima, the Holocaust and numerous other global horrors have been applied to that poem by earlier generations and yet we're still sitting in an armchair reading the poem.

I'm asked all the time via e-mail and on radio shows what I think about the length of baseball games and what should be done about them as if the subject was as important as peace in the Middle East. The truth is that I don't have much of an opinion on the subject except to say that with the exception of Van Morrison songs and sex scenes involving Selma Hayek, I'm generally in favor of things moving faster rather than slower. I suppose I'd like to see all ballgames end about half an hour sooner than they do, particularly when my daughter's head is starting to sag on my arm and I know we have to catch that last train for New Jersey. But I've been hearing these arguments since I was my daughter's age, and baseball games -- and quite frankly, the final period of most basketball games and football games, too, though I never hear anybody talk about it -- don't move a damn bit faster than they ever did. In fact, and I don't even have to check on this, I'm sure they're many minutes longer now than they were when Rex Lardner was writing about them.

I think all the articles and editorials written about the length of ballgames have had about the same effect on the games' duration that everything written on the economy has on the economy. Bill James, who writes about these kind of things as well as anyone, thinks that the primary cause of slowness in baseball games is the interminable number of tosses a pitcher makes to first base. He is undoubtedly right about this, as anyone who has seen a Major League game over the last 40 years can testify. Around 1960 Maury Wills and Luis Aparacio kicked off the modern era of speed ball, and before long nearly every other player in the lineup was attempting to steal bases or threatening to, which is what necessitated all the throws over to first base. In other words, according to James, we had the absurd situation where the element of speed was indirectly responsible for slowing down the game.

But I don't think James is right on this one. The problem is that the same complaints about the slowness of the game were being made back in the late '40s and '50s when hardly anybody stole. And people are making the same complaint today when the number of stolen bases has declined sharply. Why is this? If fewer guys are threatening to steal and fewer throws are being made to first, why are the games actually getting longer? I think the major culprit is the home run. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the home run has come to dominate nearly every aspect of baseball. (And I thank all of you for sending me your comments on this subject, and I will be trying to address the issue again soon.)

But what I mean specifically in this case is that the more home runs dominate the game, the more walks and strikeouts will accompany them. The strikeout is the pitcher's best defense against the home run and the most likely result of batters swinging for home runs, so as long as home runs increase, strikeouts will too. So, too, will walks, which is the second most likely result of the pitchers trying to avoid giving up a home run. Counts in today's game go deeper and full more often than they did 40, 60 and 80 years ago. How do I know this? Because there are more walks today than there were in those eras.

And there's a third thing that takes up more and more time at the ballpark: foul balls, which practically have become a minor art form among hitters trying to avoid the strikeout. I swear I even heard a radio announcer named Susan Waldman (a pretty good baseball announcer, by the way) say a couple of years ago that a particular at-bat that featured nine fouls and ended in a strikeout was a "good at-bat." I'm not saying that the batter who fouls off nine pitches isn't making a contribution to wearing down the opposing pitcher, but can anyone imagine years ago anyone referring to an at-bat that ended as a strikeout as "good"?

Anyway, that's my contribution to the debate: If you want to make the game shorter, find some way of cutting down on home runs. And you'll have fewer deep counts and fewer foul balls. Of course, then you're faced with the likelihood of runs being more scarce and the stolen base becoming more important, and thus pitchers throwing to first far more often. Bill James' solution to that is to limit the number of times a pitcher can throw to first base. I suspect that would work, and if it did, baseball players and managers would find some other way to drag the games out. And more articles will be written about how to speed ballgames up.

Stung, no doubt, by my criticism that however difficult their profession might be that race car drivers are not really athletes, NASCAR has been running this text in ads featured in newspapers and magazines: "Are race car drivers athletes? Just listen to Mark Martin: 'You run a 130 degree heat, inches way from each other, for four hours ... You have a mental and physical fatigue factor that's incredible. Afterwards, you're physically whipped. Out of breath to the point that you can hardly talk. I spend everything I've got.'" I have all the empathy in the world for the difficulty of a race car driver's life, but I have an identical reaction when I watch Jennifer Lopez videos and that doesn't make me an athlete ...

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Has any baseball writer produced better work over a longer time than Ray Robinson? When I was a kid, his articles in Sport magazine were my favorite reading. His biographies of Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson, written in the 1980s, are definitive works. His current book, "Pennant & Pinstripes: The New York Yankees: 1903-2002" (Viking Studio, 262 pages, $34.95) co-written with Chris Jennison, is the kind of coffee-table book you won't be able to leave on your coffee table. Scattered throughout the book are various writers' choices for the greatest Yankee lineups of all time. I'm thrilled to say that mine's among them, and if you want to know who I picked, you'll just have to buy the book ...

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I regret catching up on this a week late, but at the end of ESPN's March 31 "The Sports Reporters," Mike Lupica said, "Only in baseball is the Players Association more greedy and arrogant than the owners." Even allowing for any possible degree of TV hyperbole, I think Lupica's statement is nothing short of despicable. While granting that the Players Association under Don Fehr does not do as good a job of articulating its position to the press and public as when Marvin Miller was executive director, the facts are nevertheless that the Players Association has endured threats and lies from Major League Baseball owners, and I'm not talking about 20 or 30 or even two years ago. I'm talking about the foolish, clumsy, bullying attempt to make contraction a bargaining chip against the players, and Bud Selig's unrelenting duplicity about baseball finances as further revealed in the April 15 edition of Forbes magazine. What exactly have the players done recently that would merit being called greedy and arrogant? Their refusal, perhaps, to accept Selig's proposals? And who, given the blatant falsehoods they're based on, would have accepted them?

Mike Lupica has benefited hugely from being a free-agent superstar sportswriter in an era of unparalleled sports media prosperity. When it comes time to negotiate with newspapers or glossy magazines, or when Lupica's TV contract is up, does he use an agent -- like the players do -- to negotiate his offers? And does this agent accept the lowest or highest bids for his client's services? I'm willing to bet that Lupica's annual income is a great deal closer to the greedy and arrogant ballplayers he vilifies on TV than to that of his average reader.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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