A time clock in baseball? Traditionalists are appalled by the notion, and even most fans willing to consider other tweaks to the sacred game - replay reviews overruling umpires, for instance - believe enforcing faster play with a clock would create more problems than it solves.
But the device was used last week at the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament, and for those suspecting the crass presence of a scoreboard clock at a ballgame will auger the end of civilization as we know it, well, here’s some news: The world turned, the games went on (and on, and on – after all, we’re talking baseball), and by the end of the tournament, it remained unclear what any of the time-clock fuss was about.
Umpires were instructed to call a ball on any pitcher who, with the bases empty, took more than 20 seconds to throw after receiving the ball from the catcher. No pitchers were penalized.
Umpires were instructed to call a strike on any batter unprepared to hit five seconds after the ball was in the pitcher’s hands. No batters were penalized.
Umpires were instructed to call either a ball on the team taking the field, or a strike on the team at bat, if the between-innings turnaround took more than 108 seconds. No teams were penalized.
That the umpires didn’t call a single time-clock violation over the 12-game tournament does not mean the experiment failed, however. The average time of the SEC tournament games was whittled, by 15 minutes, from the average time of the 2009 tournament games.
As the SEC’s consultant to the conference commissioner, Larry Templeton, told The New York Times on Sunday: “We wanted to make everyone conscious of moving the game along, but we didn’t want to interrupt the rhythm.”
The dawdling pace of games has been a specific concern of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig for several years. While it’s true that the typical 3-hour game is more helpful to concession sales than the crisp game played under 2 hours – and, thus, more advantageous to owners – Selig understands that the big-time revenues are driven by postseason broadcasting contracts with TV networks.
And boy, is TV demanding. It wants lots of hits and lots of runs, and lots of replays of controversial calls certain to be discussed by the office watercooler, and lots of commercials between innings and during pitching changes. It wants all this wrapped into a tidy telecast that concludes before the network affiliates on the East Coast begin their 11 p.m. newscasts.
Oh, and another thing TV likes: The Yankees and the Red Sox, two teams that don’t so much maintain an ancient rivalry as dress up in baseball uniforms and deliberate about it.
So Selig has made it a cause to trim the fat from the TV product. One way of trimming is to discourage pitchers from stepping off the mound to take deep breaths, and wipe their eyebrows, and gather their thoughts, and rearrange their necklaces.
Another way of trimming is to discourage hitters from stepping out of the box to tighten their batting gloves, and adjust the tilt of their helmets, and knock off the dirt clinging to their spikes, and re-establish a foothold in the dirt.
Umpires already have the discretion of calling a ball on a pitcher who delays the game, and to call a strike on a batter who takes too long to make himself comfortable in the box. But umpires rarely do that. And while they are free to refuse a timeout request from a batter, they rarely do that, either.
What umpires will do is complain.
“A disgrace to baseball,” is how “Cowboy” Joe West described the strategic-delay tactics in an April game between – who else? – the Yankees and Red Sox. “They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace. They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?
“It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play.”
The Cowboy was echoing a lament of another maverick, Charlie O. Finley. The late Oakland A’s owner was a champion of some novelties the baseball establishment came to accept (the designated hitter, and night games in the World Series) and some they didn’t. (Orange baseballs, and allowing batters to take first base after ball three.)
Finley might’ve been most staunch about a time clock.
“There’s a rule in the books that pitchers must pitch every 20 seconds,” he said in 1974. “But we’ve got guys out there who throw every half-hour. Let’s put a 20-second clock in every ballpark. If it runs out before the pitcher throws, charge him with a ball. That’ll speed things up.”
It’s unlikely that Finley’s solution to speed play will ever be a standard feature in big-league parks. But for 12 SEC tournament games at Regions Field in Hoover, Ala., a time clock was used seamlessly. The pitchers were ready to throw in 20 seconds. The batters were ready to hit in five seconds. The teams were ready after a 108-second break between innings.
If a clock can encourage punctuality among college kids playing baseball on a steamy afternoon in the South, why can’t it work to prevent games from lingering past midnight on a freezing October evening in Yankee Stadium?