May 19, 2009
The announcement that post-season baseball games broadcast on Fox will start before bedtime this year is better than no progress at all. Games that were running well over three hours and ending after midnight on the East Coast were hard on fans who have to get up early, and they were precluding many kids from watching – and that’s an audience baseball shouldn’t take for granted.
Of course it wasn’t the bleary-eyed fan or the starry-eyed kid who inspired this change. It was the poor ratings for last year’s American League playoffs and for the World Series, both of which threaten revenues from advertisers who were probably nodding off while their own commercials were playing.
If the advertisers get nervous enough, maybe the post-season process itself will be streamlined so that it isn’t crowding Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the announcement by Fox that many of the games will start earlier has evoked comments about the fact that the games are too long no matter how early they start. I, for one, am in no hurry when I watch baseball on TV or listen to it on the radio, and at the prices we pay now to see a game in person, I figure the longer it takes the more I get for my money. After all, one of the things that makes baseball unique among American spectator sports is that it has no clock; a game – in theory, at least – can go on forever. That’s what Katie Casey was referring to in the lyric of Jack Norworth’s song: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. I don’t care if I never get back.”
To some extent, nothing can be done about the length of games that are held hostage to the radio and TV commercial schedule. The plate umpire still carries out his responsibility and strides ominously toward the mound if the pitcher and catcher confer for more than 20 seconds, but he’s not about to interfere with the shilling that creates the wide gap between half innings. Nor will he reprimand the batter who steps out after every pitch to adjust his golfing gloves.
To put the modern, televised, 3 1/2-hour game in perspective, the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers played to a 1-1 tie in 26 innings on May 1, 1920. That game took 3 hours and 50 minutes so the teams, in effect, played one game every hour and a quarter. There was no pitch count in those days, fewer calls to the bullpen, and the starting pitchers – Joe Oeschger for Boston and Leon Cadore for Brooklyn – both pitched complete games (and, incidentally, lived to pitch another day). There was no lack of offense – a total of 25 hits – and there was a total of 8 walks. To look at it another way, on Sept. 26, 1926, the St. Louis Browns and the New York Yankees played a nine-inning game in 55 minutes, the Browns winning 6-2. That projects to a little less than 2 3/4 hours if that game had gone on at the same pace for 26 innings.
When I was a kid in elementary school, and the World Series was played in the daytime as God intended, instruction was suspended, and we were told to work quietly at our desks while the play-by-play was piped in through the public-address system. It all depends on what’s important to you.