Friday, February 27, 2015

'Pace Of Play' Or 'Pace Of Pay'?

by Mark Lawrence, International Editor

When David Ortiz talks – or rants, as some reporters assert – I sit up straight and pay attention.  The most recent burr under Papi’s blanket has to do with this wacky Pace of Play initiative and, sportsfans – upon consideration - I believe he has a legitimate gripe.  

My geographic remove oftentimes leaves me out of touch with the minutiae of MLB Policy, but Pace of Play confuses me a tad.  Why does the game really need to be sped up? I mean, what’s the point?  A trawl through the interwebs shows some interesting stats regarding average game length over the decades – and while I can’t vouch for the veracity of some of this information, it seems that in the past few decades, average game length has indeed increased – but only by some thirty odd minutes or so.  Is that enough to warrant these surprisingly specific new rules and regulations?  More importantly, though, I’ve been unable to find the Why of this.

There’s two ways to look at this situation, as far as this neophyte correspondent can see: on field and off field.  For years, non-baseball types here and abroad – folks whose sports comprise a mere two halves of game time - have asked me about game times and I’ve usually responded that they could expect to spend a leisurely three hours at an average ballgame. “Wow, that’s a long time!” they’d usually comment.  But to me, that’s three hours watching athletes excelling at a deceptively difficult game, employing clever strategies to advance their cause and, more often than not, executing magnificent plays that can bring you to your feet without you even realizing it.  It’s three hours of sipping beer in the sunshine and swapping yarns with total strangers who you feel like you’ve known for years.  And besides, if I have to lay out two days’ pay for the privilege, I want to wring everything I can from the experience. So, anything less than three hours seems a little short to me.

From the players’ perspective, I can understand the resistance – after all, not many people readily embrace enforced changes to the way they’ve been doing things for a while.  Think about the last time your home office issued a policy change that affected you.  Things like One-Foot-in-the-Box-at-All-Times seem to have the potential to ignite a few tense homeplate confrontations. The way a batter approaches his at-bat – especially when he’s reached the Major League level – is a process that he’s developed and refined over the years to the extent where his movements have become almost involuntary – think Nomar and the Panda (by the by, does Sandoval still do all that zany stuff before shouldering the bat?) And, I may be crazy but I’m pretty sure I’ve noticed that a batter will mess with a pitcher’s rhythm by stepping off from time to time – personal-level tactics that have been part of the game since I’ve been watching it.  Anyway, the point I’m struggling to make here is that this rule is going to take a lot of getting used to and in the meantime, there’ll be a lot more strained discussion between batter and ump every time the rule is unintentionally broken.  Frustration and anger are not the emotions you want in a batter who might just represent the go ahead run.  John Farrell bobbed up pretty quickly after the press ran with Papi’s rant, assuring all and sundry that Number 34 would adapt and comply with the new rules.  Well, of course he did – and I’m sure he had a full and frank discussion with Ortiz about the potential for his temper to get him tossed from a game.

A lot of players thrive on pressure, but with the bases loaded, two out and the game on the line, does a pitcher really need to look up from the mound and gaze not just at the glowering visage of his opponent but the winking bulbs of a countdown clock? You can almost hear the losing manager: “Wayull, I’m pretty sure he woodna walked in that winning run if he’d just been able to take his time and focus.”

All of this brings me to my original question:  What’s the point?  I asked my pal, Phil-from-Chicago about this the other day and he was characteristically cynical about the issue.

“Why does MLB do anything?” he asked.

“Well,” I answered, “I’m sure whatever they do is always in the best interests of the game.”

“Yeah, right.  You just watch. The TV game will still run three hours or so, but there’ll be less baseball and more ads for beer and SUVs.”

Pace of Play or Pace of Pay?  Oh, Rob – say it ain’t so!