Pitch Clock Cringing

By Sam Tarr

When the Seattle Mariners right-hander Cory Gearrin came in to face Mookie Betts in the eighth inning of Friday’s game, I thought two things almost instantly.

First, I thought, wow this guy looks just like Conor Oberst. And second, wow, this guy works slow.

He rubbed the ball. He took the long way around the mound, he eased into the set at his own pace, not bending to the pressure or the reigning MVP who represented the tying run.

The deliberate deliveries enhanced the moment. Tension built as you could hear the slow churn of momentum heading in the Sox’ direction after being stymied for the majority of the game. Gearrin was slow, but I appreciated it.

Red Sox commentators Dave O’Brien and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley did not.

“This guy would never make it with a pitch clock,” O’Brien said.

I quivered with disappointment. Say it ain’t so, O.

After listening to A-Rod and company drone-on during the nationally televised opener, I was very much enjoying listening to the home-team crew operate in mid-season form. That was until Gearrin came in.

It was a perfect spot in a game for seasoned professionals to add to the drama, articulate the severity of the situation, and pull the home-viewers to the edge of their couch cushions. The kind of moment where you want the camera reactions of the fans, the close-ups on the main characters or perhaps a split-screen as the game dangles out there on the line.

Instead, Eckersley and O’Brien seemed distracted, uninterested and used the time to serve as pitch-clock pitchmen. It hurt to listen to them deviate as Betts looked to lock in on the tying shot.

The disappointment came as a fan of both O’Brien and Eckersley, especially Eckersley. My life, as I’ve often said, will always be divided into two by a single moment when I first heard Eckersley refer to a grand slam as a “slam Johnson.”

I’m often wondering if he’s just coining phrases on the fly as he talks about “going bridge,” or throwing “salad.”

It’s a hot debate in baseball, and rightfully so. The very concept of a pitch clock, which was implemented in spring training this year after being tested in the minor leagues, is fundamentally anti-baseball, which is the only major sport not dictated by a clock of any kind.

As the die-hards of America’s pastime resist all change, the addition of a clock of any kind is met with skepticism ten-fold. But every year I hear from fans of high-action sports like football and UFC that baseball is “boring” and “takes too long.”

Last year, the average length of a nine-inning baseball game clocked in at three hours even, which many seem to find excessive. However, this fantasy that a 20-second pitch clock pushing the pace of the picture is going to bring baseball games back under two-hours like they were in 1946 is unsupported by the data.

Reports showed that the pitch-clock implemented in the minor leagues did, in fact, shave the average length of a game, but only by roughly ten minutes. Why would a discussion of even begin that involves changing one of the fundamental aspects of a 150-year-old sport just to save ten-minutes on average?

If shaving minutes of game-time are significant enough to enact essential rule changes, then why is it ok to challenge umpires’ calls or hold up the game while your video person speed watches replay footage?

Every season, and certainly every time a game stretches close to 3.5 hours, I hear about how baseball has to shorten their games, not as a choice but as a condition for survival. What they don’t realize is that the average time went down last year, without pitch clocks or minimum batter requirements for pitchers.

Also, the average game has only gotten 11-minutes longer since 1986.

The frenzied demand for shortening baseball games has little to do with the actual lengthening of baseball games and a culture increasingly unable to focus on anything. It’s through the waiting that makes baseball’s most significant moments resonate like the handle of the bat cranking the ball out of the park.

When someone points out that there are only 18-minutes of actual action in a three-hour ball game, I immediately challenge the concept. Are we so dull that we allow such a narrow definition of “action” to dictate our emotional fulfillment? One of the greatest moments of action in Boston Sports history is undoubtedly Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in the 1975 World Series.

The whole at-bat lasted about 30-seconds. It was the 12-inning grind, the five games before that put the Red Sox on the ropes, and the 57-year championship drought that made that moment so special.

The action to time ratio utilized as an argument against baseball’s current pace is essential for the maximum impact of its greatest moments. It’s a ratio at the very least in line with that of our own lives.

The build-up to Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series walk-off home run wouldn’t have been counted in the 18 percent of baseball “action.” The long, painful season for Gibson, and the absolute dominance of A’s closer Eckersley wouldn’t have been counted either. The home run left the park in seconds, but it took more than 15 minutes to build to the payoff.

What unfolded was a tremendous story. A story delivered impeccably by Vin Scully, the legendary broadcaster.

Scully didn’t complain about how long it was taking Gibson to get in the box. He didn’t waste time with cop-outs about launch angles and exit velocity. He narrated the moment. He built the moment. And he played almost as big a part in the moment as Gibson or Eckersley, for those watching from home.

There are certain things you can do to speed up a ballgame. It seems the last option is always fewer commercials. One ratio that should be utilized in the pitch-clock debate is risk over reward. I know I wouldn’t sacrifice one-percent of the punch of an October miracle for a ten-minute shave.

Instead of analyzing meaningless metrics, maybe baseball’s broadcasters can make the most out of those in-between times. Perhaps instead of freaking out over fantasy king-duel draft points or pretending that a pitcher’s routine is interfering with your earth-shaking, maybe try to enjoy the moment.

In baseball, for now anyway, you never know when that moment will come, or how long it will last. But for those special moments that turn prayers to pay-dirt, they’ll always be worth the wait.

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