August 22, 2016
Players Prefer Presentation
We Still Have Time
In The Summer Game, Roger Angell described the relationship between baseball time and the out by saying, "Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young." Baseball time is largely unregulated and free from a clock, and even with recent interventions to put a bit of countdown heft behind existing rules, what dictates the pace of play is mostly those playing. What we see of it is determined by our interest. Outfield walls may be bedecked with corporate logos, and grand slams might now bear an odd connection to pizza, but the thing that has long distinguished baseball from other sports, its pacing, is still largely unruffled, for better or worse. We still have time.
Except that might be changing. On Thursday, Bob Nightengale reported Major League Baseball is considering several measures aimed at “breathing life into offenses, providing more action, while also quickening the pace of games.“ Among the measures generating the most conversation is a proposal to port over the 20-second pitch clocks found in the minors, curtail defensive shifts, and limit the number of reliever substitutions. Others have remarked on how the proposals offered don’t really hang together logically. Manfred seems to be asking the game to speed up (pitch clocks!), while slowing down (no shifts!), but scoring more (?). But what he really seems to be aiming at is something more predictable; something like the standardization of time.
Manfred's concern about keeping the thread of attention taut isn't misplaced; parents worry about the wellbeing of their children. Sometimes that concern is in response to specific stimuli, but often it’s more diffuse; are those kids still breathing? Manfred is the custodian of the game, and even if defensive shifts and pitcher substitutions feel a bit more like monsters hiding under the bed than true existential threats lurking, he has to worry about baseball continuing to breathe from one moment to the next. He’s paid to fret. He needs us to keep caring. And sometimes we go from liking stuff to not liking stuff and aren't quite sure why, except that as we look back we realize it failed to hold our attention as much as it used to. Other things, either because of their native urgency or their insistent banality, are compelling without the intervention of a pitch clock. You don't want your kids to touch a hot stove, or you don't want to miss that concert, or you start doing that evening’s dishes without remembering to put the game on in the background. It’s no one’s fault per se; you’re just not as rapt as you once were. Baseball players might stay forever young, but we get tired. We get sleepy, or bored, and don't want to be young; or we do, and want to signify that youth by doing some other, different thing. We want this particular game to move along, and since it won’t, we allocate our time differently. So in a quest to fit baseball to a predictable, perhaps predictably profitable schedule, Manfred is using the game’s time to grab at our time.
All rule changes have unintended consequences, and baseball is decent enough at course-correcting the truly silly ones (the transfer rule: Dumb? Let's not? Okay!). The thing is being sure we want the intended ones, because we never erase the errata fully. We can’t unthink the possibility of an out hiding in the millimeter of space between a runner and the bag. Some of it will linger, and it has to be worth it on balance. That might not matter a lot of the time, but when it comes to time itself, it matters a great deal because it is our most important bit of fluidity, our greatest method of resistance to a strict schedule. We need time, even if it means lingering too long on bad innings, and if time’s errata is its erasure, we’re losing something very real.
Everything else is corporatized, but we and the players get to have time. Time that can run too long, far past when it is cool, or even fun, to be cheering, or profitable for commercials to air. Time we can get lost in, as lazy summer days drift by at the ballpark. Time that bleeds into evening, and sometimes into the early hours of the morning. Time spent in taut anticipation. Time that allows hitters to strategize and adapt to the shift. Time that slows and speeds up, not because of a play clock, or a regimented quarter, but because of a strikeout or a well struck single. We’ll never see a truly endless game, and having spent hours shivering in a near deserted ballpark, when the summer sun has long abandoned the evening’s extra innings pursuit, that’s probably for the best. But we worry about a schedule; we worry about time being deployed as a tool of administration, of bureaucracy. A way to regiment what was always promised and understood to be free flowing.
Progress within the game keeps it vital and boring baseball is sort of a bummer. Having a pitch clock to keep it all moving forward seems reasonable. But moving forward isn’t the same as rushing to the end. We still want a bunch of baseball in a baseball game. We want the ebb and flow, the natural storytelling of the contest. Sometimes those stories will be a bit dull, but we’ll survive them, because there are so many others that enthrall. Just because we turn one game off doesn’t mean we’ll turn them all off. Angell talked about defeating time, but what he really seems to want to defeat are endings, and regimentation on the way to them. We want the game to live and adapt and change, but because of what the game, rather than its custodian, dictates. We want it to feel like baseball for us, in and on our time, free flowing, almost arbitrarily so. We want it to feel like baseball, so that it might, as its slow, natural time unfurls, stay young forever.