December 4, 2023

Making the Game Fun Again

August 18, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

As the season loomed large in the late winter months, a friend who had prepared a paper on the impending changes in the rules of the game asked me to look it over. It was the first time I had truly registered the pitch clock and the other revision to the rules that had heretofore been sacrosanct. How could we live without watching Bryce Harper and his kindred spirits wrap and unwrap their batting gloves before each pitch? Unthinkable.

The full impact of the pitch clock was only unmistakably apparent when I watched the Rockies and Nationals battling it out for the lower rungs of the National League several weeks ago. The game was drifting into the later innings and the Nationals were behind 4-1 to the Rockies. Sitting in our right field seats, tucked up under the overhang where the shade hid us from the unforgiving sun, I realized that the game was not even two hours long. It was the seventh inning and we could foresee completing the game in something like two hours and change.

I asked my longtime game day companion, Marc Hall when we had sat through a game of less than two and a half hours? “Not one that I can remember. Anything under three hours is a short game.” Setting a personal mark for “fastest game ever attended,” became the focal point of our afternoon, rather than avoiding the heat and wondering if the Nationals would get up off the mat.

The seventh inning and eighth went quickly. We were at just over two hours as the ninth inning began. We were glued to the pitch clock, quietly wondering why the umps allowed the senseless mound conferences to drag on. What exactly is accomplished by gathering every infielder and the pitching coach on the mound to talk to the besieged hurler? Everyone has heard the stories of what is said there. “Why did you use a long iron instead of a wood yesterday on the par five?” Or, “Where are we going for dinner tonight?”

The Rockies were kind enough to go in order in the top of the ninth, so we buckled into our seats at two hours and ten minutes expectantly looking toward the bottom of the ninth. The Nationals had managed only three hits against Peter Lambert and Brent Suter, whose mothers were no doubt proud of their surprising success. To close out the game, Rockies manager Bud Black chose Daniel Bard, who we watched run in across the outfield grass to start the bottom of the ninth inning.

There is no statistical regime in which Bard’s thirty-five walks in forty innings is a good thing, and predictably enough, he couldn’t find the plate for love or money. He walked the first two hitters he faced. Suddenly the worst of all worlds loomed large. The game could drag on to more than two and a half hours and the Nationals might not even manage a win. But with two men aboard, Joey Meneses singled to load the bases. The winning run was at the plate.

Catcher Keibert Ruiz was the next batter and he could manage nothing more than a pop fly to first. A double play grounder and the game could go into the books at two hours and twenty minutes—still noteworthy. But Daniel Bard was having none of that. He hit Dominic Smith with a pitch and the Nationals pushed across the first run of the inning. Behind now, 4-2. Stone Garret grounded into what could have been a game ending double play, but his force out managed instead to push across a run, giving the visiting Rockies a thin 4-3 lead.

Faithful Nationals fans rose in mass, loudly urging on another late inning come-from-behind win. With first base open, Bard walked Luis Garcia intentionally—Bard’s third free pass. But who was counting?  The next batter, Ildemargo Vargas, watched a low and outside pitch sail past for ball four and he too trotted to first, forcing in the tying run.

Joy rained down upon the home team for their efforts. Everyone was standing when 22-year-old shortstop, C.J. Abrams slapped a single into the outfield to bring in the winning run. The delirious crowd jumped and stomped to celebrate the 5-4 win for the Nationals. Game time–still at two and a half hours by my watch.

The average game time before the pitch clock was three hours and three minutes. The new rule changes have shortened the game this season to an average of two hours and thirty-eight minutes. Twenty-five minutes of glove wrapping, mound circling, and endless throws to first base, all of it lost to ensuing generations, perhaps forever. Ah paradise.

Marc and I agreed as we rode the subway towards home that it had been a very, very long time since we had taken such joy in a ballpark experience like we did in DC on July 26th.

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