USA Today Sports

Boston baseball lifers know their game needs a facelift

WEEI
September 26, 2018 - 6:38 am
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By EVAN MARINOFSKY

Judging the state of baseball off of what has gone on in Boston this summer would be like evaluating the state of Earth off of the United States: it’s asinine and an unfair representation. 

When one moves past America’s most beloved ballpark and its big, green left field wall, they’ll see the true state of baseball. Attendance around the league is at its lowest since 2003. The game is slower than it’s ever been. Local TV ratings aren’t what they once were. Strikeouts are the highest they’ve ever been, further extending the time between balls in play. 

Baltimore is baseball’s version of Syria; South Florida as the Gaza Strip. And so on and so forth. 

In June, Tom Verducci penned an article for Sports Illustrated that laid out the problem with the pace of the game: strikeouts. At the time, the league’s strikeout totals had surpassed 1980's totals. In mid-August 2018’s had passed 1997’s. 

Also stated in the article was the time between balls in play, which is at a whopping 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

Around the league, columnists and pundits are in a panic as to what must be done to their great game. Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal has written two pieces regarding this subject. One was a theory two academics pitched to have the team with the lead only get two outs instead of three. The other was to have fans pitch to increase fan interaction. 

It’s hard to argue with that second idea; I’d take Paul from West Roxbury from Section 10, row 7, seat 2 over an eighth inning that features Matt Barnes any day. 

All joking aside, changes must be made to fill the cracks in the Green Monster, to keep the outfield ivy growing at Wrigley and to keep baseball alive in this ever-changing 21st century. 

To see how the game must change, I wanted to talk to Boston’s baseball geezers. I wanted to talk to the people consistently accused of being stuck in the past. But after talking with them, I found that the majority were willing to make drastic changes. 

All of them acknowledged this generation having much shorter attention spans and its effect on baseball.

"I see it in myself," said longtime baseball writer and Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley. "I love old black and white movies -- anyone who knows me can attest to it. But sometimes I’ll be watching an old movie that isn’t a particularly good old movie. They hold the shot on somebody too long and me at 62-years-old sits there and yells ‘Change the shot! Change the shot!’ because the camera just doesn’t do anything and I need more stimulus. I understand why certain baseball fans would be bored by what they see." 

Glenn Ordway, a longtime WEEI radio host, also suffers from a much shorter attention span.

"I very rarely watch complete games anymore," admitted Ordway. "I used to watch them all the time but your device allows you to pick up on everything. You can sit there on game day and I can follow everything and watch the highlights of a game in the fourth inning. You used to not be able to watch highlights until the game was over. Now everything is out there and available."

Now when you’re in your car and think Ordway threw a blind Red Sox hot-take hand grenade, you’ll know why. 

Dick Flavin, poet laureate of the Red Sox, and Gordon Edes, longtime baseball writer and Red Sox historian, disagreed with Ordway’s take on not watching the games. 

"To fully appreciate baseball, you can’t just watch the highlights," said Edes. "You have to see the build-up. The five innings where it may seem like nothing has happened is actually just the drama building. And then you have that thunderclap of action that may decide the game. If you’re only seeing that thunderclap, you’re not getting the full appreciation of the game." 

"It’s the difference between having a great dinner and having one bite of food," Flavin exclaimed. 

Despite this, Flavin does believe shrinking attention spans are hurting baseball. 

"Baseball itself has taken big hits because the attention spans have shrunk," he said. "If you listen to sound cuts on the news, they’re 10-15 seconds. When I was doing TV news, you’d sometimes do a 60-second soundbite."

When it came to the changes that must be made, almost all of them proposed drastic ones. 

"I’m all in favor of the pitch clock," stated Buckley. “Get the damn ball and throw it. I was personally insulted by what I saw from Josh Beckett the last couple of years he was with the Red Sox. He would walk off the mound like the whole thing was beneath him and he’d stand there with a big sulky face and didn’t give a rat’s ass what look that was presenting to fans. 

"Another thing: get rid of instant replay. Why do you need it? Why is it so freakin’ important that we get the call right? Because we have the technology? If you have 18 imperfect, flawed human-beings on the field playing baseball, why can’t we have four imperfect, flawed umpires out there?"

Longtime voice of the Red Sox Radio Broadcast Joe Castiglione agreed with the idea of a pitch clock. 

"They desperately need a pitch clock," he said. "I’ve seen it work in Triple-A, A-Ball. I’ve been to Florida State League games where they have a 15-second pitch clock and it really works. That is a necessity. And I don’t know why the player’s association wants to fight it. The commissioner should implement it as soon as he can. 

"They should look at the number of warmups a relief pitcher gets; they should have the old bullpen cart they had in the 70s to get them to the mound faster." 

When it came to the topic of what baseball would look like in 50 years, things would change even more if these baseball dinosaurs were in charge. Buckley kicked things off with a dose of optimism. 

"It’ll still be a major sport," he said. "I think it will be enjoying a renaissance. I’m an optimist. I believe that if they work to speed the game up a bit, at some point in time, people will turn to baseball for the very reasons they were turning away from it. The world is getting fast. The world is getting small. Everything is loud and in your face.

"I believe there will be a day of reckoning where people want to go to a baseball game just because it runs at the pace it does. It doesn’t have to be all action and in your face every second. Baseball will find its place."

Edes foresees something not often talked about. 

"Fifty years from now, and it’ll happen a lot sooner, MLB will be a global enterprise," he said. "It wouldn’t surprise me if MLB has teams in Japan. That might be the Japanese division. You make one or two trips a season to play interleague play against the other division. I think China will be a big market for baseball. Taiwan and Korea already are. We’re going to London next year to play against the Yankees.

"It’s probably going to be hard for the Pittsburghs, Clevelands and Cincinattis of the world. But sooner or later they won’t be able to financially compete with the others. And what you’ll see is something like in soccer with the Premier League where you get relegated and all of that."

On the other hand, Ordway had a much gloomier vision of the future. 

"I don’t think baseball will look anything like it looks now," exclaimed Ordway. "It can’t. It can’t sustain itself the way it’s going right now. But sports change all the time. There was a time in which they thought the NBA was dead. There was flashy play but not coordinated; there was drug issues. Now you look at this generation right now and the future for the NBA is awesome. 

"If you’re talking 50 years from now, all these people who like baseball now will all be dead! You have to attract a whole new audience." 

The proposals and changes got more dramatic the older these baseball lifers got. 

"I think you’ll see an automatic strike zone, one that’s computerized," said Castiglione. "You would see the pace of play improve greatly. And the time of game shortened dramatically to 2 hours and 15 minutes or so where there’s action. People are getting turned off by the NFL and the head injuries and baseball might have another renaissance. But they have to cure the biggest problem which is pace of play and an unfair playing field for teams."

Out of all of the proposals given to me by these representatives of baseball’s past, Commissioner Flavin offered the most radical one. 

"I foresee seven-inning games," he said. "It doesn’t play with the integrity of the game. It’d still be intact with seven innings. You wouldn’t need as many pitchers. I grew up in a time when there were eight pitchers on the staff and there were a lot more positional players."

A lot of what these old-timers proposed is essential to baseball breathing for another 100 years. My generation isn’t taking to baseball the way past generations have. MLB has a strong social media presence, which is great. But can they get other kids to watch, play and love this great game? That remains to be seen. 

"The world is changing and baseball is a 19th century game," said Flavin. "It’s a pastoral game." 

That pretty much says it all. 

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