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Quo vadis, MLB?

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Football and basketball are constantly tweaking their games to make them more fan-friendly while baseball does the opposite. As the rest of the world has sped up, baseball has slowed down. It used to take two hours to play a ballgame; now it takes more than three.

Dick
Flavin

There has been very little good that has come of the Great Pandemic of 2020. But at least sports fans during September were offered a veritable smorgasbord of games to choose from on TV. The football season got underway; the NBA playoffs were in full swing; and there was a baseball game being played virtually every night.

Here are a few snippets of the play by play options a viewer might have encountered while switching channels.

Football: Newton rolls out to his right -- and he hits Edelman over the middle for the first down!

Basketball: There's a steal by Smart! Over to Tatum, who pulls up for the three. Bang!

Baseball: Eovaldi sets -- and time is called as the batter steps out of the box.

Do you notice a difference there? Things are constantly happening in football and basketball games. In other games, like hockey and soccer, there is not much scoring, but the action is non-stop; something is going on every second, so you'd better pay attention.

Not so much in baseball, though. It might be a wait of 10 minutes or more between two balls being put into play.

We live in the 21st century, when sports fans -- especially the young ones -- crave action, and baseball is not giving them enough of it. Football and basketball are constantly tweaking their games to make them more fan-friendly while baseball does the opposite. As the rest of the world has sped up, baseball has slowed down. It used to take two hours to play a ballgame; now it takes more than three.

I well remember when, 66 years ago, the NBA instilled the 24-second clock. People around Boston were aghast, convinced it would be the ruination of the great Bob Cousy and his talent for dribbling and keeping the ball away from opposing hands. What it did was open the game up for his ball-handling and passing genius, making him -- and the game -- more popular than ever. The three-point shot is another innovation that has worked. For validation of that, one just needed to tune into any of the playoff games. There are those who say that the three pointer has taken over the game. Maybe so, but people love it.

Football offenses, which mostly used to be three yards and a cloud of dust, are now all about protecting the quarterback and opening up the passing game.

Baseball, meanwhile, seems to be more and more about pitchers throwing over to first and hitters calling time to tug on their batting gloves.

The pace of the game is just one of the problems confronting the Olde Ballgame. MLB's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the players association expires at the end of next season. There are storm clouds on the horizon. The players' association is spoiling for a fight over the luxury tax, which it claims is just a nefarious way of instituting a salary cap. Both sides are gearing up for a work stoppage -- a euphemism for "strike" or "lockout." It's something not pleasant to think about, especially in the wake of the financial bath the game has taken this year.

All of this might sound like a doomsday scenario, a one-two punch of a pandemic followed by labor strife, and it certainly won't be easy to weather under any circumstances, but maybe -- just maybe -- the expiration of the CBA will provide the opportunity for real reform. At present, the players association has virtual veto power over any change in baseball's rules of which it doesn't approve. But once the present agreement comes to an end after the 2021 season, all bets are off.

What if, for example, MLB institutes a meaningful pitch clock rule, similar to the NBA's shot clock rule, after next season? We could expect that the players association (MLBPA) would object vociferously and perhaps even call a strike over the issue. But it's likely to call for strike over the luxury tax issue anyhow, so what would MLB have to lose by instituting a pitch clock rule?

We're talking about a rule with real teeth in it, not one of those make-believe reforms that is announced with great fanfare only to be promptly ignored once the games begin. Remember the phantom rule that made it illegal for batters to step out of the box between pitches? Nobody paid any attention to it, including the umpires who were supposed to enforce it, and that was the end of that.

What if a pitch clock rule went into effect stating that a pitcher, once the ball is in his hands has, say, 20 seconds to deliver a pitch -- no stoppage of play allowed. If the hitter wants to step out of the box to hitch up his pants once the clock has started, he does so at his own risk, because the clock is running and the pitcher will be within his rights to throw the ball whether the guy has stepped out of the box or not. On the other hand, if the pitcher throws over to first to hold a runner on base, the clock keeps ticking and he has less time to make his pitch. First offense for breaking the rule: either a ball or a strike is called, depending on who the offending player is. Second offense: the batter is either awarded first base or declared out, depending on whose fault it is.

If the umpires refuse to enforce the rule, there's a simple solution. Hire umpires who will enforce it.

It is true that instituting such a rule would risk a protracted strike. It could cost baseball the 2022 season. But that season is at risk already, so why not go for meaningful reform that would speed up the game and help to hold the interest of spectators?

Do I think such a thing would actually happen? Of course not. But neither did I think we'd ever see a season in which spectators were not even allowed to go to see a game.

If we've learned anything from this pandemic year, it's this: Never say never.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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