Numbers flashed on the small square, getting smaller and smaller.
The man on the hill didn’t seem to look at the clock. He just kept shaking his head.
The numbers rapidly tick away. At five, the pitcher still hasn’t made a movement towards home plate. He needs to throw it. Four. He’s still not moving. Three. This is the part where I watch you throw. Two. C’mon, man! One. THROW THE BALL. YOU HAVE TO.
The black box goes blank and, five seconds later, a slider misses the outer half of the plate. No one says anything about the pitch’s tardiness.
Sitting in the stands with a friend of mine at Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A, Boston Red Sox), we took in what could be the future of the game. The same clock sits behind the catcher and umpire from ballparks across the country, from Syracuse to Sacramento, as Major League Baseball tries to decide what to do. The clock starts at 20 and counts down, putting the pitcher on deadline; one that he’ll miss if he shakes off the catcher too many times. As a in-stadium spectator, it’s distressing.
This invention, implement in minor league parks this season as a test, directly resulted from cries of sports fans that baseball is too slow, too boring. According to Nielsen, 55-year-olds and up accounted for 41 percent of the sport’s fans 10 years ago. Now, it’s up to 50 percent. For baseball, that’s a terrifying jump. It means the sport’s failing to hook kids. It mean the fan-base may eventually shrink and dry up. A Washington Post article compared baseball to Blockbuster Video. (There are some people who say baseball doomsday soothsayers are embellishing; that the game is OK.)
Baseball’s counter-strike may make the game quicker, more easily digested and more accessible to younger fans, but for me, it produces anxiety and rushes a game which thrives on its relaxed nature. Part of the reason one heads to the ballpark with family or friends is to enjoy one another’s company, not enter and exit with time efficiency. Plopping into a ballpark bleacher seat on a midsummer night is a dream, for as long as the game lasts. Clocks are baseball’s antithesis.
But then again, maybe I’m an idealist. Maybe I can’t – or at least don’t want to – face the harsh reality that there’s a bottom-line here which must be met. Fans must be drawn in, even if it means forcing pitchers to pitch. I grew up a fan of the Red Sox, which, in the American League East, had all five of MLB’s slowest pitchers, but didn’t get discouraged. (Plus, I only go to – at maximum – five MLB games per year, so I don’t think the organizations cares too much if I complain about having a pitch clock.) But it’s not about me, it’s about the fringe fans. The ones who love, say, basketball because it’s so fast-paced and one highlight reel dunk can be followed by an equally as jaw-dropping dunk which puts a player on a poster.
Baseball, like any business, wants to expand its market reach. And it certainly wants to slow, and reverse, the current disintegration of its young fan-base. They just want people to watch, and they feel like this is one way to achieve that. It’s a much better scenario than the alternative of losing viewers and revenue and quality of product, I’ll admit that.
Lose the fans, lose the game. Try adapting to fans, rush the game. Attract more fans, save the game.
If instituting the ticker is what it takes, then I’ll support it.
But I really hate that clock.
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.