Column: Baseball should get serious about speeding up games
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) There are all sorts of ways to give baseball a much-needed boost of speed.
Unfortunately, those in charge of the game are going about it all the wrong way.
Extra inning gimmicks?
Automatic intentional walks?
''All of it is stupid,'' Atlanta Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips said Wednesday.
No argument there.
Before we go any further, don't consider that an endorsement of the status quo. We should all be in agreement that baseball's glacier-like pace has transformed the national pastime into the sporting version of Ambien, sure to put even the most hard-core fans right to sleep.
Over the last 35 years, the length of a regular-season game has increased by nearly a half-hour - much of that extra time consumed by batters stepping out of the box between every pitch for the always-thrilling helmet tug, enough meetings on the mound to bring about world peace, and so many pitching changes one can only assume managers are investing in companies that make bullpen door hinges.
There's no reason for a nine-inning game to take an average of three hours to play, but that's exactly what's happened two of the last three seasons.
MLB's baseball chief, Joe Torre, signed off on an experimental rule that may be used at entry-level leagues this season, placing runners on second base to begin each team's at-bat in extra innings. But that change is unlikely to ever reach the majors and, even if it did, would only apply to games that get to the 10th inning, which aren't really the problem.
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins came up with an idea that's even more radical: cut out the last two innings of a regulation game. He told MLB.com he ''would love to know'' the impact over the course of a full season, but he might as well have proposed adding field goals, because such a change would alter everything from time-honored statistics to the makeup of rosters.
On a more serious note, the players' union agreed to a change that will actually be used in the major leagues this season. Intentional walks will be issued automatically, without requiring the pitcher to throw four pitches outside the strike zone.
Yawn. Last year, there were 932 intentional walks issued in the big leagues - roughly one every two-and-a-half games. In other words, don't expect a big change in the length of games because of this new rule.
The players' association needs to go along with more significant changes, such as pitch clocks and a limit on trips to the mound. While we're at it, ban hitters from stepping out of the box after each pitch to go through a numbing routine of twitches, stretches, practice swings and various uniform adjustments.
''One of the things I think can be addressed is catchers' trips to the mound,'' Philadelphia Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. ''Why they go out there so much? I get it. You want to make sure you have it right. But I think we should be well-versed enough and practiced in giving signs. We shouldn't have to go out there.''
Given the power of the players' union, those changes are a bit of a pipe dream. But the interminable replay system is something that can be addressed right now.
Managers have learned to walk slowly onto the field to meekly argue any disputed call, which is nothing more than a ruse to give their replay assistants time to check out the play on screens in the bowels of the stadium. If a manager finally gets word that he should challenge the call, it can then take far too long for baseball's central replay center to make a final ruling.
''I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision,'' Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said. ''I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway.''
Miami pitcher Tom Koehler suggested that an extra umpire be assigned to each game, someone in the booth who can make a ruling right at the ballpark.
''Just have each crew have five guys instead of four. They are watching the game. Call up. Out or safe?'' he said. ''There's no reason that the NFL and college football can have these replays on these plays where guys are dragging their feet on the sideline take so much less time than an out or safe call.''
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman would do away with replay altogether.
''They're taking away 10 seconds for an intentional walk,'' he said, ''but you're still going to have an instant replay for five minutes where we're all just standing around.''
Freeman had another suggestion: quit allowing teams to expand their rosters from 25 to as many as 40 players in the final month of the season.
While the provision was intended to give minor league prospects a chance to get some big league experience, especially on teams that aren't challenging from a postseason berth, it has resulted in games dragging on even longer in September. Larger rosters allow managers to make numerous pitching changes, pinch-hitting and pinch-runner moves, as well as double-switches and defensive upgrades - especially in the National League, which doesn't have a designated hitter.
Change was discussed during last year's labor talks but not agreement was reached.
''September can get long,'' Freeman said. ''Maybe you can go to 28 guys. That's it.''
There are plenty of good ideas out there.
Baseball, get to it.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Goodyear, Arizona and AP freelance writers Chuck King in Jupiter, Florida and Ryan Lawrence in Clearwater, Florida contributed to this report.