Baseball, despite what you may be hearing and reading, does not have a time of game problem. It has a pace of play problem. And good for umpire Joe West if it took his big mouth to wake up the players about it, even if it really should not be an umpire's place to rip games between the Yankees and Red Sox as "pathetic and embarrassing."
The problem is not that the Yankees and Red Sox play long games. It's that they take way too much time between pitches. You'll find less preening and adjusting of personal equipment backstage at a Rockettes show. Here's just one example: Nick Swisher of the Yankees will take a pitch, step out of the batter's box, adjust each batting glove, raise his bat in front of his eyes and study it carefully, then step back in -- a meaningless habit that takes 20 seconds or more. That's not to pick on Swisher; most players leave the batters' box between pitches for their own version of this "mental preparation."
"I spoke to Hank Aaron," commissioner Bud Selig told me yesterday. "He said he never got out of the batter's box [between pitches]. Joe Torre said the same thing. My gripe is that a guy gets in the batter's box, looks at one pitch, and then has to get out and adjust his equipment -- and he hasn't even swung at anything."
Selig has given umpires the green light to crack down on slow-poke hitters, the sport's equivalent of those drivers cruising at 45 mph in the left lane with their turn signal perpetually on. Umpires in the first week of the season sometimes refused to grant time to some hitters that asked for it, a practice that almost never happened in the past.
"I do think we have rules in the books that need to be enforced," Selig said. "I've talked to a lot of people in uniform and there has been no pushback."
Many people, including some players, were quick to jump on West for speaking out of turn. The beauty of the game, goes the argument, is that there is no time clock, and some of the greatest games run well past three hours. All true. But as Selig said, "We have to do things to pick up the pace."
And pace, not time, is the problem. The Yankees and Red Sox, on average, add an extra 21 minutes of pure nothingness -- Velcro pulling, cup adjusting, bat studying, helmet wiping, phantom swinging -- to the average American League game.
Of course, the common observation is that the Yankees and Red Sox are such ferocious, well-schooled offensive teams -- fouling off pitches, refusing to bite on bad ones -- that they see more pitches and that's what causes the length of their games. That is only partly true. It doesn't explain the terribly slow pace of their games. This can be demonstrated with statistics. Take a look at how Yankees-Red Sox games compared to all other AL games from last year:
What does it mean? The Yankees and Red Sox see 15.9 percent more pitches than the average AL game, but they take 28 percent longer. If the Yankees and Red Sox just played at the same pace as an average AL game -- with their same 46 extra pitches per game -- they would instantly cut 21 minutes from their games. And that's not 21 minutes of action, folks. That's 21 minutes of pure down time.
Just for fun, I decided to check what happens to a Yankees or Red Sox game when those teams face the most efficient, best pitcher on the planet, Roy Halladay, a guy who doesn't dawdle between pitches. They faced him nine times last year. You would expect those games to be quicker than an average AL game. In fact, they averaged 2:53, three minutes below a typical AL game, in part because of 19 fewer pitches per game. But even then, even with the fast-working Halladay on the mound, the pace of the games lagged. The games still were slower paced than an average AL game, clocking in at 1.60 pitches per minute.
Why is pace of games important at all? I asked Selig that very question.
"I think it's important because more than the time of game is the fact that you need to keep games moving," Selig said. "You want to keep the game moving with action, and it doesn't need unnecessary delays."
The key word is "unnecessary." Baseball is moving in the wrong direction. It was a faster game when people had fewer entertainment options and longer attention spans. But now as the world is speeding up, baseball is slowing down for no reason at all. The three and a half hour game isn't a bad thing for baseball; it's the slow-moving three and a half hour game that is the audience-killer. And if things continue to play out at the current rate, and a generation of young hitters crib from such a style, games will continue to have more and more dead time added.
This is not about Selig, his 14-person "on-field matters" committee or West and his umpire friends. The responsibility falls mostly to the players for getting out of some very poor habits. They need to understand that somehow people managed to hit for a hundred years without drifting into a meditative state between every pitch. Unfortunately, it will be left to umpires such as West to help break them of this habit by refusing the grant them time and encouraging the pitcher to fire when ready.
The rules, however, also may need a tweak or two to make sure the games move. For instance, baseball must seriously consider limiting the number of visits to the mound by players on the field, particularly after last postseason when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada once visited CC Sabathia eight times in an inning. A pitcher must be removed when a manager or coach makes a second visit in an inning. Why should it be any different for a catcher? Why does every new hitter have to bring about a review of the scouting report, a change of the signs and a vigorous debate about whether Kierkegaard is the George Washington of existentialism?
The pure baseball fan doesn't care how often Posada walks to the mound; he or she will watch no matter what. But to the casual fan, Fox might as well flash a graphic with one of those cool audio effects that screams, "Go ahead and change the channel!" And the casual fans -- above and beyond the core audience -- are where the big money can be found.
For rules changes, that's where Selig and his crack committee have to step in. When I asked him if they were prepared to limit catchers' visits to the mound, Selig said, "We're talking about all those things. We've talked about it on the committee. All I've said to people is, 'Look, we have to do these things to pick up the pace.' Picking up the pace, not the time of game, is important."
Jason Heyward jerseys are flying off the shelves faster than . . . well, not quite faster than his home runs leave the ballpark, but you get the idea. T-shirts and jerseys with Heyward's name and number 22 went on sale at Turner Field in the fifth inning of Atlanta's opener last Monday -- the point when the game, and Heyward's standing as a full-fledged union member, became official. Since then -- covering just 2 1/2 home games -- the Braves have sold 1,052 Heyward T-shirts and jerseys at Turner Field. That's an average of 46 T-shirts and jerseys per inning.
Heyward (who was born in, yes, New Jersey) has been worth the shopping frenzy. The 20-year-old rookie outfielder hit a home run in three of his first six games, something done only twice before by a player that young: Ron Swoboda in 1965 and Ruben Sierra in 1986.
How's this National League thing working out for Roy Halladay after years of hard labor in the AL East? Not bad. Put it this way: After two starts Halladay has thrown only 57 balls to 60 batters. He is throwing 71 percent of his pitches for strikes . . . That was one wild debut for right-hander Mike Leake of the Reds. He became only the 12th National League pitcher to walk seven or more batters in fewer than seven innings in his major league debut, the first since Bobby Jones of the Rockies in 1997. The bad news for Leake is that none of the other 11 went on to win more than 61 games in their careers and only one ended up with a lifetime winning record: Charlie Kerfeld (18-9) . . . And speaking of the Reds, manager Dusty Baker helped win a game Monday by having his cleanup hitter, Brandon Phillips, drop a sacrifice bunt. How often do you see that? Well, last year only seven players in the original lineup in the cleanup spot put down a sacrifice bunt, including Atlanta catcher Brian McCann, who did it three times . . . Seattle's 4-5-6 hitters have hit .143 with two extra-base hits and three RBI. Anybody surprised? Of course, Milton Bradley (.045) is a big part of the problem. Manager Don Wakamatsu sat him down to ease the "pressure" Bradley might be feeling, especially after Bradley flipped off fans in Oakland. Pressure? Um, the guy turns 32 years old this week and lost self-control in the first week of the season in front of 12,000 people in Oakland? . . . It seems like pitch count restrictions get tightened every year. One hundred fifteen is the new 120. In the opening week, covering 184 starts, no one threw 118 pitches. Only two pitchers topped 115: Scott Feldman of Texas (117) and Dodgers knuckleballer Charlie Haeger (116) . . . How bad are the Astros? After seven games, all of them losses, they had six walks, two homers, one stolen base and 13 runs -- a franchise record-low for the first seven games of a season.