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With new rules aimed at speeding up the game, MLB hopes to strike a sweet spot

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Baseball has always been, famously, a game played with few concerns about time and pacing. With no time constraints to guide it, play goes on, until someone wins. Well, spring training has begun and there are new rules this year intended to speed up the game.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Have you been to a baseball game any time in the past few years or even watched one on TV? The average length is now three hours and two minutes. That is about a half-hour longer than it was in the early '80s.

    And Major League Baseball is concerned about that. With exhibition games under way in Arizona and Florida, the league is making some adjustments, including what happens between innings and in the batter's box.

    Mike Pesca joins us now. He is the host of Slate's daily news and discussion podcast "The Gist" and a contributor to NPR.

    So, first of all, what are the changes that they're trying to make?

    MIKE PESCA, Slate's "The Gist" podcast: Well, one of them is just enforcing a rule that's on the books. The batter cannot step out of the batter's box, always has to have a foot there.

    And the reason is, if you watch a baseball game — and this is a recent trend — the batters adjust every piece of equipment, even when all they do is stand there and take a pitch. Somehow, their batting gloves got loose during that. And one of the things — it's a few things. It's an affectation. It's a habit. Sometimes, it's trying to get in the head of the pitchers.

    But here's baseball saying, guys, stay in the batter's box and get ready for the next pitch. And another thing that they're doing is, there's not a clock during the game, but in between innings, it will be two minutes, 25 seconds, or in a nationally televised game, two minutes, 45 seconds between innings. Things will be timed to that.

    So, with 20 seconds remaining, they will start to announce that the batter is entering the box. And then the pitcher will be ending his warmups before the inning starts. So when you come back from commercial, the batter will be right there ready to receive the pitch, the pitcher will be ready to go. This will speed things up a little, they hope.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, a pitcher is supposed to have on the books now only a finite amount of time really, and, as you said, the batter's box rule kind of has been there. How do you actually get to enforce this?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Well, they have very, very rarely, but in the past, they have threatened to fine a couple of relievers.

    But now that you know it's a rule, the umpire, he has great discretion in the game, will be saying, let's go, let's go. And so with 40 seconds left, the guys will be walking up. What baseball is trying to do, they know a clock — baseball purists and clocks don't go well together. The great appeal of baseball, among the great appeals, it's a game without time.

    It is a pastoral game that is separated from time. Now, there's a minor league system and some colleges actually have a clock while the pitcher is on the mound. But Major League Baseball doesn't want to do it. So, they think that if they do these changes, which are around the margins, which won't ever offend a purist — in fact, that whole get in the batter's box instead of — stop adjusting your gloves, I think the purists will really like that.

    Those are the sort of things they could do to shave a couple of minutes of these really long games.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is this an interest to try and stay competitive, the action and excitement of football or basketball? I mean, baseball is, as you say, quintessentially not those games.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's a different kind of experience if you go with your friends, if you're watching. A lot of it is the socializing and the relaxing. Right?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    But I think that was true in 1981, when the average game was two-and-a-half-hours. Right?

    I think that's true if the average — and, remember, if the average is three hours, that means, you know, half the games are more than three hours. That's a problem. And I think baseball knows what its niche is. In a way, you could argue, very factually, baseball has never been more successful. The owners are making more money than ever. More people are going to the ballpark. Baseball has great appeal.

    Yet the new commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, knows you can't just rest on your laurels. The youth market is very important. They have shorter attention spans, so you have to give them a more exciting game that's a little more at a, let's say, 20th, if not 21st century pace, as opposed to the roots of the game.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You mentioned nationally televised. And people are going to wonder, how much of this is the broadcast cart driving the sport, which is the horse in this case?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    I don't know that it's a huge broadcast consideration, because a lot of those nationally broadcast games are the longest games. And there are 20 more seconds of commercials in between innings.

    And they always put, say, the Yankees and Red Sox on against each other. Those teams get good ratings. They also play the longest baseball games known to man. So, I really do think it's — the nationally televised aspect of baseball less important than a sport like football, where all the — every game, every weekend, they are a nationally televised game, less so with baseball.

    Baseball is more about day in, day out, 162 games, making that experience more relevant to modernity.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. And what about those superstitious players who say I have got to adjust the glove four times before I take a swing, because that's when I'm going to get the home run?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    That could be beaten out of them.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MIKE PESCA:

    And I think that — and especially if in the minor leagues they come up knowing that that's not the sort of thing to be done.

    And we also have just seen Derek Jeter retire.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    He was one of the huge glove adjustors. Maybe his exiting from the game will speed things along a little bit.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally, speaking of speed in baseball, Will Ferrell for a charitable cause today, we saw this on Vine and MLB.com, he — what is he trying to do?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Playing nine positions — actually, 10 positions, because he's going to five different games, and so that means there are 10 teams. He will be the umpire in one of these games.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    He's honoring the former Athletic Bert Campaneris, who was the first player to perform this feat, playing every position.

    Now, Will Ferrell is a 47-year-old comedian.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sure. Sure.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    He's going to have — Las Vegas — or actually offshore betting has odds on, will he commit an error? It's quite likely. So we will see how that goes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Mike Pesca, thanks so much for joining us.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    You're welcome.

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