Last night's Yankees-Red Sox game ended at 12:53 am, on a Mike Napoli home run, his second of the night. Or morning. Or whatever time it was. (The game, hugely important for the Yankees to keep hanging around the playoff race, also ended without Joe Girardi bringing in the best reliever in the history of baseball, but that's a different column.) Now, 12:53 is a ridiculous time of night for a baseball game to end, even one that goes 11 innings. And because it was the Sunday night nationally televised game, and because it was the Red Sox and Yankees, it's sure to bring up yet another Earnest Baseball Conversation: Are baseball games too long?
We've heard more of these discussions in the last couple of weeks, since the Wall Street Journal did their smart, wisenheimer-y "the average amount of action in a baseball game is 18 minutes" piece. Distilled down, that 18 minutes is the span in which a ball is in play, whether it's a pitched ball, a hit ball or a thrown ball. As the article pointed out, this is actually more action than there is in a football game, by seven minutes. But it still opened up a whole other set of "we must shorten the game!" conversations.
These are not new conversations and, in fact, this isn't even a new story. On Slate's excellent Hang Up and Listen podcast, NPR's Mike Pesca pointed out the "baseball doesn't have much activity" story was just a new version of a piece Red Smith wrote 60 years ago. But baseball is always under assault by boring people who claim to find it boring, so here comes the "debate." How do we save the children from this endless game? This, like most debates in the world of public discourse, is a polemic disguised as a debate. Most people who think baseball games are too long either don't like baseball, or just like to complain. Baseball games are long. Thank God for that.
Let's indulge some arguments, though. A great way to make sure games don't end past midnight is not to start them at 8 pm ET, like the Yankees-Red Sox game did. (This is, of course, a major issue with the playoffs and is unlikely to ever be resolved, alas, unless everyone collectively decides to stop watching television.) Another way to do it is not to have the Yankees and Red Sox play on national telecasts; traditionally they're the teams who use up the most pitches per plate appearance and thus have the longest games. (However, the Yankees have lagged a bit on that front this season. Also, fun stat: The Cardinals, the best hitting team in the National League, have seen the second-fewest pitches in the majors. There might be something to occasional aggression.) A third way to shorten games is to not to play 11 innings.
In other words: Don't showcase signature franchises on national television and don't go into overtime. These are not feasible options.
So let's look at the other issues outlined in the WSJ piece and whether we can really shorten that time … or whether we even want to.
Time Between Batters: 33:39. WSJ defines this as a span that "concludes when the pitcher begins throwing to the new batter [after the last one]." This is your walkup music, your practice swings, your flipping the ball around the infield. On one hand, this looks like an obvious way to slash time. This is the definition of nothing happening. But of course, in baseball "nothing happening" is an illusion. Lots of things are happening: This is a game that takes place, in large part, in people's heads. One of the reasons baseball is such a good game is because it's about preparation, and planning, and thought … about approach. Sure, it might be exciting in the moment to watch the batter sprint to the plate and the pitcher immediately start chucking pitches -- and it would be exciting only briefly, and only once -- but it would make for a far inferior experience otherwise. (I imagine it looking a little like cricket.) Give them a second to think about what they're doing, all right?
Time Between Innings: 42:41. This one is self-explanatory. Baseball exists to sell beer, and this is when it is done. It is excellent at doing this, and I, for one, will never stand in its way. I will in fact contribute to the phenomenon. This is nothing to apologize for.
Time Between Pitches: 1:14:49. This is the big one, and the one that drives non-baseball people crazy. This is the stepping out of the boxes, the adjusting of the batting gloves, the cup shift, all of that. All the weird little part-superstition, part brain-straightening things a batter does -- and a pitcher responds to -- that contribute most to the "hey, they're all just standing around!" notion. But acting as if nothing is happening just because we can't see it, if it's not thrown in our face like a dunk or a wide receiver being speared when he comes across the middle, is purposefully missing what makes baseball uniquely baseball. Every at-bat is a play with infinite acts, every pitch a drama with a thousand plot twists. For us, watching at home, it may not seem as such. But the batter is adjusting to a fastball, or a curveball, and guessing what's coming next, looking inside, looking outside, low, high. This is when everything is happening. This back and forth between batter and pitcher, this private faceoff only those two men can understand -- that's, in fact, the driving engine of baseball. There's a lot happening: There's too much happening. Expecting a batter to swing and then just jump back in, like we're in the batting cages or something, like this is Rock and Jock, turns baseball into something that doesn't vaguely resemble baseball. Do certain batters take too much time? Is it irritating sometimes? Sure. But let us not let the perfect be the enemy of the great here: This dance is what makes the game work. If you can't see that, if you don't want to see that, then yeah: Maybe this isn't game for you. Not that anyone with such an attention span made it this far into this column anyway.
Look: This is supposed to be thought through. It's part of the experience. Baseball is not something we want turned into speed chess. The little dramas add up and sometimes make the games longer than a casual observer might prefer, but to say that nothing is happening, to say that it's all meaningless is either to fail to understand those nuances or to purposely ignore them for the sake of cheap rhetoric.
And you know what? I want baseball games to run long. Trust me, watching a baseball game is far more pleasurable than whatever else I would have been doing. This is diversion! Roger Ebert once wrote, "No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough." Life is hard, and stressful, and exhausting, and, most of all, moving way too fast. Baseball is not something that should be a part of that; it should be its tonic. It should be its cure. Let it be its cure. Leave it alone.