Baseball / Sports

In efforts to speed up game, time's a-wastin'

CHICAGO -- Mark Buehrle's one-man march against time-wasting routines in baseball is unlikely to make an impact on the game.

We're too far gone to turn back the clock and return to the days when hitters stayed in the box between pitches and pitchers got the ball, retrieved the sign and went into their windup.

But Buehrle, the veteran Blue Jays pitcher, spoke for a lot of fans during a recent interview with Yahoo's Jeff Passan when he excoriated his fellow players for prolonging at-bats and making games as long as foreign film festivals.

"You see guys get in the batter's box, they listen to their (walk-up) song for 20 minutes," Buehrle said. "They don't swing the bat and they have to step out and tighten their batting gloves and do their stuff.

"I don't like sitting on the bench for a four-hour game when I'm not pitching, I'll tell you that much. When you're sitting there in between your start(s), looking at the scoreboard, looking at the clock, saying, 'Holy (expletive), this is ridiculous.' I know how fans feel."

One of the beauties of the game is there is no clock. Theoretically an extra-inning game can go on forever. Unfortunately, that also means games can drag on forever, and many do just that, leading to half-empty ballparks by the final out.

Buehrle puts his money where his mouth is. On Wednesday night he pitched seven shutout innings against the Phillies in a 10-0 victory that lasted 2 hours, 23 minutes. Contrast that to Thursday night's game at U.S. Cellular Field, where the Cubs beat the White Sox 12-5 in a 4 hour, 7 minute affair.

With instant replay adding to the length of games, a three hour-plus contest is the new norm. But Commissioner Bud Selig recently told reporters at Wrigley Field he frequently speaks about the pace of games with Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB's senior vice president of standards and on-field operations, and believes "we're doing all right."

"Actually we were below three hours average time (one) week, and we've had a lot of 2 hours, 40 minutes, 2:45 games," Selig said. "I don't know. People talk about that, but the last 10 years attendance has been the greatest in our history. We're doing numbers today that nobody ever dreamed of.

"But it's not the time as much as the pace. Yes, we are working on it. I've spent a lot of time talking to Tony (La Russa), Joe Torre, Joe Garagiola and many others in our baseball operations department, and I'm satisfied we're doing well. I note with great interest one day we had a bunch of 2:30, 2:40 minute games. Every so often, you have a lot of pitching changes, a lot of high scoring games."

Yada, yada, yada ...

The problem isn't getting people into the ballparks. It's getting them to stick around for the end of games that are needlessly long. Some leave early to get their kids in bed, to escape parking lot gridlock or because they're just plain tired.

Selig has been concerned about the issue for years. As acting commissioner in 1995 he asked former umpire Steve Palermo to submit a report on recommendations to speed things up.

"When a pitcher gets the ball he should throw it," Selig said in '97. "There's too much stepping in and out, pitchers fooling around."

Among Palermo's recommendations were for hitters to stay in the box, pitchers to stay on the mound, p.a. announcers call the batter's name sooner and MLB institute a time limit between pitches when no one was on base.

In 1963, games averaged 2:25. Last year it was 2:58, tied for the record set in 2000.

MLB asked players to speed up the game a few years ago, to no avail. They made a subtle move this year, and it involved an issue near and dear to Buehrle's heart -- curbing the walk-up music for hitters heading to the plate.

Almost every team allows its players to choose a walk-up song, with the exception of the Cubs, who tried it for one year in 2010 before reverting to organ music. Before 2014, there was no limit to the length of walk-up music and, as Buehrle pointed out, some players wait until the clip of their favorite song is done playing before they're ready to get in the batter's box.

Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino stretched out his at-bats at Fenway Park last year because his walk-up song, Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" turned into a sing-along with fans. As Marley would start to sing "Don't worry about a thing," fans would join in loudly with the lyric "Cause every little thing gonna be all right."

MLB did not want to eliminate walk-up music entirely and upset the players, but asked the Players Association last offseason to limit them to 15 seconds. The request was granted. It wasn't much, and it doesn't make a huge difference, but MLB reasoned it was better than having no time limit at all.

Victorino was upset with the change, and told it was unfair.

"Everybody has their own rhythm and way they go about an at-bat," he said. "If over the course of a season there's a problem then Major League Baseball should tell Mr. So-and-So they're taking way too long between pitches and this needs to stop or fines will come your way. I just don't think everybody across the board has to (be punished)."

But time wasted loitering for walk-up music to end pales in comparison to time spent stepping out of the box and adjusting one's batting gloves, another of Buehrle's pet peeves. Nomar Garciaparra may not have been the first player to do it, but he was certainly the most prominent in the early 2000s.

"Everybody has a routine," he said in 2004. "It's just my routine to get focused ... when I step in the batting box. I've done it since high school ... as long as I can remember."

Has anyone tried to dissuade him from doing it?

"No," he replied. "I don't see what's wrong with it."

There's nothing wrong with a hitter stepping out of the box on occasion and focusing on the next pitch because one pitch can change the outcome of the game. But when everyone does it after every pitch, the seconds add up. And it's the same for pitchers who can't seem to throw a pitch without overthinking the process.

Selig won't have to address the issue much long because he's retiring in January.

Now if only MLB could name Buehrle as his replacement.

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