News & Opinion

Our national pastimes have little to do with fast times

As Astros-Nationals dawdle in World Series, stupefying pace-of-play similarities emerge with golf

Did you realize that the average gestation period of an elephant is about 640-660 days, or just slightly longer than a World Series game?

TV ratings are down in epic proportions for the Fall Classic, following the trend of recent years. Not sure of the exact numbers, but let’s just say reruns of “The Joy of Painting” do better.

Several factors come into play, including the participating markets.

Shot Clock Masters
Father Time looms large as Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen plays during the 2018 Shot Clock Masters, which introduced a rigid – and highly visible – pace-of-play initiative to the European Tour. Perhaps baseball and the rest of golf could learn a few things from the event.

But it might be pointed out that Game 3, a 4-1 regulation affair, took more than four hours to complete. Through six games, the World Series contests were averaging 3 hours and 45 minutes.

That is to say, like golf, baseball has a pace-of-play problem. The two sports share other personality traits. Both are played with a ball and a stick. Unlike football, soccer or hockey, golf and baseball are untethered to a clock. Come 27 outs or 18 holes, there are no quarters, halves, periods or time limits of any kind.

The sports also share an evolution that has impacted everything. In these technically advanced times, analytics have replaced intuition. Space allowed for human error and judgment has been dramatically reduced, dismissed for the infallible crutches of replays and lasers. “Feel” is an endangered skill; the pursuit of precision has no bounds.

In baseball, pace of play is procedural and structural. Elements in the game, the manner in which it is played, have changed.

On April 25, 1969, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-1. Mind you, there was plenty of activity. The teams combined for six runs, 15 hits, three errors, one walk … oh yeah … and one pitching change. Time of game: one hour and 48 minutes. Grant Jackson went the distance for the Phils. Bob Gibson gave way to a pinch-hitter in the seventh, and Gary Waslewski finished for the Cardinals.

In World Series Game 4 the other night, 11 pitchers were used. Over the first six games and 54 innings of the Series, 53 pitchers were employed, or nearly nine per game.

And when Jackson beat Gibson, there were no replay challenges. Batters did not step out after each pitch – batting gloves weren’t even in vogue until the early 1980s. TV timeouts didn’t exist, and it’s quite possible there was not a single trip to the mound.

Neither team entered the game with a strategy of pushing the pitch count; pitch count wasn’t a thing. They used to say that if you didn’t get to a good pitcher early, you probably wouldn’t get to him, because he’d settle in during the latter innings. Now, if you don’t get to a pitcher early, you definitely won’t get to him, because he won’t be around later.

As full counts pile up, as lefty-righty matchups arise, at the slightest hint of trouble … he’s gone. Managers change pitchers like runway models change clothes. That’s not a critical comment with a “back in the day” finish. Better, worse or indifferent, that’s just the facts.

The way baseball is conducted has changed, and the fallout is a slower pace and longer game. Baseball is wrestling with it, tinkering with structures and procedures, trying to legislate pace. Hence the crazy proposals about extra innings, new regulations and rule changes.

But golf has no excuse. Golf’s pace-of-play issue is self-imposed, not reflective of a structural or procedural evolution. Mound visits and pitching changes don’t exist. Stroke play has no overtimes or extra innings. The game doesn’t pause for television commercials, video replays or intermissions of any kind. Golf is conducted the way it has been traditionally, for decades. It is an individual sport, and its pace, essentially, comes down to choice.

Certainly, golf has new analytics and strategic elements. But their impact on the pace of play is debatable. Some think rangefinders and green-reading books slow things down, but others insist the opposite.

In golf, all it takes is one deliberate player at the head of the line to gum up the works. In golf, all it takes is one to overanalyze, overthink or “grind” over a shot that is not “on the number.” In golf, all it takes is one who is not ready, one who is reluctant to pull the trigger, one who has no feel.

For baseball’s pace-of-play issues, the adjustments are complicated. For golf’s pace-of-play issues, the answer is pretty simple. Play on.