Press Box: Baseball could do with a change of pace

News Tribune Sports Commentary

The thermometer might not show it, but baseball season is approaching.

College baseball is in full swing, and pitchers and catchers reported to major league spring training this week with position players close behind.

This year, the players will have a few adjustments to make, as the MLB announced Friday new rules involving the pace of the game will be instituted.

There will be no pitch clock in the majors - though they are being tested in the minor leagues - but there is now a timer on how long a pitcher can take to warm up between innings, and batters are required to keep one foot in the batter's box to prevent stalling. Plus, managers are no longer required to leave the dugout to challenge a call.

In other words, new commissioner Rob Manfred thinks baseball games take too long, and he's trying to speed things up.

I'm a little surprised at the backlash to efforts to improve the game's pace.

Though, I shouldn't be.

Baseball is enamored with its tradition like no other major U.S. sport. For the most part, that's a good thing. Baseball has a rich, fascinating tradition as our national pasttime and reliving the glory days is one of the main draws of the game.

Sometimes, however, baseball is a little too traditional. The game has been reluctant to change before.

Just look at the designated hitter and interleague play.

I'm split on those two issues. On the one hand, I'm an NL guy at heart and think the pitcher should have to hit. (In part because of the added strategic implications but mostly because I think all positions should be involved on the offensive and defensive ends of the game.) On the other hand, I'm very much pro-interleague play. (I think it's insane for teams to play 162 games in a season and not face all 29 other teams.)

But no matter your opinion on the two, they show just how much the MLB drags its feet when it comes to switching things up. The fact the leagues play by different rules should show just how reluctant baseball is to change.

And I see no point in fighting the newest changes.

Some people are going to think baseball is boring. It's inevitable. We live in a low-attention span society, and there's nothing Manfred can do about that short of uninventing the Internet and making everyone read Tolstoy.

What speeding up the pace would do is reduce the commitment required to be a serious baseball fan. Those who argue baseball games needn't change because they are still shorter than football games are missing the point entirely.

Baseball teams play 10 times as many games as football teams. If you watched every regular-season game played by your favorite MLB team last year, you would have spent 19 days, 16 hours and 30 minutes doing so. (And that's only if you're lucky enough to be a Cubs fan and don't have to factor in the postseason.) In comparison, it would take two days, two hours and 40 minutes to watch all 16 of an NFL team's regular-season games.

Granted, few baseball fans expect to catch every single game but the point remains. Each minute you cut out of a baseball game translates into 162 minutes saved in a season, and the fewer minutes required to devote to your team, the less excessive the commitment.

Sure, sports fans are nothing if not committed, but I can't help but think the proof is in the pudding: Baseball is lagging behind football in terms of national popularity and the time commitment isn't helping.

And don't forget how daunting a task it must be to attract new fans. "Hey kid! Wanna become a baseball fan? All you need is a ball, a glove and - oh yeah, 472-and-a-half hours."

Don't get me wrong, I understand the beauty and poetry that comes with a game having no clock. I get that. The thing is, this isn't going to change that. There's not going to be a clock telling Prince Fielder his double doesn't count because he took too long to get to second. The changes - and future ones, which I wouldn't be surprised to see - will simply prevent games from lagging.

These innovations aren't going to drastically affect any important component of the game. The biggest obstacle, however, is overcoming the mindset that change is a bad, and unnecessary, thing.