Umpire Joe West made a terrible mistake last week when he called a series of nearly four-hour-long Red Sox-Yankees games "a disgrace to baseball." No, the ump wasn't wrong to publicly scold the teams for their slow play, which he dubbed "pathetic and embarrassing." West's mistake was in neglecting to include "frustrating," "turgid," and "the only thing in baseball more annoying than the kiss-cam."
For the torrent of scorn that poured on West from all sides, you would have thought he had shot somebody. You would have thought he'd committed some truly heinous crime, like suggesting Glee gets too much hype for a show that hasn't even aired a full season. (That's especially given Finn's recent take on "Hello, I Love You," a bright, bouncy, syrupy-sweet affront to everything that Jim Morrison stood for.)
West didn't say anything that baseball officialdom hasn't said for years. Games are already too long and getting longer for all the wrong reasons. Sure, some of the extra time comes from TV timeouts and more pitching changes. That doesn't make it any less annoying for fans to watch highly-paid, world-class athletes do nothing but spit and fidget for 30 seconds between every pitch.
Even stranger than all the dithering and delay tactics baseball allows, though, are the game's subset of apologist fans who excuse it. They not only tolerate the painfully slow pace, they absurdly defend it as intrinsic to the sport—usually with some mystical, dreamy-eyed, Kinsella-wannabe rumination on The Game Without a Clock.
Like the Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia. When Joe West's comments went public, the Red Sox were in Kansas City and their clubhouse was all a-twitter. Pedroia got especially snippy. The second-baseman slammed West, mocked fans who might not want to spend five hours of their free time at the ballpark, then pointed out to reporters that baseball doesn't have a shot clock.
Josh Beckett—who even on his good days works with all the urgency of a surly postal worker on a late Friday afternoon—decided to let his actions do the talking. Or, really, his inaction. Either Beckett went to the mound on a mission to show the world just how slowly baseball can be played, or he used all that time between pitches to work on his uncanny tribute to a Duane Hanson sculpture.
The Game Without a Clock, however, has a clock. Dustin Pedroia might want to check the Official Rules of Major League Baseball. Specifically, Rule 8.04, which states, "When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds." Umpires, the rule goes on, are required to penalize a pitcher by calling a ball every time it takes too long to deliver a throw. And you thought the NBA didn't enforce traveling?
Last season, according to Stats LLC, big league pitchers averaged—averaged—just under 27 seconds between pitches. More than double what the rules allow. For some reason, though, only Jonathan Papelbon, another Boston hurler, gets in trouble for stalling. Sort of. The reliever was cited for delay tactics seven times in 2009. Papelbon, making $9.35 million this year, was fined about $9,000. That'll teach him.
If pitchers are bad, though, batters are worse. Rule 6.02, covering hitters at the plate, runs for several hundred words and includes paragraphs of commentary on commentary that descend into Talmudic complexity. The gist, though, is clear. The batter has to keep at least one foot in the batter's box the entire at-bat. Time-outs, technically anyway, are only for extraordinary circumstances, like if a batter is hurt by a foul-tip or wild pitch. At the very least, hitters shouldn't be allowed to simply saunter away from the plate whenever they feel a tad winded or the game gets a little too intense. Isn't fighting fatigue and thriving under pressure, you know, part of sports?
Nothing grates more, though, than timeouts granted for players to adjust their uniforms. Doesn't it seem, for instance, that the incomparable Derek Jeter, clearly the finest leader of men since Napoleon, should be able to stay in the batter's box and keep swinging even when facing the raw horror of playing with a droopy sock?
Here, baseball's enablers will inevitably defend every batter's sacred and inalienable right to compulsively readjust his hat, helmet and gloves between every pitch. They will wax rhapsodic about the mind games-within-a-game hitters and pitchers play. Oh, sure. That's why Manny Ramirez calls timeout after every swing, then fiddles with his jersey and plays with his hair. He's trying to get inside the pitcher's head. Vanity has nothing to do with it.
Forget any nonsense you hear about baseball being threatened by competitive imbalance, performance-enhancing drugs, or labor strife. Americans have shown over and over that we don't care one whit about stuff like that just so long as the game is fun to watch. In the long run, baseball fans who insist that watching guys do nothing is somehow essential to the sport will only hurt they game they love.