How Baseball Saved Itself
Thank you for the fantastic article on baseball. During the 1960s, I was a Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. About the time baseball season began one year, I participated in a robust argument over America’s favorite pastime with my colleagues. I felt that it was an incredibly boring way to spend time, and I wanted to debate the subject with empirical evidence. As engineers, we agreed to define “action” as any time the ball or a player was moving. I then used a stopwatch to determine the ratio between “elapsed time” and “action” in a typical game.
I applied this definition to a game the following Saturday. Unsurprisingly, the ratio was 20 to 1—for every hour of elapsed time, one would see just three minutes of action. Professional football and basketball have far more action per hour than baseball under the same definition, which I think explains their relative popularity.
It wasn’t solely the analytics revolution that slowed down the sport—baseball’s always been like that! The question now is whether I should analyze another game to determine if the new rules changed it for the better.
David M. Carlson
Fountain Valley, Calif.
Baseball, the eternal game, shouldn’t be shortened—if anything, it ought to be lengthened, after the model of classical cricket. Live in the moment. Each pitch presents the entire history of the universe. The pitcher rotates the ball in his hand, feeling ever so sensitively for the contours, the stitching, the seams that might yield an advantage, before hurling it to the plate with the force of Zeus’s thunderbolt.
But how will the baseball travel? Will it sink or curve, go high or low, flutter in or out, changing speed as it continues to its destiny? Breathing in, the umpire concentrates on the ball speeding toward him. Breathing out, he calls a ball or a strike, with thousands of eyes cast upon him and his judgment. The loneliness of the umpire, the batter, and the pitcher sets them outside time. At that fateful moment of contact between ball and bat or mitt, all existence is suspended.
To shorten that momentary dance with eternity is to miss the meditative profundity of a baseball game. No, Mark, it is we who are at fault for wanting to speed up the game, with designated batters, virtual walks, limits on mound visits, pitch clocks, and rigid placement of the fielders.
I wanted to read Mark Leibovich’s article on baseball’s updated approach, but found it difficult when I ran across another dusty relic that needs to go: Red Sox worship among the media elites.
I grew up a Yankees fan, but somewhere along the line, sportswriters began looking at the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry as if it were the defining narrative of baseball. As they cast the Yankees as the bad guys who were always trying to buy the World Series, and the Red Sox as the good guys who represented the nobler, purer defenders of the sport, they seemed to forget that many people in other parts of the country don’t care for either team. If anything, they tend to hate both teams because the sports media spend too much time writing and talking about them. After all, other teams have equally storied pasts. Speeding up the game and giving the rules a hard look will certainly improve the experience for fans, as Leibovich writes. But it’s long past time for the sports media to recognize their part in holding the game back by ignoring more interesting narratives.
West Milford, N.J.
I share Mark Leibovich’s joy over the new baseball rules to speed up the game. But baseball isn’t that much slower than other sports. The average basketball game lasts anywhere from 135 to 150 minutes. There are constant interruptions precipitated by fouls, time-outs, and halftime. And the final two minutes on the clock can take 15 minutes.
Most unsettling for those of us who love baseball is the constant complaint from football fans that our sport is slow while football is fast. Their favored 60-minute romp takes more than 180 minutes to complete. And, as a wise observer once pointed out, to make matters worse, football combines two of the most detestable facets of American life—violence and committee meetings.
Perhaps someday the NBA and the NFL will take lessons from MLB and learn how to shorten their games.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
I agree with Mark Leibovich’s conclusions regarding the benefits of baseball’s new pitch clock. The pitch clock is the greatest innovation the sport has seen in ages, and it may well save the game. But the gradual slowing-down of games was not the only thing that drove fans away from baseball.
Consider the 1994 strike, which canceled approximately a third of the season and the World Series and was seen by many as millionaires fighting over lucre, fans be damned. Or consider the over-the-top salaries, even for subpar players, as ticket and concession prices have skyrocketed. Baseball once sold itself as the best buy for family entertainment in America—but it hasn’t been that for quite some time.
Finally, the cheating that has gone on for decades has put off many fans, and the lack of any meaningful accountability has surely only made it worse. Players who were known to use banned substances—Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa—still lead the league’s counts for most home runs in a single season, accolades that should have been expunged from the books. And Leibovich barely touches on perhaps the worst of these scofflaw violations: The Houston Astros were caught cheating in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, including the 2017 postseason, which netted the team a World Series victory. Nonetheless, they were permitted to keep the championship title, and none of the players who cheated was disciplined—they are still playing now. When several Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, by contrast, they were barred from baseball forever. For some fans, these problems are more serious than the length of games.
Allen J. Wiener
Clearwater Beach, Fla.
Mark Leibovich Replies:
Thanks to all those who took the time to reply to my article; I hope it was at least more engaging than the baseball of years past. Major League Baseball certainly has no monopoly on potentially league-destroying scandals. Each major sport has faced its share of drug, gambling, and cheating catastrophes over the years, and no league has cornered the market on bad leaders, clueless commissioners, or idiotic owners either. Sports fans have shown themselves to be willing to forgive a lot—but not necessarily boredom. Of all the sports, baseball is uniquely slow. No matter how many stoppages there might be at the end of a basketball game, the clock guarantees that very few NBA contests surpass two hours and 30 minutes. Football games rarely take more than 3:20, and the fact that teams play only once a week buys a great deal of spectator leeway. Last, I’ll apologize for indulging my Red Sox compulsion. I’ve always assumed that the Sox-Yanks thing was off-putting to nonpartisans, even when the rivalry was at its most compelling (not recently, in other words, unless you count this season’s epic battle for last place in the American League East). In the spirit of fellowship, I’ll concede that some of my favorite baseball friends are Yankees fans. We are more alike than not—beyond just insufferable.
Behind the Cover
In this month’s cover story, “Jenisha From Kentucky,” the Atlantic senior editor Jenisha Watts reflects on how her mother’s addiction shaped her childhood in Lexington. She describes finding escape and empowerment in literature and narrates her struggles as a young writer and editor in New York, determined to hide her past. Our cover image is a portrait of her painted by the Ivorian artist Didier Viodé. With a minimalistic color palette and broad, acrylic brushstrokes characteristic of his style, Viodé strove to capture Jenisha’s self-possession.
— Elizabeth Hart, Art Director
“The Resilience Gap” (September) misidentified Richard Friedman as the former coordinator of Cornell’s mental-health program instead of its former medical director. After publication, “Killer Apps” (September) was updated online to clarify YouTube’s policy for removing videos, which excepts artistic content such as music videos from its prohibition on harassment.
This article appears in the October 2023 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”