But late last summer, former commissioner Bud Selig called Schuerholz, the president of the Atlanta Braves, and asked him to chair a committee that would focus on picking up baseball’s pace of play.
“I’ll accept,” Schuerholz said he told Selig. “But I need to tell you this: I’m in my 49th year, and I’ve never yet had a fan tell me – a fan – that they think our game is too slow.”
This perception, Schuerholz realizes, was outside the norm. Major League Baseball games averaged three hours, two minutes and 21 seconds in 2014. Media, certainly, complained about what felt like a drag. What to do?
“This is nebulous,” Schuerholz said by phone Thursday. “This is like herding cats. This is difficult to say what it is we were trying to do.”
And yet, by instituting a series of subtle-yet-effective protocols, baseball has gotten instant results. Through Wednesday, according to MLB, games averaged less than 2:54 – down more than eight minutes from last year’s average, and down more than seven minutes from a comparable point last year.
“I’m thrilled,” Schuerholz said.
The problem Schuerholz and his committee – which included Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, players’ union head Tony Clark, new commissioner Rob Manfred, former Yankees manager Joe Torre and Red Sox executives Tom Werner and Michael Gordon – faced is that every member loved baseball, and they were loathe to disturb anything about the actual playing of the game. So they went about snipping at the margins.
“When you’re getting off the field, getting on the field,” Schuerholz said, “do it in a brisk and timely manner.”
In February, the league and the union agreed to a series of small changes that they hoped would add up to time saved:
- Batters must keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches (with some exceptions for the opposing team to call time, etc.);
- Each ballpark is now affixed with a clock to make sure the time between innings is managed promptly – 2 minutes, 25 seconds for most games, 2:45 for those on national television, and both the pitcher and first hitter are encouraged to be ready when 20 seconds remain on the clock.
- Relief pitchers are held to that same standard for their preparedness and are being asked to pitch – regardless of how many warm-up pitches they have thrown – when the 2:25 is up.
The new standards were to be enforced by umpires, but also through a series of warnings and, eventually, fines for repeat offenders. But the early results have been so encouraging that a source said MLB and the union agreed Thursday night to “relax” the fining system. The league will still be able to fine egregious offenders, but warnings for one-time violations won’t be issued. (ESPN.com first reported Thursday that the league and union were headed toward an agreement.)
Average game time isn’t the only measure by which the new standards are succeeding. There have already been five games that have lasted two hours, 10 minutes or shorter. Last year, there were 13 such games all season.
Schuerholz commended players and umpires for working together to institute the changes, but he said broadcasters, too, have entered the discussion – coming back from commercial breaks ready to dive right back into live action.
“On a cumulative effect, I think most people would say, surprisingly so, we’ve proven we can keep our game as grand and beautiful and exciting and dynamic and attractive as it’s always been,” Schuerholz said, “and we can manage the down time.”
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