Opening Day, the glorious start of the baseball season, is upon us. And like any grown man loony enough to wear a Stephen Strasburg jersey in public, I’m looking forward to the next six months. But after decades of defending my beloved sport to the less enamored, I’m finally ready to concede: The game has gotten, well, tedious.
In fact, for years Major League Baseball has been hitting into a double play of ennui, featuring longer games with less action. Last season, teams played a record 239 extra-inning games, eclipsing the previous mark set in 2011, which itself broke a 2010 record. See a pattern? Of the six seasons in history with the most extra-inning games four occurred in the past seven years. Meanwhile, the average length of a standard nine-inning game has stretched to almost three hours, a yawning half-hour longer than a generation ago.
Why are games so long? Not because players are clogging the base paths or overworking the scoreboard operators. Last season, major league clubs scored an average of 4.17 runs a game, the least in more than two decades. While die-hard fans have kept stadium attendance healthy, casual fans appear to be tuning out: Amid anemic offenses and a sluggish pace, regular season TV ratings have been declining for years.
Yet the key to baseball's resurgence is just one mighty swing away. In 1985, the league instituted the annual Home Run Derby, which takes place the evening before the midseason All-Star Game. The rhythm is fast, the mood electric, the ratings spectacular. Last year’s derby at Citi Field in New York delivered ESPN its second-highest non-football ratings of the year.
A version of this annual extravaganza is just what baseball needs to break out of its slump. Pull your jaws from the floor, guardians of our national pastime, and let me explain how it would work.
If a game is tied after nine innings, the teams would still play a 10th inning. However, if the game remains tied after that, teams would square off in a home run derby. Think of it as baseball’s version of soccer penalty kicks or a hockey shootout. Each team selects three batters and one person to pitch to them. (The derby pitcher could be anyone in uniform, making coaches, who often throw batting practice, eligible.) Each batter gets three swings, thus preserving the game’s Trinitarian elegance. When all six players have taken their cuts, the team with more home runs wins.
If the teams rack up the same number of home runs, the derby goes to sudden death. The visiting team gets one swing, then the home team gets one swing. The derby continues with one-swing rounds until one side homers in a round and the other doesn't.
Something similar was tried in the Israel Baseball League. The league faltered, lasting just a single season in 2007. But the home run derby was a fan favorite we ought to import. That will be a challenge in the change-resistant major leagues. So let me suggest three simple refinements -- which might also deprive some of you purists of a few objections.
First, no derby in the playoffs or World Series. Teams would have to win those games the old-fashioned way. Second, the home runs a player hits in the tiebreaker wouldn’t count toward his season or career home run totals (although derby taters could become a fresh statistical category and thus a delicious new treat for baseball’s sabermetric set). Third, in games that end in a home run derby, the official stats would not record a winning or losing pitcher.
Yes, the home run derby tiebreaker would represent the most basic change in the rules of baseball since the American League introduced the designated hitter 41 years ago. And, yes, like the DH, the move would kick up a dust storm of argument. But ultimately both the debate and the change itself would serve the best interests of baseball, perhaps even the best interests of a country that itself could use a recharge.
Baseball has earned its status as a metaphor for the U.S. at large and, occasionally, as a model for social change. A home run derby is not exactly Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier 17 years before Congress got around to passing the Civil Rights Act. But it's a useful reminder that it never pays to remain stuck in place, bridling against the future's inexorable tug.
When this country changes -- and it always does, usually for the better -- yesterday’s red-hot controversy inevitably eases into today’s room-temperature norm. Years later, we look back and wonder why anyone thought it was a big deal.
The same will happen here. As we sit on the edge of our seats watching David Ortiz battle Mike Trout in a sudden-death swing-off, we’ll wonder how we tolerated the interminable games of the modern deadball era. Then we’ll turn to our children and grandchildren and tell them they’re soft, that they never had to sit through a 14th inning.
(Daniel H. Pink is the author of five books, including his latest, "To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.")
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