2023: The Advent of Speedball

Getting ready for a late Saturday afternoon game at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, home of the Mariners.
Games are fast. How does that affect the experience?

The pitch clock works. Through two weeks of baseball, or approximately 180 games or so … I’m not sure actually, but the Phillies have definitely lost 30 of them so far … the average time of game is 2 hours, 38 minutes. Last year, after the same number of days, the average time was 3 hours, 9 minutes.

Let me rephrase that: The pitch clock really works. A half-hour difference is pretty astounding. A 7:05 start (hello, title of my site) is ending around 9:40 p.m. Here in Central time, the game starts when I start cooking dinner, and it ends just after my daughters get to bed. That’s half of the evening. That’s it!

Is that good? In some ways, yes. It means the other half of the evening can be used for work, for additional downtime, for watching another episode or three of Love Is Blind (The first season was great, but after a while how can you keep watching the same thing over and over?). It means baseball doesn’t consume the entire night, that you don’t necessarily feel cheated after watching a full game that your favorite team blows in the ninth inning (I’m still not mad or anything).

In the games themselves, offense is way up. The league-wide batting average as of three days ago was .249. Last year: .233. Consider that hitters will only make more contact as the weather heats up and they get more comfortable with the schedule, and we’re looking at beginning a whole new era of offense.

But there are some pitfalls.

While hitting is up, pitching is (breathes heavily into paper bag). OK, once again my Phillies fandom may be clouding things. Anecdotally, some pitchers are complaining that the pitch clock is making them more uncomfortable, leading to more hits and home runs allowed. Apparently the Mets, who have an older pitching staff on the whole, are having more trouble adjusting to the sudden rule change. But there doesn’t yet seem to be any definitive data proving anything one way or another.

Then there’s the experience of watching a game on TV. As I said, I watch most of my games while cooking dinner, eating dinner, washing dishes, and seeing my daughters to bed. The introduction of the pitch clock has brought some challenges to that routine. Let me preface this by saying this is very stupid, but it should be noted: When washing dishes in 2022, I knew that I can put away a whole row of bowls in between pitches. Now, I can probably only put away two dishes before looking back at the TV. Again, this is stupid, but all of it does add up. My routine has been broken just a little. It throws off the rhythm of the game. And it makes me slightly more anxious, even for an April game that should mean nothing (tell that to the very bad Phillies).

We’ve been trained to understand baseball as a rhythmic activity. The pitcher gets set, he throws a pitch, it’s called, he gets the ball back, he steps off for a moment, the batter steps off for a moment, the commentators chime in here and there, we see a shot of the crowd, we come back in, the pitcher gets set, he throws a pitch. In 2022 all of that may take 20 to 25 seconds. For me, watching at home, I’m taking a sip of beer, I’m mentioning something about the hitter to my wife or children, I’m looking at Twitter for a brief moment, and I’m setting myself for the next pitch. This is how we’ve watched baseball for decades. As a kid I’d lay around, limbs flailing, mind doing nothing at all, but eyes on the game and waiting for the next pitch. I didn’t stress, I didn’t get frustrated, I knew that it would take time. I had to be patient. Baseball taught me patience.

The pitch clock alters this completely. Now I’m following a pitch and briefly doing one other task before quickly glancing back at the television. For kids, I imagine this won’t change a lot. They don’t have decades of training in a pre-pitch-clock world; instead, they’ll adjust smoothly to the new rhythm. It may be more chaotic. They may look at baseball as a more chaotic … or simply more active … game. There will be a new rhythm.

When you age, we should have to accept that things will change. Some people in this country … uhh … don’t do this, and conveniently, entire universes built on propaganda have been constructed so some older Americans don’t have to accept change. But we should accept it. This is how we get better. This is how we continue to learn. Is the new rhythm of baseball going to be the right rhythm of baseball? That’s not for me to decide, not for today’s players to decide, and not even for today’s executives – who created this new rhythm – to decide. I have to accept that.

At The Ballpark

But I do write about the baseball experience, and so I became very interested in how the pitch clock would change that part of it. Would the pitch clock significantly alter the way we watch the game at the ballpark? Would it make us more anxious there? Would we change our habits?

I’ve attended one live baseball game in the pitch clock era. It felt quicker than a pre-pitch-clock game, but I don’t think I paid too much attention on rhythm, as I was more concerned with walking around and researching Globe Life Field. Still, when I did watch the game, it felt slightly faster. But that’s one game, and one game where the Rangers slaughtered the Phillies (sense a theme?) and in the process lengthened the event.

I hope to sit down and actually watch a game live soon. Until then, I’ve talked to some people who’ve attended games for the experience itself, and they’re noticing the game fly by much more quickly. If you want to visit a concession stand for a hot dog and a drink, you may miss more than a full inning. If you get into a long line for food, you could miss two innings. Why pay for parking and a game ticket when you’re going to miss nearly 25 percent of a game because you wanted dinner?

At Minute Maid Park in Houston, guests can purchase a variety of styles, including higher ABV beers, at the Saint Arnold Brewing Co. bar.

Extending Beer Sales

Teams are beginning to adjust. The first move this season was to adjust the end of beer sales, dismantling an old, accepted norm among ballparks.

See, traditionally in ballparks nationwide, teams would stop selling beer after the seventh inning. This isn’t a mandate. Major League Baseball never set a rule. But decades ago, teams just decided amongst themselves (colluded?) to stop selling alcohol after the seventh. Mostly it was made to discourage drunken driving — the idea being that a fan could sober up in the eighth and ninth before hopping in the car.

But this rule stems from an era when authorities weren’t so strict about drunken driving and would be more lenient if they saw a guy swerving a little bit five minutes from home. It stems from an era when every beer out there was a light lager, a cream ale, or at worst, an amber ale. Stadiums weren’t selling 8 percent New England IPAs in the 1980s. Even if you threw a tailgate party before the game (which was rare before the 2000s), you probably guzzled down two or three Miller Lites, maybe bought a beer in the stadium, but could’ve technically been sober enough to drive home by the end of the game.

That’s not the reality in an era of Beer Caves. It’s not the reality in an era when every ballpark sells vodka drinks. And it’s certainly not the reality in an era when most ballparks are situated next to a massive entertainment venue that serves alcohol well before and after the game.

But, because the game has been shortened by about a half-hour, teams are seeing alcohol sales dwindling. That means fewer shifts for workers, and fewer workers. That means fewer lubed-up fans deciding, “Know what, I will buy that $120 jersey at the team store!” or “You know, I will head to StadiumFunLive! after the game and get some dinner!” So they have to adjust, and now, multiple teams have announced that they are extended alcohol sales through the eighth inning.

At least one major league player has spoken up about this. He happens to be (damnit) a Phillie. Pitcher Matt Strahm, admittedly one of the very few bright spots of this supposed defending National League champion club, doesn’t like that teams are moving last call back.

“The reason we stopped (selling alcohol in) the seventh before was to give our fans time to sober up and drive home safe, correct? So now with a faster-pace game — and me just being a man of common sense — if the game is going to finish quicker, would we not move the beer sales back to the sixth inning to give our fans time to sober up and drive home?

“Instead, we’re going to the eighth, and now you’re putting our fans and our family at risk driving home with people who have just drank beers 22 minutes ago.”

Baseball It’s Boring

Strahm is looking at this from a responsible, probably more conservative, family first point of view.

He’s right in that teams originally set the seventh inning call to give people enough time to sober up. And he technically has a point that moving last call up to the sixth would be more in line with the changing time of the game. He’s also right that, hell, we don’t want drunk people on the road. We don’t want tipsy people on the road. We don’t want to risk the lives of anyone.

All of that makes sense. But it’s not quite seeing the whole picture. In fact, blaming potentially unsafe conditions on the extension of beer sales is comical.

Again, teams have embraced the idea of Experience at the ballpark. And in 2023, Experience means having a drink with your game, whether that’s at the entertainment venue beside the park before, during, or after the contest, or that’s at one of the many specialty bars inside the park, or that’s at your seat, calling up a beer from the MLB Ballpark App. Want a beer? You can have a light lager, a macro, a craft, a session ale, a hoppy IPA, a big dark beer if you look hard enough. Or maybe you want a 12-ounce red wine? Maybe rose? Do you want a margarita? We’ve got them. Vodka shots? Sure. There’s a whiskey room by section 121, by the way.

When it comes to alcohol, teams are not looking out for the safety of fans in 2023. They’ve in fact made it far easier to get drunk at the ballpark, and it doesn’t matter how long the game lasts.

Then there’s the driving part of it. Several major league parks aren’t close enough to public transportation (if public transportation is even good in the city), meaning it’s more likely you’re going to drive to the game. Yes, you can share a ride over Uber or Lyft, or you can grab a taxi or ask a friend to drive you, but how many of us do this? At no major league game ever is there a crowd that’s 100 percent making responsible decisions after drinking alcohol. In fact, at no (insert modern-day event here) is there a crowd that’s 100 percent making responsible … you get it.

If teams were serious about preventing drunken driving deaths, about preventing drunken fights, and about preventing simple embarrassments like that time the Cardinals fan was found half-naked and lying down in a Citizens Bank Park bathroom, they would make it far more easier to get to and from a game without a car, they would restrict the accessibility of alcohol at and around the ballpark, and the would limit or eliminate tailgating altogether. But oh man, have I got a truth bomb for you: That ain’t happening.

Look, it’s nice to have a drink at a ballgame. It’s nice to sip a beer and munch on a hot dog. Is it a good idea to have four drinks? Probably not. Is it a good idea to pregame and postgame the game when you know you have to drive home? Nope. As with everything else in the world, it comes down to trusting people make the responsible decision.

Which in 2023 kinda sucks sometimes.

What’s Next?

I’m in favor of teams extending beer sales, mostly because it may save a couple jobs for people who need them. Also because beer culture at the ballpark is hypocritical on its face. Again: make responsible decisions.

I imagine teams will make more adjustments. Hell, it’s possible some teams decide that extending beer sales don’t make a ton of difference. Maybe they’ll opt to add more pregame entertainment and gate-opening options. That way you can save those jobs, you can add more value to the ticket, and you can extend the experience … just before the game begins.

Or maybe Major League Baseball will do something wild and inventive. Stephen Kallao, co-host of the venerable radio program World Cafe Life, has an idea on how to make everyone happy: Create a 10-minute “halftime” stoppage in the middle of the fifth inning, when a game becomes “official” to end at any point. That way fans can hit the concessions and miss less gameplay.

Now, that may really mess with pitchers. It may keep game lengths closer to 3 hours. It may not readjust the rhythm of the game. But hey, since baseball is now doing whatever the hell it wants to change things … let’s go crazy.

One response to “2023: The Advent of Speedball”

  1. Ely Shemer

    loved reading your post.
    That is what I think of it
    Interesting read about the impact of the pitch clock in baseball. It’s great to see the positivity in the reduction of game times, but it’s important to consider the potential negative effects on the pitching and viewing experience. The extended beer sales and potential “halftime” stoppage are creative solutions to adjust to the changing times of baseball.
    Ely Shemer


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