Baseball needs own no-huddle offense

KEN ROSENTHAL

October 27, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Johnny Oates couldn't say whether Atlanta manager Bobby Cox made the right decision sticking with Charlie Leibrandt in the sixth game of the World Series.

Like so many others on the East Coast, he fell asleep.

The Orioles manager admittedly did not follow the postseason closely, but when the sport can't hold his attention at its most climactic moments, something is terribly wrong.

Twenty years ago, the average time of a Series game was 2 hours, 24 minutes. Ten years ago, it was 2:47. This year, it was 3:05 -- with the final game ending at 12:51 a.m. EDT.

Even on a Saturday night, anyone still awake at that hour is A) feeding a baby; B) working a graveyard shift; or C) falling down in a bar.

A fine demographic sampling, that is.

Baseball games keep getting longer, World Series games keep starting later. The sport not only is losing young fans, but it's also alienating working adults who consider it a major feat when they muster the energy to stay up for Arsenio Hall.

Even without a commissioner, the powers-that-be of major league baseball know they've got a problem. Whether they can solve it is another matter, but the encouraging news is, they're trying.

For starters, major-league executives again are examining ways to shorten games, according to Bill Murray, the game's executive director of baseball operations.

They also are expected to request earlier postseason starting times from the networks in their coming negotiations for a new national television contract.

The networks, of course, are adamant about televising in prime time to maximize their ratings nationally. They'll even sell out to Ross Perot if it produces higher revenue than the pre-game show.

Still, the NFL starts the Super Bowl at 6 p.m., and the NBA dictates tip-off times for its championship round. Why can't baseball follow suit? If poor ratings make day games unrealistic, so be it. But even an 8 p.m. start would be better than 8:30, especially if it means no Pat O'Brien.

That, however, is only half the battle.

In the past 10 years, the length of the average National League game has gone from 2:32 to 2:45, the average American League game from 2:37 to 2:54.

Is that the fault of the networks?

No, it's the fault of the sport.

The major leagues are bad enough, but the problem also exists where the game is played without commercial interruption:

In the minors, where the average nine-inning game this season lasted 2:48, and in international competition, where the Cubans routinely play four hours.

New York Mets executive Frank Cashen grew so disturbed while attending the Olympics, he wrote a letter to former commissioner Fay Vincent. At Vincent's request, Murray met with Cashen, then conducted an informal survey of major-league games.

Using a stopwatch, Murray discovered the obvious -- that hitters caused frequent delays by stepping out of the batter's box. But he also found other ways in which games are lengthened unnecessarily.

Extended pre-game ceremonies delay the first pitch. Songs are played to their completion between innings. Even pitching changes are prolonged by managers training for Hollywood careers.

Murray's survey led to an expanded 40-game analysis that will be presented to major- and minor-league officials at the winter meetings. In the meantime, the sport already is experimenting with potential changes, using young players as guinea pigs in the Arizona Fall League.

The music between innings is cut off at 75 seconds, and the batter is given 15 seconds to get in the box. Following that formula, the average major-league game would save a minute per half-inning, or nearly 20 minutes per game.

The World Series is another story -- the networks are locked into 2 1/2 minutes of commercials every half-inning, so the game is 45 minutes old before it starts. But as Murray put it, "If we can get 20 minutes off with a couple of simple procedures, I would think we can hone it even further."

The proof is in Arizona, where the average game length in the first two weeks was 2:28. Young players are more willing to adjust than veterans, but just as the NFL quickened its games, so can baseball.

It's simple: Order Sam Horn to stay in the box, or eject him.

"We'd all like to be in a position where somebody goes to a night game and can go home and see the highlights on late-night news," Murray said.

The 11 o'clock news, that is.

Not the 2:30 a.m. "SportsCenter."

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