Baseball and the American Attention Span

The powers that be are tinkering with baseball again. In the minor leagues, new rules are being testing including:

  • Increasing the size of the infield bases.
  • Limiting the number of pick-off attempts a pitcher can make.
  • Requiring infielders to stay in the infield and always have two on each side.
  • Introducing robotic umpires for calling balls and strikes.

Each of these changes is being made with the explicit goal of speeding up the pace of the game.

Apparently, the game is too slow for the average fan and not fast enough to encourage new fans to take to the game. As my brother pointed out to me, this has impacts that go all the way down to the five year-old who wants to play a sport. They are selecting sports other than baseball because of the slow pace of play.

I don’t want to be in the position of grumpy old man, complaining about how terrible all of these changes are because they mess with what is otherwise what I consider to be a perfect game in terms of the mechanics of play. I understand that, like all things, baseball has to evolve. That has been part of its history, from the dead-ball era, into more lively play, there have been changes that have happened that fundamentally change the game in different ways. Raising or lowering of the pitching mound; how the ball is designed; artificial turf; night games; designated hitter rules.

Perhaps the worst change baseball has had to endure, until was, was the influence of money in the game, but the reserve clause made that inevitable.

Today, money is a big driver, but something else, more insidious is lurking in the background of all of these changes: the shortening of American’s attention spans. Why else would there be such pressure to change if not for the need to keep people watching the game? And why are people not watching as much? Because they find the game boring?

Baseball is anything but a boring game. It is like a ballet and a game of chess wrapped into one. The core set of rules allow room for the game play to evolve. Hitters learn to pull the ball, and fielders learn to counter that with a shift. Hitters get much better at waiting for their pitch, and more pitchers are used during a game to come at batters with more consistent accuracy and speed. Watching the game unfold is like watching a work of art come together. Tweaking the rules unbalance this and have the risk of making the game less elegant than it is today.

People didn’t always complain about the slow play of baseball. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that seems to parallel our decreasing attention spans. It seems to me that the Internet has some responsibility here. Our interactions online, the way information, and products are delivered almost instantly have altered our perceptions of what is slow-paced and what is fast-paces.

When looking at the stats of baseball, you see that game length has crept up by minutes. In 2020, the average length of a baseball game was 3 hours 7 minutes. In 2010, it was 2 hours 54 minutes. That means the length of a game went up by 13 minutes over a ten year period. Are people really complaining about an extra 13 average increase over the last 10 years?

In 1993, the year before the Internet really opened up to people, the average length of a baseball game was also 2:54. Ten years before that it was 2:40.

The length of a baseball game really hasn’t changed much, but how our attention has. This is why most movies and many TV shows today require lots of explosions. It is why they begin with a dramatic event and then flash the words “24 hours earlier…” on the screen. Like baseball, they are looking for ways to hold on to our ever diminishing attention.

It is a shame, really. Baseball is a game for lazy summer afternoon. The pace is ideal for radio. It is a game that is fun to watch, but often even better to imagine, listening to voices like Vin Scully or Mel Allen or Harry Caray paint a picture of the game in your mind. It is not supposed to be a fast-paced game, although it can be when the right conditions take place.

My fear is not so much that the rule changes will throw the game off balance. Baseball has always found ways of evolving its play to changing rules. No, my fear is that our attention spans are continuing to decrease and that next year, a pace of say, 2 hours 50 minutes will seem to slow. Then 2:30 minutes, then 2 hours. Where does it end? Maybe the right answer is not to broadcast baseball on television at all, but instead, to go back to radio, and listen to a new generation of voices paint pictures of the game in our minds.


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