Why Criticism of Baseball’s New Clock Misses the Point

As part of the time-saving measures baseball is implementing this year—which, by the way, seem to be working—there will be countdown clocks in all major league stadiums, giving players 2:25 from the end of each inning to begin the next. The clocks are only going to operate between innings, but Joe Posnanski, in a piece railing against the idea, says it won’t stop there:

Soon there will be clocks to make sure pitchers don’t dawdle, clocks timing relief pitcher changes, clocks timing managers trek to the mound, clocks to make sure that home run hitters get around the bases. That might sound crazy, but here’s the thing you already know from your own life: You let clocks into your life and they take over.

Posnanski is one of my favorite baseball writers, so I feel bad that my first two mentions of him on this blog have been to rake him across the coals a little bit (I talked about his Pete Rose take too). But it really depresses me when arguments about rules simply beg the question, à la “there’s no tying in baseball.” Posnanski’s argument is that the new clock is bad because it’s a clock, a tautology that completely overlooks the actual function of the new clock, as opposed to the ones he talks about in other sports: to Posnanski, a clock is a clock is a clock, and all of them represent “the tyranny of time”: “You don’t wear a watch to the beach. You don’t put a clock at a baseball game.”

Well, if we’re going to be that literal about it, ballparks have had clocks for a century now. Here’s a prominent one at Wrigley Field:

Forgive me. But you see the point: it’s not the presence of a clock that’s the problem. It’s the effect it has on gameplay. The clock Posnanski is incensed about has no effect on gameplay, because it only operates between innings; it won’t even be seen by the TV audience because by definition it runs while the cameras are not rolling. A fan watching basketball has to keep an eye on the shot clock and the game clock, because they’re both important to understanding how the game is going, but if a fan at the ballpark can’t tear his or her eyes away from the between-innings clock, I think that’s their own neurosis, not something baseball is doing wrong.

Posnanski’s piece is a classic example of thinking that the rules are the same as the game. Someone, I want to say it was Bill James, talked about this, but I can’t find it…at any rate, only a tiny percentage of the changes to the game of baseball in past decades have been caused by or reflected in rules changes. There’s nothing traditional, or relaxing, about lengthy breaks between innings, but since they’re not reflected in a rules change, they escape Posnanski’s ire. (Which is a more likely slippery slope: the between-innings clock leading to a home run trot clock, or a three-minute delay between innings stretching to three-and-a-half minute delay?) For that matter, the time between innings at ballparks today isn’t just spent contemplating the patterns cut into the grass and the timeless symmetry of the diamond; it’s spent (at least at some stadiums) watching full-volume TV commercials broadcast on the HD scoreboard. So what is being defended against the intrusion of a clock?

Even the clocks that Posnanski sees coming down the slippery slope—clocking the pitcher’s delivery, the manager’s trip to the mound, etc.—are different from the game clocks in other sports. The manager’s trip to the mound, the home run trot…these are breaks in the action, they’re not the action itself. As for the pitcher’s delivery—which is on the table; a pitcher clock has been suggested for the major leagues and was tried out in the Arizona Fall League this past year—this is where people who want shorter games but don’t want a clock are going to face a reckoning. Because when Posnanski, as an alternative to clocks, advocates “having umpires enforce rules already on the books,” he almost certainly is thinking of the rule that pitchers must deliver the ball within 12 seconds of receiving it. And how is the umpire meant to enforce that rule—by counting “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi”? No, presumably he would have a stopwatch to know when the pitcher had definitively broken the time-limit. Yes, that particular clock would be out of the view of the crowd, but unlike the between-innings clock it would actually affect gameplay. So why is this attention to time acceptable to Posnanski, where adding a prominent clock isn’t? Because, again, he is emphasizing the violation of superficial tradition (no visible countdown clocks) over the violation of how the game used to be played, and should be played.

Like it or not, for umpires to make games shorter, they need to figure out how long the games are taking in the first place. And that means we’re going to have to accept clocks somewhere in the process. It’s in our interest to figure out where and how they can be most inobtrusively implemented, rather than just tilting against the whole concept of chronography.

Image credit: Clock by Christina B Castro is distributed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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2 thoughts on “Why Criticism of Baseball’s New Clock Misses the Point

  1. Pingback: The Hidden Harm of the Designated Hitter | The Spiel

  2. Pingback: Once and For All, is Baseball Boring? | The Spiel

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