When Bud Selig, baseball's long-serving commissioner, visited Oakland recently, he took the opportunity to bemoan the A's inadequate stadium and also to worry aloud about a topic that seems to loom large in the minds of many baseball people these days, namely, the increasingly slow pace of the game.
Indeed, the game has gotten slower over time.
A game today lasts, on average, more than 30 minutes longer than it did 30 years ago. I suspect the big culprit here is longer commercial breaks (between 30 and 40 minutes of a baseball game broadcast — the recent institution of instant replay may be a contributing factor). But the target of concern, as is so often the case, is the little guy — in this case, the players themselves. They're just playing too slowly, it is complained. Too much time elapses between pitches. Too many timeouts to adjust equipment or clothes.
Selig, in my opinion, is wrong on both counts. The A's have a great stadium. And baseball doesn't move too slowly.
As for the pace of the game, I am a bit surprised that MLB is concerned about this at all. Revenues are up, TV viewing is up, there are more teams than ever, and most of them are very rich. If you measure the sport's vitality in business terms, baseball, it would seem, has never been better. And if you visit the ballpark to watch a game, it's immediately clear that today's live baseball experience positively thrives on interruptions to the play. That's when you get to spend your money.
What exactly is the problem?
Don't say: "The game is too slow; it's getting boring."
As anyone who knows and loves baseball will tell you, baseball is boring. This is nothing new. Even at its most lively best, baseball is a game that unfolds at a walking pace, or at the pace of a relaxed conversation. When compared to the unstopping swarm dynamic of soccer or hockey, or the hustle and dance of basketball, baseball hardly even seems like a sport at all.
And this is what the great many of us who love baseball love about it. Baseball games aren't just long. There's no way of knowing how long they might be. A baseball game, like a good conversation, or a friendship, or a political controversy, has no fixed end. It takes however long it takes. As Selig observed, baseball is a game without a clock. And that's a good thing.
Selig also questions whether this kind of unstructured, open time is palatable in today's fast-paced world.
I say: God save us from today's ramped up, multi-interrupted, selfie-consumed, fast-paced world! We need to slow down. We need to turn off. We need to unplug. We need to start things and not know when they are going to end. We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent outside of real time.
What's so bad about being bored?
I found myself at a table with Europeans the other night. Inevitably, the topic turned to the relative merits of baseball and what they call "football." I had to restrain myself from expressing my irritation. It isn't that there isn't a boatload to be said about how these sports differ from each other. And it is certainly true that we love our sports and may find ourselves actively disliking the sports of others. For example, I admit that I found myself wanting to turn off the World Cup once they moved from flopping around on the floor in throes of pretend agony to actually biting each other.
But the thing is, arguing about sports is like arguing about foods. We like what we grew up with; kids around the world aren't soccer fans because, after having surveyed the world's sports, they chose soccer. And the same goes for Americans and baseball. We don't like our sports because they're great. They are great because we like them. Or, maybe, loving a sport — coming to understand it — lets you see the greatness that otherwise goes unwitnessed.
As for Selig's judgment on the A's stadium, I agree it's an old concrete and steel throwback to another era. True, there are no roller coasters, or hot tubs, or extensive gourmet food offerings. And yes, you can see the faded paint of the Raiders' gridiron running across the A's diamond.
But O.co field is a fabulous place to watch baseball. It may not be a top-of-the-line shopping mall and entertainment center, but it is a spacious, open, cathedral of baseball. It is a place where baseball happens and where you just may find, if you are lucky, that you have the opportunity to relax and get bored.