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Breathing old life into baseball

The stories are everywhere: baseball's a dying game. American kids don't play it anymore, and the hard-core fans like me are on Social Security. L.A.'s Mike Trout is the best player around, but he could walk down the street almost anywhere and not be recognized. And on and on.

Well, I remember folks in the early 1960s saying that baseball was a goner, and the game's done pretty well since then.

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Baseball is no longer the dominant sport in the country, of course, nor is it the national pastime (staring at electronic devices is). But when the average big leaguer is making $4 million a year and the value of major league franchises keeps going up, reports of baseball's demise must be exaggerated. Minor league baseball is booming. Baseball's still a great sport.

Having said that, however, I admit that one criticism is right on. As it's now played, baseball is too slow. Yes, it's the summer game, and nobody expects constant action when the temperature is 95 degrees in Baltimore. But the average ballgame in 1954, when the Browns became the Orioles, was two-and-a-half hours, and many games were played in about two hours. Despite efforts by Major League Baseball, games now often take three hours or more. Expand the time without increasing the action, and what should be scintillating can turn into a yawner.

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And, if anything, the action has been contracting. A strikeout in a key situation is exciting, but when strikeouts are routine, as they now are, the game suffers. Pitcher and catcher play catch, while everyone else watches.

None of this has to be the case. To make the sport more attractive, we don't need to bring it into the 21st century. We should instead take it back to what it was.

Mostly that means reducing playing time. Enforce a pitch clock (15 seconds, say) when no one's on base; pitchers who can't adjust can find another livelihood.

Further shorten the time between innings; no one without urological problems needs seventeen lengthy bathroom breaks in a three-hour period. The argument that TV and radio demand the extra time for commercials is nonsense. If speeding up the game would boost ratings, and it would, the game would be more attractive to broadcasters. It's better for their bottom lines to air a few, high-priced commercials than to run ad after ad for Veg-o-Matics.

Control on-field meetings. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has noted that conferences on the mound, which are about as exciting as Latin grammar, are effectively time-outs. Other sports limit the number a team can take; baseball should, too.

Reduce pitching changes. This is a biggie. Changing pitchers can be exciting in a tense, crucial game — think of Mariano Rivera jogging in from the bullpen — but most games aren't crucial. Baseball would be better without "specialists" — pitchers expected to face one hitter, to be replaced by another specialist. And then another. During endless pitching changes in a typical game, nothing happens. And the athletic ability involved in pitching to one batter is about what's required in hot-dog eating contests.

Years ago Tony Kubek suggested that a major league team's roster should have at most eight or nine pitchers, as was true in the 1950s; the norm now is 12-13 pitchers on a staff. With fewer pitchers available, pitching changes would be reduced. Starters and long relievers would have to pace themselves, as they used to. That would mean fewer strikeouts and more balls put into play. More action! That's all to the good.

That particular change probably isn't going to happen, but here's a first step: Require that any pitcher face at least three hitters. If a manager wants to bring in a lefty to pitch to a left-handed slugger, fine, but that guy is then going to have to pitch to the right-handed hitters who follow. With that rule in place, a manager might not make a change at all. At a minimum, the parade of relievers would be shortened, and a lot of dead time eliminated.

Changes like these would get baseball closer to what it was in the old days — and there's nothing finer.

Erik M. Jensen is the Coleman P. Burke Emeritus Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University; his email is emj@case.edu.

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