On June 13th, 1973, my father took me to Jarry Park to see game two of a three game Expos home stand against the San Diego Padres. It was my first baseball game.  I know the date, because one of the two things I remember from that game is a triple play, and my father explaining to me how rare and amazing it was. According to the online Baseball Almanac, it was the 534th triple play in Major League Baseball history, and one of four in 1973. The Almanac tells me the Expos won that game 3-2, which I don’t remember. I’ll blame my very sketchy and episodic memory of that day on the fact that I was four years old.

The second thing I remember from that game is that I was very confused when several convertible Corvette Stingrays started driving around the field, most likely at the 7th inning stretch. I knew the car because my neighbour Tony’s father had one. There were models in fur coats sitting on the back decks of these particular ones. My father told me it was some kind of charity event. I took his word for it, and I remember being concerned that it meant the game was over now. He reassured me that it wasn’t.

It seems that even back then, I was a fan of low-scoring, defensive baseball, which if you listen to some, was all that was on display in the late 60s and early 70s, and if you listen to others, has made an unfortunate comeback as of late. They claim it’s boring. One thing I definitely don’t remember from that first baseball game though, is being bored.

The event that cemented my appreciation of pitching duels, defensive baseball, and low-scoring games, however, was the 1981 Expos-Phillies National League Division Series. Now an older and wiser twelve year old, I was allowed for the occasion, and as an extraordinary measure, to put our small black and white spare television set in my bedroom. I watched in awe as Steve Rogers of the Expos and Steve Carleton of the Phillies went toe to toe in games 1 and 5, which ended in Expos victories of 3-1 and 3-0 respectively.

Now, forty years later, after the occasionally performance enhanced offensive baseball of 90s and 00s, the game is back in a low-scoring, defensive mode, and some people think it has a boredom problem again. So much so that Major League Baseball has been experimenting with some fairly radical rules changes in out of the way markets. They worry that the games are too long. The recent average duration of a game has gone from about two and half hours to over three. They worry that there isn’t enough hitting and run scoring to keep the game interesting for fans. The 2021 season, it is said, has the worst hitting and scoring since 1968, the so-called year of the pitcher, after which the mound was lowered five inches in retaliation for offenses against fun. Some say it takes too long between exciting plays on the field.

Even the venerable George F. Will, whose baseball infused conservative political columns in Newsweek infuriated me as a progressive teenager, has been talking about necessary changes to keep the audiences interested. Of course, in the hallowed halls of baseball, any talk of tinkering with rules brings up the delicate question of tradition. Tradition is not to be messed with.  Who are we, after all, to change what is and what should be?  

The surface question is whether a new or modified rule is real baseball. Which begs the core question: what is real baseball? What, if anything, is traditional in baseball? The only point of broad agreement on that so far seems to be that starting an inning with a runner at second base, as was done during the pandemic in extra innings, is definitely not real baseball.

Like most things that we think of and value as traditional, baseball has a long, rich, and recent history of rapid change, mostly in reaction to anxiety about whether it is boring. In fact, the only two things that may be traditional and essential in baseball, are worrying about whether it is exciting enough for the fans, and tinkering with the rules to make it less boring.

In the early days, it was actually felt that there was too much action on the field, rather than too little. Pitchers, who initially had to deliver the ball underhand, with a stiff arm, were initially freed to bend the elbow, then to snap the wrist, and eventually to throw overhand. Ever since then, so for over a century, the rules have been trying to contain their supposed dominance.

Admittedly, if you ask a hitter, the pitcher always has an unfair advantage. Since most players are hitters and not pitchers then, the pitchers are periodically moved back from the plate to give the batters more time to see the pitch, restricted to the rubber rather than to a box, and allowed four balls instead of the nine they once had to work with, for example. The strike zone has been shrunk, the mound has been lowered, and the balls made livelier, all in the pursuit of excitement, and each one of these numerous and rapid changes is apparently more incompatible than the last with time-honoured, long-standing baseball tradition.

I must confess that I don’t know what the fuss is about. The latest version of the argument goes that the moneyball approach, which emphasizes home runs, strikeouts, and playing the odds, has ruined baseball by taking all the action, dynamics, and fun out of it. It seems where there was flow to the traditional game, there is stasis in the modern version.

Contemporary baseball has allegedly become clinical, slow, and boring. No longer is there room for the old-fashioned game of singles, sacrifices, and advancing the runner in a continuous, action-packed stream of hits and runs. Now it is all-or-nothing attempted slugging, and the occasional home run punctuating hours of fielders just standing around in the shift, while a procession of batters strike out one after another.

Slow I will grant. The again, what other sport can you watch while grading 60 papers and not miss a thing? But I will agree that two and a half hour game is just right, as long as the duration is organic, and not tied to a clock. I have to also point out that if playing the odds is not traditional baseball, then I don’t know what is. As for clinical, isn’t baseball the sport in which spectators traditionally used to get a stats sheet at the gate, and sat in the stands filling it out even as the game progressed? You don’t see that much anymore (at all?), but it certainly suggests that the traditional game was slow enough that people had time to fill out a stats sheet during the game, and clinical enough that they cared to.

But I draw the line at boring. In fact, I think the old-fashioned baseball, the humble baseball of singles and sacrifices, as the commentators have started calling it, is far from dead. Take the 2018 World Series, for example. The Red Sox won precisely because they were playing that brand of traditional humble baseball, taking care of the little things, while the Dodgers were swinging for the fences every at-bat and playing the kind of all-or-nothing baseball that got them to the Series over a season, but got them nowhere once they were in it. By 2020, they had learned their lesson and won much more humbly than they had lost in 2018.

I am not sure too many baseball fans will complain about this years NLDS game 5 between the Dodgers and the Giants, for instance, which produced a combined total of three runs, and was tied at 0-0 until the sixth, and 1-1 until the ninth. It was tense. If someone wants to describe that game as boring, email me and we can discuss it.

It’s just unfortunate that the game and the series ended on a controversial check-swing strike. But then, one of the latest proposed rules changes, the robo-ump, might just solve that problem for us. Or are robots too clinical for traditional baseball? Don’t they remove the human factor that keeps the traditional game alive? Time and tradition will tell.

2 thoughts on “October seasonal post: In praise of slow Baseball and its traditional boredom problem

  1. Great column. In our house we are big fans of the pitchers’ duels, and not fans of the many rule changes meant to “improve” or “speed up” the game. You said, “Some say it takes too long between exciting plays on the field.” That’s OK with me – because it makes the inevitable, eventual exciting play even more exciting! If you want non-stop, fast-paced “exciting” action, watch box lacrosse or something. Anyway, you did not specifically call out the reliance on analytics in today’s game, but perhaps this is one of the things you were pointing out with the word “clinical.” Either way, good to know there are other fans who handle a sport where brains get used, along with (occasional) brawn.


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