My first year at the College World Series was the end of an era—the 1998 CWS. The final game was the 21-14 epic that gave Southern California its 12th national championship, at the expense of Arizona State.
The game was the death knell for the minus-5 weight-to-length bat ratio, setting the stage for the bat standards currently used. It was a game that had everything, and I remember sitting on the steps at Rosenblatt, waiting my turn to get on the field once the game ended, and seeing the clock on the scoreboard. I realized the game was close to the four-hour mark, and wound up coming in at a record 3 hours 59 minutes.
In other words, that game that had eight pitching changes, a triple steal, nine home runs, 39 combined hits and 35 runs, took just 19 minutes more to play than the average CWS game in 2009.
There’s no positive spin for the sport on that fact. The time of game of the ’09 Series averaged 3 hours 40 minutes. Honestly, that’s about an hour longer than a game should take.
I know the last four years, when I’ve gone to the CWS for the opening weekend and then come back to North Carolina for the rest of the Series, it gets harder and harder to watch the games on TV. Part of that is the impossibility of getting a Zesto’s shake delivered to my house in North Carolina, but part of it is the slow pace of play and the commitment of nearly four hours to watch the game.
The length didn’t seem to bother many television viewers, though. Thanks to the presence of two of the best brand names in college sports, Louisiana State and Texas, the CWS was the most viewed and highest rated in ESPN’s history of the event. The CWS Finals were especially attractive, averaging more than 2 million viewers, up about 25 percent over 2008.
That’s despite the plodding pace of games leading up to the Finals. Talking to coaches, scouts and college baseball fans since Omaha ended, the consensus on the reasons for the longer games seem to focus on:
• Television breaks between innings. National writer Aaron Fitt timed some breaks between innings at 3 minutes 20 seconds. Frankly, I’d rather see ads on the outfield wall—or even on the uniforms, which already have Nike, Russell Athletic and Adidas ads on them in practicality—to make up for the revenue that would be lost to shorter commercial breaks.
The long between-inning breaks also contribute to sloppy play early in the Series, when players haven’t adjusted to the slower game pace yet. The NCAA should do all it can to put its best product on the field in Omaha, but the long commercial breaks hinder that effort.
• Meetings. College baseball coaches like them. They meet with pitchers, they call (or “suggest”) pitches, and they meet with infielders to go over bunt defenses. They meet with hitters to discuss an at-bat. They like to meet. Scouts actually have talked about how this is creeping into the pro game, but that has little effect on the college side.
The unifying factor is, coaches like control. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s gotten a bit out of control at the college level when catchers have to wear wristbands, like a quarterback calling plays, to decipher signs for calling pitches or setting up a defense. Some college catchers go through so many signals that they look like they’re doing Peyton Manning impersonations.
• Time between pitches. At the Tournament of Stars at USA Baseball’s National Training Center, I ran into several college coaches and was engaged in some small talk with Nebraska’s Mike Anderson. I poked fun at myself for missing a couple of pitches during the game, and coach Anderson said he did the same thing. We agreed we were used to a slower pace between pitches during college games, compared to the high school level.
Pitchers take their time. Hitters step out of the box and take practice swings. Umpires, who have enough to worry about already, let it happen.
The NBC World Series has used a 20-second pitch clock for years—a ball is called if a pitcher takes too long, a strike called for a lollygagging hitter—and the Missouri Valley Conference has dabbled with the clock as well. It has been mentioned in recent years as a possibility as a national experiment, and it takes a deal like this—games this long, consistently, for two weeks in Omaha—to get a change like that to happen.
Baseball often is praised for the fact that it’s the only major sport that doesn’t have a clock. However long it takes to get 27 outs is how long it should take. But it’s 2009. Baseball is entertainment, even at the college level—at least it is when the game’s on TV. To keep the sport relevant and growing, the sport needs to get a handle on long games played at a snail’s pace. It will take more than one change to shave an average of an hour off every game in Omaha, but a pitch clock would help.
It would be better if college baseball could work out the problem without having to institute a clock. But it looks like that’s what it’s going to take to get things moving.