2018 College World Series Opener Too Much Of A Good Thing
OMAHA, Neb.—Oregon State and North Carolina played a College World Series opener that had a little of everything. Both starting pitchers were knocked out by the third inning. There were plenty of hits, plenty of runs, great defensive plays and awful ones. It was a Game 1 that was back and forth and was in doubt until the final out.
But the game started at 2:06 p.m. and ended at 6:30 p.m.
Trevor Larnach looked great at the plate. Zack Gahagan made the best of a number of highlight-caliber defensive plays. If you cut it up into a highlight reel, it made for a thrilling display.
But taken as a whole, the game took way too long.
“Four and a half hours is too long to be on the field,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said.
Now let me preempt you, loyal baseball fan. I’ve heard you before. You don’t care if the game takes three hours, four hours or five hours. Bring it on! It just gives you more time to enjoy the game and to prove your value as a true baseball fan. Merely mentioning that a game ran long proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don’t love baseball.
But here’s the problem, diehard baseball nut. As much as we at Baseball America love you and we really do (there are not a lot of non-baseball fans among our readership), it’s not just about you.
If you’re a Tar Heel or a Beaver, I expect you settled in and enjoyed all 264 minutes on Saturday afternoon—yes, the Tar Heels fans enjoyed it more. If you’re a big-time college baseball fan with no rooting interest, you may have done the same. A baseball fan who follows college baseball relatively regularly may have checked in every few innings to see what’s happening or had the game on in the background.
But for just the casual sports fan, a game that requires more than four hours of attention is a non-starter. If they checked in two hours into the game and discovered it was still in the third inning, there is no chance that they stuck around.
And even among the diehards, there are limits. Fans who make the trek to Omaha to attend the College World Series fit in the hard-core fan category. They are the ones willing to travel to experience one of the best baseball events around.
Omaha in mid-June can get quite warm. On Saturday the heat index reached 103 degrees. A robust and loud crowd melted in the heat. The bleachers were nearly full at the start of the game. By the seventh inning, even with the game very much in doubt, many had headed for the exits. By that point, the game was nearing its fourth hour.
Oregon State came up in the bottom of the ninth needing one baserunner to bring the tying run to the plate. By that point, the outfield bleachers were nearly empty.
If baseball was a sport that never needed to add another fan, the argument of die-hard fans would be all that matters. But it’s not. Every entertainment product is constantly trying to attract new fans to keep the sport relevant (and to ensure that dying fans are replaced). Fail to do that and you become boxing or horse racing.
There is a lot of talk about pace of play. And the pace on Saturday afternoon was less than ideal. The game averaged one pitch every 46 seconds.
But on Saturday, we had a length of game problem combined with a pace of play problem. A whole lot happened in this game. There were 14 runs, 24 hits, eight walks, six hit-by-pitches, three errors and few innings when someone wasn’t threatening to score.
Even an entertaining game can run too long, and this one exceeded the length of a good Netflix binge session. Yes, baseball is a sport. And for the players and coaches on the field, winning is understandably way more important than making sure the game wraps up quickly.
“I get it that was a long game, but it wasn’t long for me,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “It wasn’t long for me. They're not long for coaches or players. I know sometimes it's agonizing for other people to watch because it's like, 'Really, we're in the third inning and we've played two hours already.' So it is what it is, but we’re not trying to drag it out by design.”
But baseball is also an entertainment product. Movie producers know that there movies need to generally last no longer than two and a half hours, because audiences balk at three-plus hour movie lengths. Prime time for television lasts three hours a night.
Basketball has worked hard to ensure that its games take two and a half hours or less. Professional football works to get its games wrapped up in around three hours so that they can move on to the second game of their doubleheaders. College softball is usually finished within two and a half hours. The World Cup soccer game between Croatia and Nigeria that began at around the same time ended about when Oregon State and North Carolina were headed to the fourth inning. Only college football has a time-of-game problem that rivals college baseball.
There are a multitude of reasons for that. These games matter, and as such, coaches understandably are going to do everything they can to ensure that they cover each and every possibility. Pitches are called from the dugout. Defenses are aligned and if there is any possibility of confusion, a quick meeting is called to sort it out.
“I just think coaches are a little bit too involved,” Ray Tanner, Division I baseball committee chairman and former South Carolina coach said Friday in a conversation about the state of the college game. “It’s probably unfair to the pitching side of it, but I think it slowed the game down a lot . . ."
Not every game here in Omaha is going to take more than four hours. But everyone involved in college baseball knows that games are pushing the four-hour mark much too often. The problem is that there are no easy ways to get games back to less than three hours.
And for the health of the sport, that's where we eventually need to be.