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Foul Ball

Baseball loses more than it gains with addition of the pitch clock

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If you're a baseball fan (not a sports fan, a baseball fan) imagine trying to explain to your 10-year-old self that you should be happy because Major League Baseball figured out a way to guarantee you could spend less time at the ballpark. You'd give yourself the finger and speed away on your Schwinn (probably with a baseball card shoved in the spokes). The implementation of the pitch clock this year has fundamentally changed for the worse an important aspect of the game.

Baseball has always been part of my life. From the age of 8 until I was 20, I played organized baseball. When I stopped playing, I started to appreciate the game in new ways. As a card-carrying introvert, baseball has given me a way to connect with people. When I moved to Japan for a decade, baseball and ramen were my go-to topics. When I worked as a doorman in Manhattan, whether trying to entertain loitering guests or distract a combative 2 a.m. drunk, I could always count on baseball (or food). More than merely a conversation topic, baseball has served as an escape, a ritual, something familiar that no matter where I am or what's happening, I can always count on. So, when Major League Baseball announced significant rule changes that would dramatically alter key components of the sport, I was apprehensive. Of these new rules, the addition of a pitch clock sounded particularly antithetical. As it turns out, my trepidation was well founded.

The new rule imposes a 30-second countdown between batters and a 15-second interval between pitches (20 seconds with runners on base). Automatic strikes or balls are awarded, depending on whether it's the pitcher or the batter failing to comply. To the casual fan, the addition of these chronological parameters may seem a minor (and perhaps welcome) alteration. To those with a deeper connection to the game, the change is foundational and damaging.

Other sports might match or even surpass baseball for intensity, drama, grace or grit. But none matches the rhythm of baseball. First, baseball, like life, is every day — until it isn't. During the season, professional games are played daily — not a few times a week, not just on weekends. Daily. It's something one can count on, like breakfast or the 12-bar blues: regular, predictable, true and yet there's the underlying potential to surprise and astonish. Secondly, (and here's where the pitch clock comes into play) the rhythm of a baseball game, the ebb and flow of the action, follows the tempo of human life: a stroll in the park, a punch in the nose, waiting in line at the DMV — the rhythm of life is complex and varied. Time flies. Time crawls. That's baseball. Adrenaline and calm, the magical and mundane, the violence of impact and the peace of resolution, millions of chances for heartbreak and a handful of shots at perfect joy. The action, or inaction, on the field dictates one's perception of time.

Until this season, the tempo of an MLB game didn't follow the sweep of a second hand but rather adhered to a delicately calibrated human internal clock set to the length of one ventricular pump. The players, not a clock, set the pace. Yes, games were often long. Baseball didn't work around your life, your schedule, it was up to you to work your life around baseball. In its clockless form, the game may have been exasperating for some, but that's OK! If sports fans want faster, nonstop action, they've got access to everything from basketball to competitive tag. Why not leave something for those who relish the escape from ubiquitous countdowns and the constant reminder of passing time?

I understand that change is universal and that, like everything from skirt lengths to the Bible, baseball has a history of change. The geometry of the playing field has been altered throughout the years, and various rules have been added, abandoned and adjusted over decades, sometimes to the game's improvement, sometimes its detriment. But none of those previous changes has altered the feel of the game as significantly as the pitch clock. Comparatively, those other changes were superficial, corporal, altering only the surface and strategy of the game. Adding a clock changes baseball's soul.

The pitch clock has had the desired effect. Games are completed faster. This will likely lead to MLB's ultimate goal: making baseball more palatable for a larger, more casual viewing audience and thus increasing revenues. But at what cost? Just because something can be made bigger or faster that doesn't mean it should be.

Jason M. Marak (he/him) is a writer, artist and former Humboldt Crab.

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