Musings: Baseball, Basketball, And Changing Times

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

BASEBALL, BASKETBALL, AND CHANGING TIMES

The opening of the baseball season this year happened to coincide with the second

weekend of the NCAA basketball tourney, popularly known as the Sweet Sixteen. The

two sports are very different from each other. They both require great athletic skill, but

throwing a large ball through a hoop is very different than hitting a much smaller one

with a bat. Still, both sports compete for the public’s attention - and its money. That’s

why it was so instructive to see the two games go head to head against each other on our

TV sets; to see how they have adapted – or failed to adapt - to changing times.

Admittedly, the college basketball season was headed toward its climax, only the best

teams in the country were still alive, and every game was do-or die, while the baseball

season was just getting under way after a casual spring training in the sun of Florida and

Arizona. The intensity levels were in no way alike.

Neither were the games.

The basketball games were filled with speed and athleticism, the players running on high

octane, while, on the other channel, the baseball games were sleepy by comparison,

pitchers taking seemingly forever between deliveries and long periods were nothing of

importance was taking place.

I’m a baseball guy and always have been, and I don’t pay a lot of attention to college

basketball until the NCAA tourney rolls around, so I stuck with the Red Sox games. But

between innings and during pitching changes I’d switch over to the basketball game and,

if something compelling was going on, and there often was, I’d stay with it until someone

called timeout, even if it meant missing a half-inning or more of baseball.

It got me to thinking that if I were a teenager, with the limited attention span and thirst

for action that’s so prevalent these days, there would be no way that baseball could hold

my attention when pitted against a good basketball game.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the nineteen fifties – the olden days – baseball was the

king, the master of all it surveyed. Basketball was merely an afterthought, a blip on the

radar scale. But some NBA basketball guy came up with an idea, “How about a shot

clock?” The idea of making it mandatory to put up a shot within a prescribed period of

time was revolutionary back then. Teams often passed the ball around the perimeter for

literally minutes at a time before making an offensive move. Not everyone thought the

shot clock was a good move, including me. After all, the Celtics had Bob Cousy, a wizard

with the ball, someone who was capable of dribbling it and keeping it from opposition

hands seemingly forever. But the NBA went ahead and installed the 24 second clock

which not only changed the game, but also it improved it dramatically. As for Cousy, the

new rule made him an even better player, his unrivaled passing skills and his leading of

the revolutionary fast-break offense came to the fore and made everyone forget about

dribbling out the clock.

Basketball became a better game, especially for spectators. The NCAA saw what was

happening and it, too, instituted a shot clock rule, at first for 45 seconds, then, in the

nineteen nineties, lowered to 35, and now it’s set at 30 seconds.

Basketball has not been shy about adapting to the times. Twenty-five years after the shot

clock rule went into effect, the NBA, taking a page from its upstart rival, the ABA,

installed the three-point shot. Again, there was serious opposition to it. It was making a

basic change in the long-established scoring system. But it opened up the game,

unclogged the area under the basket and made basketball a still better product to market.

The NCAA quickly followed suit and installed its own three point line.

Meanwhile, what has baseball done while basketball has made radical changes to speed

up and open up the pace of its game to stay in tune with shortened attention spans and

growing needs for action?

By its nature the most leisurely paced of all major sports, baseball has managed to slow

down its game down even more.

What used to take an average of two and a half hours to play now takes more than three.

And that extra half-hour plus is not time that is filled with exciting action. It’s more

pitching changes, more time between innings for commercial breaks, more time between

pitches, and batters going deeper into pitch counts. There are now more strike outs than

there are base hits in a typical game. None of these things help. Attendance has been

slipping for the past several years, not by a lot, and not in places like Boston, but trending

down, nevertheless.

It’s clear that some changes have to be made. It won’t easy. The players association has

to sign off on any change of substance, and getting people to agree to change is always

difficult. Bryce Harper spoke for a lot of his peers when he told ESPN Magazine that

people coud stay at home if they weren’t satisfied with the product they were getting at

the ballpark. That’s easy for him to say, he’s got a guaranteed $300 million contract in his

back pocket. Even those at the bottom of the payroll at the major league level make more

than half a million dollars a year. Why would they want to put that at risk by instituting

changes?

I love baseball and think it is the best of all games. But I also think it needs some

sprucing up. It used to be the number one sport, well ahead of every other game. It’s now

back in the pack, behind both basketball and football in popularity. Its main competition

used to be boxing, which has fallen even farther than what we all usd to call “the national

pastime.” The heavyweight champion used to be the most famous athlete in the world.

Now most people, including me, couldn’t tell you the name of the current champ.

We can only hope that the grand old game can pull itself up by the bootstraps and find its

way into the twenty-first century.