Every year I look forward to watching Louisville’s Triple-A baseball team, the Bats, play in one of the nicest ballparks in the minor leagues, Slugger Field. It was built in 1998 amid a resurgence in designing ballparks to look more like they did during the golden age of baseball in the mid-twentieth century. However, on a spring day three years ago, I noticed something had changed. Over the center-field wall was a pitch clock, which reset after every pitch and gave the pitcher only a limited period of time to throw the ball.
The pitch clock over the center-field wall at Slugger Field bothered me because, of all the major sports in North America, only baseball is (or, rather, was) untimed. Baseball has the eternal built into it, from the circular nature of each player’s voyage around the base paths to its refusal to have the game limited by the constraints of time, and the pitch clock introduced something alien to the game, like a virus that couldn’t but compromise the health of something that was otherwise healthy and beautiful.
Baseball introduced the pitch clock to the minor leagues in 2015 in response to concerns that the average American finds baseball slow and boring. Since he took over as the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred has displayed an almost obsessive concern over baseball’s “pace-of-play” problem, arguing that the games are taking too long to play and that there are too many breaks in the action. In February he said that his concerns about the game’s pace are rooted in fans perceiving the game as slow. “Pace of game is a fan issue,” he said. “Our research tells us that it’s a fan issue. Our broadcast partners tell us it’s a fan issue.”
Major League Baseball has made more changes for the 2018 season, which begins on Thursday. There will now be a limit on the number of visits to the pitcher’s mound by players and managers, and in the minor leagues, pitchers will have only fifteen seconds to begin pitching the ball, instead of twenty. The pitch clocks aren’t going away.
The commissioner isn’t wrong to have concerns about baseball’s popularity. According to a recent Gallup poll, baseball is less popular than it ever has been, with only 9 percent of Americans saying it is their favorite sport to watch, in comparison to the 37 percent of Americans who list football as their favorite. Most troubling of all is that baseball’s fan base is aging. While baseball is the second-most popular sport among fans fifty-five years old and older, it is the least popular sport among those 18-54 years of age, behind football, basketball, and soccer. Older fans are not being replaced by younger ones.