Saturday, August 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Roger Kahn, on Baseball Talk and Action)

“No game is as verbal as baseball; baseball spreads twenty minutes of action across three hours of a day.”—American sportswriter Roger Kahn (1927-2020), The Boys of Summer (1972)

A half century ago, Kahn was being generous in gauging the length of time of a baseball game. From about 1950 to 1980, the average length of professional games that did not go to extra innings actually ran about 2½ hours, according to the Web site

Then, the deluge, with the increasing importance of designated hitter and the rise of pitching specialists—not just starters and reliever, but now starters, openers, multiple mid-inning specialists, and closers.

The DH meant that, from top to bottom of the batting order, a pitcher could never relax. Managers, obsessed with pitch counts and favorable lefty-righty matchups, couldn’t resist making changes. And every time that happened, a two-minute commercial break—complementing the 17 similar breaks that occur during inning changes—took place.

As of June 6 this year, the average baseball game now runs to 3 hours and eight minutes.

Baseball has found all sorts of other ways to drag out action—like batters stepping away from the plate, fidgeting and doing all they could to disrupt pitchers’ rhythms. Pitchers have been encouraged to waste pitches while they were ahead in the count, only to miss when they wanted subsequent ones to be strikes, walking batters—with the next guy stepping up to the plate prolonging the agony by getting on base.

During games, there are on-field conversations that viewers might want to hear but can’t—like when a catcher banters with a batter, a batter gets to first base, or a mound summit (such as the hilarious one from Bull Durham in the attached image) considers what to do with the runner on and a dangerous hitter coming up. 

Then there are the words that can be all too readily guessed at, such as when a player or coach at the bad end of a call vents in no uncertain terms to an umpire about his eyesight, canine lineage or both.

Sometimes changes in strategy have compelled shifts in vocabulary. Statheads, skeptical about the effects of the stolen base, are doing their best to turn it into a dinosaur. On the other hand, medical acronyms have come to dominate on-air talk: ILs, ACLs, PEDs and COVID-19.

You will notice that how much of this talk occurs on the air, to fill up the time between action. But baseball aficionados are also, God help them, excreting more and more pre- and post-game chatter.

Sports talk-radio shows now function as a form of what Bob Dylan called, in a different context, an “Idiot Wind,” what hosts and listeners, assessing their teams’ losing streaks, competing for the title of MMME (Most Merciless Manager Executioner).

Maybe the only force that will compel baseball to compress all that surrounds what Kahn calls the “twenty minutes of action” is climate change. The way that things are going, there won’t be enough Gatorade to replace all the moisture players lose out in the field on days that have never been so hazy, hot and humid, with even night games providing less relief than before.

When that realization hits home, maybe the Lords of Baseball will finally understand that action counts but talk—at least, how they engage in it today—is cheap.

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