The Minnesota Twins play the fastest games in the American League.
"We do?" asked Joe Mauer, the Twins' catcher, who dictates the pace in nearly all of them.
Yes, and one of the reasons is that the organization teaches its pitchers to work quickly so they establish a rhythm and keep fielders from getting too spacey. Surely, then, they know there's a bylaw – Rule 8.04, right there in the book – dictating how many seconds pitchers are allowed between the time they receive the ball from the catcher and throw it.
"No idea," right-hander Kevin Slowey said. "I'm gonna say … 15."
Sorry. It's 12.
"I thought 15, too," said Brian Bass, another Twins pitcher.
What's a couple seconds here or there? Plenty, according to Major League Baseball, which has adopted the swelling time of games as its latest scourge due for extermination. This, of course, is a running gag. As Mauer said, "Seems like they've been trying to do that for years." And his manager – the man who gets his team on and off the field in around 2 hours, 44 minutes when the major-league average has ballooned to more than 2:51 – goes a bit further.
"It's a joke," Ron Gardenhire said. "It's part of the game. It's what they want. To us, it's a joke, because we play the game. We move it along. I don't know. I can't control what other teams do. We can only control what we do. And to us, it's a joke, because we try to play the game fast."
In the past week, MLB has spoken with managers, general managers, umpires and the in-house organizers of between-innings activities to address the speed of the game.
Commissioner Bud Selig said he thought games were running too long, so he wanted umpires to enforce the 12-second rule and break up mound conferences, batters to move more quickly toward the box and stay in it, pitching coaches to jog toward the mound, pitchers to run in from the bullpen and the Italian Sausage to hurry his saturated fat toward the finish line in the sausage race.
Seriously, the commissioner has to see that the majority of what's slowing the game has nothing to do with the game itself and more with the chicanery that goes on during the downtime.
The two teams inflating the average are, no surprise, the Boston Red Sox (3:06) and New York Yankees (3:03). They are both patient teams that draw plenty of walks, yes, but they also appear more on nationally televised games than any other team, and those games come with 2-minute, 25-second commercials between innings instead of the standard 2-minute, 5-second variety. That's six minutes a game in pure capitalism.
Since Selig wouldn't dare tell his advertisers to bug off the way he's doing the players, the impetus is back on them, as it was after the 2000 season, when the average time had swelled to 2:58, more than 25 minutes longer than 20 years earlier.
Commercialization did its part. So did the evolution of the game. Tony La Russa gifted the world with four-pitching-change innings. The bullpen car died an ignominious death when Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson with a sidecar for the reliever was sent to hog heaven. Nomar Garciaparra taught a generation that OCD was as cool as OBP.
By 2003, MLB had cut about 12 minutes off its peak, and though 2:46 wasn't a walk in the park and was only 6.7 percent faster, it brought the perception of erasing tedium. And that was important. The only reason game length became an issue were the complaints of fans that paralleled long games with humdrum ones.
Actually, bad games are boring. The Red Sox and Yankees play some of the most interesting, important, strategic, fun games every season, and if those last 4 hours, they're treats. This isn't an anecdotal battle, though, and MLB, no matter how many complaints it hears, isn't budging on this issue. It's not discriminating, either. Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan was the first victim, ejected Friday for yelling from the dugout that J.D. Drew should be allowed to add a tacky substance to a new bat after he broke one. Magadan's boot set off Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis and DH David Ortiz, who have both become outspoken about the enforcement of rules.
"If they get on my pitching coach jogging out to the mound, then they'd damn sure better give it to other pitching coaches," Gardenhire said. "Because I've watched a lot of other guys walk out there as slowly as you can walk out there. So you'd better be fair and say it to both people. And I don't care who you're playing, if you get my drift."
His drift is rather easterly.
Whether the Red Sox and Yankees – and Tigers, Dodgers and Mets, Nos. 3-5 – listen to Selig's pronouncements is the question. They're five of seven of the most expensive teams in the game, and the more commercial breaks, the easier it is to pay the electric bill.
Minnesota, meanwhile, continues to breeze along and hope its style rubs off. Some of it is by design. The Twins have issued the fewest walks in the major leagues this season and ranked first or second in that category the last five years. They're not the most patient team offensively, a gang of free swingers. And they appreciate a quick game.
"When a game is over and it was 2 hours, 25 minutes, especially if you win, you come in and go, 'That was nice,' " Gardenhire said. "We don't put a time frame on it when you're out there, unless it's real long, and it's one of those where it's three hours in and only the seventh inning. We get that feeling in the dugout."
Sort of like Tuesday night. Sure, the Twins' game against Kansas City went to 12 innings, but 3 hours, 42 minutes is still 3 hours, 42 minutes. Throughout the game, Minnesota pitchers were blatantly breaking Rule 8.04 – on the 56th pitch, for example, Joey Gathright waited 16 seconds for Nick Blackburn to deliver – and home-plate umpire Tim Timmons didn't say a word.
It was another foul-up. As long as baseball is committed to shortening its games, there will be more. The idea is so big in scope, so difficult in implementation that there are bound to be mountains of faux pas along the way.
Perhaps we'll see a change by the end of the season. And that would be perfect. Just in time for instant replay to slow down the game once again.
- Ron Gardenhire