Eric Gerber loves baseball. But too many of the countless hours he has spent watching baseball didn’t actually contain any baseball.
The pitcher gets the ball, walks around the mound, toes the rubber, peers at the catcher’s signs. He considers throwing a pitch but thinks better of it. He steps off the mound, dilly-dallies. Fans check Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. The grass on the infield grows. Meanwhile, he still hasn’t pitched the damn ball.
This has been an all-too-common experience for Gerber, a professor at Northeastern University who turned his love of sports into a career teaching statistics. The longtime Chicago White Sox fan would sit on his couch, hoping for the double-stitched nightmare of inactivity to end. When it finally, mercifully did, he couldn’t help but ask himself: “What was the point of these 15 seconds of my life?”
Gerber voices a complaint that has plagued baseball for years: The delays between action have become maddening, and even when there is action, it ain’t all that great.
So this spring, Major League Baseball has added rules to change the pace of the game and possibly the game itself. Bases are three inches bigger. Pitchers are now on a pitch clock, their pickoff attempts limited. Defensive shifts are banned: Infielders must stay in the infield dirt, with two on each side of second base.
And it’s not just baseball that’s trying to speed things up. Across sports, over the past decade or two, governing bodies have fiddled with rules to make their contests faster, or more exciting or both. In hockey, the NHL got rid of the two-line-pass penalty, decreased the size of goalie pads, and introduced 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts. In golf’s PGA tour, slow players are put on a shot clock — a term that exists because the NBA invented it in 1954 to prevent basketball teams from stalling.
College basketball’s shot clock debuted in 1985 at 45 seconds and has been cut twice since then. Now, it’s 30 seconds, and there’s talk about dropping it to 24, just like the NBA and international leagues.
Even NASCAR has its version of a shot clock: Teams have seven minutes to repair crashed cars. If they don’t reach a minimum speed by then, they’re dropped from the race.
In seemingly every sport, our eyes are fixated on the clock, and in this, sports reflect society. We’re in a hurry all the time about everything; even in our leisure we rush-rush-rush, until it’s on to the next thing, which takes too long, too. Baseball is the national pastime, and we are demanding it pass less time.
But what if the clock is lying to us?
What if what we think about time and how we experience it are wrong?
In 2017, Gerber, whose dissertation predicted how Japanese players would fare in the U.S. major leagues, analyzed how time is spent in a typical baseball game. From first pitch to final out, he says, MLB games in 2017 took an average of 3 hours and 9 minutes. Of that, 48 minutes of a baseball TV broadcast was commercials. Two hours and 5 minutes was down time, spent between pitches or during calls to the dugout or while players were getting into position. Only 16 minutes was action time — when players were actually playing and the ball was in motion.
Two years ago, ESPN writers conducted a similar analysis of the time of action in several sports. They found more action in baseball than Gerber did — 22.5 minutes per game. English Premier League soccer broadcasts lasted 1 hour, 56 minutes and contained 59 minutes of action.
American football was a different story. The NFL dominates the hearts and minds of American sports fans because they think its games are full of excitement. The clock says otherwise. ESPN reported an NFL broadcast typically takes 3 hours, 23 minutes. Of that, they found, the ball is in play only 18 minutes, which is better than the 11 minutes the Wall Street Journal found in 2010. The ESPN writers’ conclusion: “There’s not a lot of actual football in a football game.”
Also: Nobody complains.
That would make perfect sense to John Coyle, an Olympic short track speeding silver medalist and an expert in design thinking, a way of problem-solving with the user experience in mind. The problem he tries to solve is how to fill time with more impactful interactions and exciting experiences. The thesis of his next book, Counterclockwise: Designing Endless Summers, is that the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. Instead, Coyle writes, we should define an increment of time by the events that fill it — the moments that become indelible in our lives — and then live our lives to pursue those moments.
“What was the point of these 15 seconds of my life?”Eric Gerber, statistics professor at Northeastern University and Chicago White Sox fan, on baseball’s slowness
Coyle calls those moments tick marks on a ruler. A boring game with no tick marks leaves a blank space in your memory. “That’s equivalent to being dead, in my book,” Coyle told me. An exciting game with a dozen tick marks becomes longer in your memory. “There’s a before and after, which then necessarily extends people’s perception of time on this planet,” he says. “That’s a pretty heavy gift to give somebody.”
To understand how this works, we need to understand how our brains create and store memories. Under normal circumstances, every two or three seconds, the hippocampus — a region of our brain related to learning and memory — takes a Polaroid, to use Coyle’s way of explaining it. A photo slides out, and the hippocampus decides whether to store it or pitch it. Most are pitched.
When something exciting happens — a 50-yard Hail Mary pass — the amygdala turns on. This brain region, which regulates emotion, takes Polaroids 20 times per second. That turns into a strong memory because the amygdala ties emotion to memory. If it’s good (the receiver reaches up and grabs it for a touchdown), you want to repeat it. If it’s bad (incomplete, game over), you want to avoid it. There’s one more step after the amygdala turns on, commonly referred to as the flow state, in which you take Polaroids 150 times faster than normal, creating your most powerful memories.
Here’s where it gets fascinating. There is an inverse relationship between how we experience an event and how we remember it. In real time, a boring game seems to last forever, while an exciting game zooms by. But our memories are empty for the boring game because we threw out all the Polaroids. They’re elongated for the exciting game because we saved so many of them.
I still remember the first time I watched a baseball game with my daughter. She was just over a month old. It was October 14, 2006, and I held her as I watched my team, the Detroit Tigers, play for a chance to go to the World Series. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, Tigers slugger Magglio Ordonez came up to the plate. I set the baby down in her bouncy seat in case I needed to celebrate.
Within seconds, Ordonez hit a walk-off home run. I jumped out of my seat and screamed. The baby woke up and started crying — the first time I ever made her do that.
That moment is the highlight of my sports-watching life. Her reaction, this new human in my life asserting her displeasure, amplified my joy. Reliving it floods me with gratitude, even validation for enduring decades of the Tigers’ ineptitude (which has long since resumed). Coyle might say it extended my life.
When I reminisce about Ordonez’s home run, it seems to last a long time. That’s because I remember so much of it — his swing (tick!); his teammate, Placido Polanco, dancing as he rounded the bases (tick!); the Detroit pitchers running in from the bullpen (tick!); my daughter crying (tick!).
In my memory, as I jumped off the couch, the play-by-play man paused before announcing the home run — adding a moment of suspense before the exciting release. That’s a bomb! I thought. GAME OVER! WORLD SERIES HERE WE COME!!!! Then I felt a twinge of doubt … Right!?! Right?!? C’mon, TELL ME it’s a bomb!! Finally, he did.
But when I watched a video of the home run on YouTube 17 years later, there was no pause. The announcer made the call right away.
Maybe my amygdala was firing off Polaroids so fast, it made the moment feel like slow-motion.
If baseball’s new rules work, they will make games seem like they’re zipping by as they happen, but they will last longer as we reflect on them.
In real time, baseball games have gotten longer, from an average of 2½ hours in the 1970s to more than three hours between 2016 and 2022. Meanwhile, the plays that make baseball exciting — doubles, triples, great defensive plays, stolen bases, and runners caught stealing — grew increasingly scarce.
This is partly due to the rise in use of statistics, which, among myriad applications, tell teams precisely where on the field each batter is most likely to hit the ball, so that fielders can stand in those locations. “Hit it where they ain’t” — that ancient bit of offensive wisdom — is much more difficult if they’re standing where you most often hit it. In 2022, big leaguers hit a collective .243, the lowest batting average since 1968. If there’s less hitting, why haven’t the games gotten shorter? Because there are more pitches per game, likely due to hitters being more selective. That’s according to David Smith, a historian, founder of Retrosheet (a website beloved by stats-heads) and analyst who has studied baseball and time.
So starting this year, with its pitch clocks and supersized bases, the game is making its biggest changes since the American League’s addition of a designated hitter in 1973. Another proposal, still in the exploratory phase, would limit how deep outfielders can play. Stats show that would lead to an increase in doubles, triples, and the excitement inherent in a defender’s long run to try to prevent them.
No one’s under the illusion that this will turn baseball into a game of constant motion, and that’s OK. Pacing is important. Games can’t be all tick marks all the time, or we’ll be overwhelmed. That’s why action movies have montages, heavy metal bands play power ballads, and Hamilton has the king come out to sing.
No sport illustrates that better than bull riding. And Flint Rasmussen, the rodeo clown for Professional Bull Riders, knows it better than anyone.
Every bull ride has the potential to be horrifying and thus demands to be watched intently. If a bull-riding event were one possibility-of-disaster ride after another, with no breaks in between, it would be unbearable. A typical Professional Bull Riders event features one ride, lasting eight seconds at most, every four minutes or so. The sport fills the down time by intentionally distracting fans.
That’s where Rasmussen comes in. He is like The Wave on steroids with a squirty flower on his lapel. He cracks wise, leads sing-alongs, mugs for the camera. His task is to make the night less exciting. “I’m hopefully bringing some levity to a very dangerous sport,” he says.
In bull-riding, the hero’s journey comes at the end of a dramatic buildup, 30 or so times a night. Over the loudspeaker and on giant screens, fans meet the new hero and the beast he will attempt to ride. The down time is crucial to fans’ ability to process and appreciate the story. “We will never be able to, or want to, eliminate that,” Rasmussen says.
Yet even bull riding isn’t immune to fans getting bored. Rasmussen has watched attention spans dwindle in his 30-plus years on the job and now sees an obvious line of demarcation. “I can look at a crowd and know when we’ve hit the two-hour mark,” he says. Their chatter changes; they fiddle with their phones even more than usual. By the 2:15 mark, Rasmussen might as well wash off his clown makeup and slip off his dancing shoes, because his work is done. There’s no recapturing their excitement.
At some point, we’ll run out of rule changes, and our sports will be as fast as they can be. When that happens, the way to make sports less boring will be to appreciate them differently. If the result is more of Coyle’s ticks and thus living longer — at least in our minds — it’s worth exploring.
Coyle says his own sport, short track speed skating, transformed from unknown to popular when broadcasters helped viewers see it differently by using new camera angles to capture the athletes’ speed, power and grace. The sport moved from no ticks to plenty.
We can grow to love trends we used to hate. Once, dunks were disparaged in basketball — even outlawed by the NCAA. Decades ago, the forward pass was banned in football; now, it dominates the game.
Sometimes, it takes time to understand how a change in rules will change what we enjoy about a sport and why we enjoy it.
In 2016, the NHL changed its overtime rules. Instead of 5-on-5, overtimes became 3-on-3: only three skaters from each team on the ice. The goal, as with baseball’s new rules, was to create more action. And it did. Fewer men on the ice meant more room to skate, which meant more breakaways, how’d-he-do-that passes, and derring-do moves.
But when those exciting plays failed, they often led to goals for the other team. So now, during overtime, teams play differently. The focus is on puck control and waiting for good chances rather than taking risks when so-so chances arise. The logic behind that is bulletproof: the other team can’t score if it doesn’t have the puck, and high-percentage shots are better than low-percentage shots.
But it often means one guy skates around with the puck, waiting for his opportunity. It’s not as action-packed as the NHL intended, and critics say it’s boring.
But is it? Or would we appreciate that skating around more if we thought of it differently — like a key ingredient in a great soup?
The man with the puck doesn’t want to hold it forever. He wants to make a great play, either by passing or by scoring himself. Another possible outcome is a mistake — a pass that is picked off, for example — which is bad for the player, but good for the viewer. That style of play soaks the game with “suddenness,” says Jeff Marek, an NHL analyst for Sportsnet.
The tension of wondering when the suddenness will happen is delicious. Waiting is like searching for the right word. Suddenness is finding it. Three on three with helter-skelter action but no suddenness is a slasher movie. Three on three with suddenness is Hitchcockian.
Marek says the best 3-on-3 overtime in history happened this January, in a regular-season game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Wild. He sings that overtime’s praises because men as graceful as ballet dancers and powerful as grizzlies chased the puck in a dazzling display of grace, power, whiplash changes of direction, and eight thrilling scoring chances in the final two minutes. It produced triumph for the Sabres, sadness for the Wild, and longer lives for all who watched.
Sometimes one dude skated around doing “nothing.” But that made the rest of it possible. “The great thing about it was, it had a number of different tempos,” Marek says. “It had very slow and plodding and strategic. It had suddenness when the puck turned over. It was almost like a symphony — the melody falls, the melody rises again. It goes away, and it turns into something else.”
If we understand that the “boring” skating created the suddenness that created the goal that created the tick mark, that means we back the start of the tick mark from the goal to the boring skating and maybe farther…and we live that much longer.
Marek used the symphony analogy on the radio and couldn’t stop thinking about it — specifically how the pace of 3-on-3 hockey reminded him of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro because it contains anticipation, rising tension and suddenness. He played Boléro through his sound system and synced it to a replay of the overtime. “And it fits!”
Will baseball’s changes create beautiful music? We’ll see. But early signs suggest the rules are speeding up the game. This year’s first 19 spring training games averaged 2 hours, 36 minutes — which is 25 minutes faster than last year.
Will the rules create more action? They might. Imagine this: The clock forces a pitcher to throw more pitches in a set period of time. He tires sooner, or conserves his energy; either way, his pitches lack crispness. He has less time to think through each pitch, so he is more prone to mistakes. Marek’s term “suddenness” applies here as we wait to see what happens next. The pitcher leaves one over the plate. The batter hits a screamer up the middle. The ball and the shortstop converge. Will the ball get there first and skip into the outfield? Will the shortstop get there first, snag it, and flip it to first?
We’ll love the time it takes to find out. It’ll be a tick mark either way.