ST. PETERSBURG – On a noiseless afternoon at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price focused on the Seattle Mariners’ base-runner. He threw over to first base once, twice, three times. On Price’s fourth pickoff attempt, Rays fan Craig Shuman, sitting by himself in the left-field bleachers, began to implode.
“Oh my God! Are you kidding me? Pitch to the batter, David! You’re killing us out here!’’
Nearby, another fan laughed and gave a thumbs-up.
“Yeah, you tell him! I got to get to work in the morning.’’
Price’s actions, of course, were just a momentary diversion and really nothing unusual for baseball, a game of measured pace, routine, pauses and breaks, along with ample time to debate strategy.
“Our game is different,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
It’s a radical departure from football’s urgent hue-and-cry. It’s not like the rock-concert feel of hockey, where an intimate conversation is practically impossible. And it doesn’t resemble the up-and-down, constant-motion flow of basketball.
Sometimes, painfully slow.
The Rays, in fact, are operating at a turtle’s pace this season, averaging just over three hours and 14 minutes in nine-inning games. That’s nearly four minutes more than the next-slowest ballclub. And it’s an average of 20 minutes behind the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Seattle Mariners, who are each playing at an average two-hour, 54-minute clip this season.
Maddon doesn’t consider it a problem.
“I think it has nothing to do with anything,’’ Maddon said. “It’s a media-contrived situation. It’s for people who have short attention spans, for people who don’t necessarily understand all that’s going on within the course of a baseball game.
“One of the beauties of our game is we don’t have a clock on it. Furthermore, if you really like baseball and the game takes a little longer, what’s wrong with that?’’
Major League Baseball has some concerns, though. Its games are running an average of about four minutes longer than last season. The obvious culprit is the first-year replay system, but Joe Torre, the former Yankees manager who is MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, said there are other issues.
“I don’t think the length of the game is as vital as the dead time in the game,’’ Torre said. “If the game busies itself with strategies and what-not, that’s fine. But the time when nothing is happening, that’s an issue. We’re very aware of it.
“I know the replay stuff hasn’t really been a contributor. Replay is taking under two minutes on average. We are constantly in conversation with the Players Association (union). Before we try to hurry the players along, we certainly have to go about it the right away.’’
MLB games this season – on a pace for the all-time slowest mark – are averaging three hours, two minutes. It’s hard to imagine that games averaged just two hours, 25 minutes in 1963.
But longtime observers will tell you it’s a different game now. There are television commercial breaks. There’s walk-up music. There are nearly eight pitchers utilized in a typical nine-inning game compared to 4.8 in 1963.
There are advanced metrics, defensive shifts, on-base-percentage-happy batters who are intent on going deep into a count instead of hacking away.
Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle, a fast worker, told the Boston Globe he spends 90 percent of his time waiting for the batter to be ready. There are players who never leave the batter’s box, but still maintain maddeningly slow rituals — the constant batting-helmet adjustments of Boston’s Jonny Gomes come to mind. There are pitchers who simply take their sweet time — Erik Bedard and Jeremy Hellickson, come on down.
And there’s Velcro.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully said that’s a very real phenomenon. Just check the number of players who are constantly adjusting their Velcro-secured batting gloves.
“Why?’’ Mariners reliever Danny Farquhar said. “Why does a guy have to adjust his batting gloves after every pitch? There’s no reason for it. It’s like a nervous habit. I’ll get in there and pitch, but you get in there and hit.
“It’s like in golf. Some guys hit it right away. Other guys stand over the ball like they’re Sergio Garcia. It drives me crazy.’’
Torre said pitchers aren’t immune, either.
“As an observer of the game, 20 or 30 years ago, pitchers were on the mound saying, ‘I dare you to hit it,’ ” Torre said. “We may have strayed a little bit with our strike zone back in the ‘90s, where it may have gotten a little wide. Pitchers may have gotten in the habit of keeping you from hitting the ball.
“Pitchers are now basically trying to get a strike call without a swing and that’s such a different mentality than years ago, when it was, ‘I dare you. Here it is. Just try to hit it.’ The other way adds time, no question.’’
Former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez was a frequent participant in the epic Yankees-Red Sox clashes that always seemed to land on ESPN’s prime-time schedule.
“Four-hour games are way too long,’’ Martinez said. “Nobody wants that. It wasn’t guys taking their time (in Yankees-Red Sox games). It was going deep into counts, fouling off pitches. I’m sure the TV breaks were longer, too. But it was too long.
“I think it can be done. You go to a spring-training game and it’s like 7-5, but it’s over in just over two hours. So it can be done.’’
Maddon, though, insists the game doesn’t need fixing.
“This is a baseball game, not a video game,’’ Maddon said. “I’d rather educate the kids, educate the masses and show them what’s going on. I don’t want to be drenched in this momentary, get-my-fix-right-now kind of thing. No, take your time. It’s a baseball game.
“What’s that pitcher thinking about right now? What’s the appropriate pitch? Did you notice the shortstop move? What’s the count? Is it time for the hit-and-run? There’s a lot going on. Young players and fans may not have this information, so we need to tell them instead of trying to force this thing and pass some kind of legislation.’’
Baseball does have some legislation that addresses the pace of play.
Rule 6.02: The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time to bat.
Rule 8.04: When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.
Sometimes, the rules get lost in translation.
“As players, we’re playing to win,’’ Rays outfielder David DeJesus said. “If it takes four hours, fine. If it takes two hours, fine. We’re not supposed to complain.
“It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. I don’t see the need to change a bunch of things. I don’t care about the length of the game. I don’t know, maybe some fans feel differently.’’
Ah yes, the fans.
Torre said that’s the real bottom line. MLB wants to maintain its place in the marketplace without sacrificing its tradition and style of game. That’s the trick.
“It can seem very meticulous, but I love baseball,’’ said Debbie Fulton of Largo. “Since we’re not winning, I think the time of game thing is getting way too much attention. It’s not what the true fans are talking about.’’
“I like the pace of baseball because you can talk to somebody and you don’t have to completely engage in the game all the time,’’ said David Kooi of St. Petersburg. “I don’t think baseball needs to change. If they go into extra innings, they need to reopen the bar. To me, that’s the biggest crisis facing baseball.’’
Out in the left field bleachers, though, the story is sometimes different.
“It can’t be like torture or pulling teeth or you turn a lot of people off,’’ Shuman said. “The average person doesn’t want to see that. I think they need to be careful and not let people get away with turning this into a marathon. Just keep it moving somehow. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.’’